10/18/2019

As Seas Rise And Rivers Flood, Communities Look For A Way Out

33:57 minutes

people on rescue boats going down a flooded street
Rescued flood victims in Coralville, Iowa in June 2008. Credit: Don Becker, USGS

a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.


This story is available to read in Spanish.


When the water rises, whether from heavy rains or rising seas, communities have a few options: reinforce flood-threatened homes, rebuild after the water recedes, or—in places where the threat of repeated floods and even more damage is increasing—leave.

And while leaving may feel synonymous with defeat, more cities and states are interested in encouraging people to leave risky floodplains—a process called managed retreat. FEMA offers a buyout program that usually involves offering homeowners money to encourage them to move elsewhere. New York Times reporter Christopher Flavelle and University of Delaware social scientist A.R. Siders describe some of the different ways cities and states have attempted the process: from Staten Island residents who took buyouts after flooding from Hurricane Sandy, to Louisiana’s new statewide plan for strategically targeting high-risk areas. 

But how can managed retreat go wrong? New research in Science Advances from Siders and her colleagues has found that it’s often rich counties that apply for FEMA money, and they often use it for buying out poorer residents—leading to questions of whether resources or opportunities are being distributed equitably. Jola Ajibade, a geographer at Portland State University, expands these questions to the global scale: In Lagos, Nigeria, managed retreat offers no financial incentive to people being asked to leave. And in Manila, Philippines, people are offered new homes, but aren’t given a way to earn a livelihood. 

Finally, with enough planning, can retreating retain the fabric of an entire community? In Sidney, New York, neighbors have been waiting eight years trying to move together to higher ground—and they’re still caught up in red tape. The planned relocation of a Native American community on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, has hit roadblocks as well. But small Midwestern towns fleeing massive river floods have tried the same, and seem to be thriving decades later: see Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and Valmeyer, Illinois. Lehigh University anthropologist David Casagrande explains why collective community planning may end up being a key factor in retreat that leaves peoples’ lives and livelihoods most intact.

Teaching Climate Change In The Classroom

an arial photograph of a flooded neighborhood
A flooded neighborhood in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Credit: FEMA/Walt Jennings

No one wants their home flooded—and certainly not more than once! However, multiple floods can uproot entire neighborhoods. In this resource by SciFri Educator Collaborator Ralph Pantozzi, you can simulate living in a neighborhood that has a 1 in 10 probability of a flood each year. Your goals: understand the risk of a flood over 30 or more years, and educate your neighbors about those risks.

Road flooded as sea levels rise
Credit: National Park Services

What can you do to ensure your future family is comfortable and safe from the effects of anthropogenic climate change? In this resource by our Educator Collaborator Peter Knutson, you can explore the impacts of climate change on the U.S. and where your family may want to settle in the year 2063.

What You Said

We asked how you have had to relocate or manage hardships due to flooding, fire, and other climate change-related events. Here are some of your stories, shared on the SciFri VoxPop app.

Something You Can Do!

a screen recording of hovering over the state of louisana and seeing different numbers of flood events
Historical flood impact in Louisiana, 1996 – 2016. Credit: FEMA/NOAA

If you’re in the market to buy a house, check to see if it’s in a flood-prone area. As the effects of climate change increase, so does the risk of flooding. Hotter temperatures mean faster water evaporation, leading to storms that dump more rain in a shorter amount of time, which causes more flooding. 

You can start by finding your state and county on FEMA’s Historical Flood Risk and Costs data visualization and see how many flooding events have occurred in your area. If you want to take a deeper dive into the probability of your new house’s flood risk, explore our education resource that uses statistics to calculate the probability of a flood event, and estimate how soon the next one may occur. From there, you can make your own informed judgements to purchase flood insurance, and seek supporting FEMA flood insurance programs.

If you’re already living in an at-risk area, there are still things you can do. Our guest experts recommend starting conversations with your neighbors and elected officials about planning for a flood disaster and potential relocation. “Think about what you want your community to look like in 100 years and what needs to be done now to get there,” Siders advises.


Further Reading


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Segment Guests

A.R. Siders

A.R. Siders is an assistant professor in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.

Christopher Flavelle

Christopher Flavelle is a climate adaptation reporter for the New York Times, based in Washington, D.C..

David Casagrande

David Casagrande is a professor and chair of the department of Anthropology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Jola Ajibade

Jola Ajibade is an assistant professor of Geography at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

When climate change threatens your very existence, it now becomes a climate crisis. Water is rising on the coasts and in storm deluged rivers. Fires are burning in the west. And people are giving up on the idea of rebuilding if it happens time after time. So here’s what we heard from our listeners on the Science Friday VoxPop app.

CRAIG: My wife and I recently moved from Florida to Vermont because of climate change.

MELISSA: I recently moved from Sonoma County, California to Maine.

NANCY: I moved from Las Vegas, Nevada to Cincinnati, Ohio.

CRAIG: And we chose an area of the state that is especially resilient to flooding.

MELISSA: I was born and raised in California, and when I was younger, there was never wildfires. Or if they were, they were very rare.

NANCY: I think that Vegas is getting hotter each year, and the summers there are already brutal. There’s very little water, and that situation is not improving.

MOLLY ANNE: About a year ago, my family and I took a road trip to Texas looking for affordable housing. We woke up one morning with lake water about 30 feet from our front door. We were flooded out of the area, and we are still trying to find affordable housing in a safe place.

DIANA: I have decided not to buy real estate in New York City because I worry a lot about rising tides and how that will affect the city long term.

HILARY: In the early 2000s, I was living north of Lake Pontchartrain in South Louisiana in a flood zone, which began to flood regularly. I have moved to Houston since then and am considering relocating again because climate change has put this home in danger from the heavy rainfall, such as Harvey. That has definitely made me reconsider living anywhere near the coast.

IRA FLATOW: Some thoughts from your neighbors commenting on our Science Friday VoxPop app. Thanks to Craig from Vermont, Melissa from Maine, Nancy from Ohio, Molly Anne from California, Diana from New York, and Hilary from Texas for checking in with us on the Science Friday VoxPop app. And I know Degrees of Change is where we talk about adapting to climate change, from the changing fast fashion industry to cool roofs and urban heat islands.

But what happens when leaving is the adaptation? Cities and counties in flood plains are increasingly looking at something called managed retreat as a solution, where homes are repeatedly inundated. Using FEMA’s buyout program, they incentivize homeowners to leave. And depending on the community, they turn the land into a park or a wetland or some other less costly use. But not every community is interested in retreating from rising waters, and even when they are, not every homeowner benefits equally.

So how do we level the playing field? Perhaps a bad metaphor here, but for flooded citizens, we want to hear about your experience, too. Let us know have you taken a buyout or otherwise left home because of rising floodwaters? Our number, 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCITALK. You can tweet us @scifri. Here’s the question again. Have you taken a buyout or otherwise left home because of rising floodwaters? 844-724-8255.

Let me begin our discussion today. Dr. A.R. Siders, assistant professor of Geography and Public Policy at the University of Delaware in Newark, welcome to Science Friday.

AR SIDERS: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: And Dr. Christopher Flavelle, reporter for The New York Times, covering climate adaptation, welcome also.

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Thanks for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Christopher, what’s the difference between people just taking FEMA buyouts and actual managed retreat?

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Yeah, the premise of managed retreat is it only makes sense in contrast with the alternative. And the idea here is policymakers want to avoid a situation where people are fleeing in sort of an ad hoc fashion that doesn’t really give any consideration to equity or fairness or the safety they find themselves in at the end.

So the idea of managed retreat is if you have some sort of a coordinated policy between different levels of government, what you say to homeowners, let’s think about this. Let’s think about which areas we want to encourage people to leave, maybe where they want them to go, and how we can make sure that everyone has access. Otherwise, it tends just to be the wealthy or the people who have some ability to leave. And you tend to find that the communiques that don’t have managed retreat just get the poor and people who have no options stuck in place. And I think policymakers are looking for ways to avoid that.

IRA FLATOW: So managing means you’ve thought it out. You’ve come up with a plan, instead of allowing everybody just helter skelter go where they like to.

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Ideally, and to make sure it’s not just dependent on who has the money to do it on their own. So there’s an issue. Really, governments are fumbling towards some concept of equity here and what we owe as a society to people who are in these areas, they’re not safe, and they might not have the ability to leave on their own.

IRA FLATOW: Is that what happened after Hurricane Katrina, for example?

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Certainly to a degree, yes. I mean, you look at some parts of Louisiana– Plaquemines Parish comes to mind– and just a series of storms pushing many people, but not everyone, out of those areas. And the result, when you visit these places, number one, they’re shells of what they were, and number two, the people who were left behind are the ones who didn’t have options. I think the idea here is governments saying to themselves and to their citizens, what do we owe people who maybe aren’t that safe and might want to leave? But to what degree is it appropriate for taxpayers to help them, to pay them to leave, versus leaving up to them on their own?

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Siders, your research team just mapped out pretty much every FEMA buyout in the US. Where did they tend to be happening? Give us a little road map there.

AR SIDERS: So we were actually surprised by the fact that we found buyouts in 49 states. So every state, except Hawaii, has used FEMA money to do some sort of buyout. And we found them in about 1,100 counties, which means that one in three counties in the US has used a buyout. So we were a little surprised by that, that there’s so much experience with this and so little discussion of it, or research on it, or planning for it.

So in terms of which counties are taking these buyouts, we found that the counties that are taking the buyouts tend to be denser and wealthier than counties that don’t take buyouts, but that also experienced damage. But then within the counties, once they have the funding, we find that they buy out homes in neighborhoods that have lower income and are less dense. Probably because these places are trying to buy up the most land and, in fact, the most homes possible for the same amount of money.

IRA FLATOW: Christopher, what are some of the communities that are actually trying managed retreat, and how’s it going?

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: So as A.R. mentioned, there’s a surprising number. This is happening already. New Jersey has a statewide program called Blue Acres where they’re trying to sort of, in an intelligent way, select communities that would benefit from having sort of large scale buyouts. Louisiana probably is the furthest along. They’ve got a statewide, at least a system, a plan, if you will, where they say, let’s look at the areas that we probably can’t defend for much longer. And let’s look at how we can help people leave those areas and where they might go.

I think that’s the next step in managed retreat is thinking not just of where you leave, but where you go to. And Louisiana is saying, what are the, quote, “receiving communities”? How do we change those communities to make them more sort of amenable to new residents? And how do we get local officials on board? That’s always the Achilles heel. Officials don’t want to lose the tax base when people leave, and officials in receiving communities are often worried about how those places will change with a new influx of residents. So we’re really just beginning to think of what these issues are and how to address them.

IRA FLATOW: And Dr. Siders, as a researcher, how would you define, then, success in places like Houston or even Staten Island after Sandy?

AR SIDERS: Success in a buyout is always really multifaceted. So the research has tended to look at buyouts as a success if the homes are bought up, and the houses are removed, so it returns to open space. But there’s so many other factors in that that need to be considered. And this is an area where the research is just kind of catching up with practice, so trying to figure out things like, where do people move?

As Chris mentioned, then, we need receiving committees on board. Are people really better off after they accept a buyout? What is their experience long term? How are they doing financially, socially? When you move, you can lose connections with your neighbors and communities. So how do they recover those in new areas?

Equity is a big piece of this. People are also trying to figure out how do we do this in a way that feels fair and transparent so that everyone understands how decisions were made when they’re being made in these places. And then finally, how is the land being used, and what happens to the community who decides to stay in place? So when some homeowners leave, what does that do to the people who are still in that community? And how do they maintain a sense of community with a shrinking population?

IRA FLATOW: Do you have an example of a success story in any of these?

AR SIDERS: I would point to some of the Midwest community relocations that occurred due to river flooding– actually, a success story. So thinking about Valmeyer, Illinois, they relocated the entire town as a result of major flooding on the river. The whole community decided to relocate. They all decided on a new location.

And as part of the move, because of the move, people’s property values went up. They found new people coming into the town who could now find housing and could use it as a commuting zone. They had new sources of industry and tourism popping up because of the relocation and some of the other investments that they put in. And they just celebrated 25 years after the relocation. So looking back over the last 25 years, they recognized that, yes, the community has changed. But they’re very, very glad that they don’t still live in the flood zone anymore.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Christopher, give me an idea of what can go wrong with a managed retreat. Do you have an example?

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Yeah, so when I visited communities in New Jersey, taking part in their Blue Acres Buyout Program, what you see in general is, say, officials select a block or two blocks that they say really shouldn’t be there anymore. Because these are almost always, in this country, voluntary buyouts, it’s very rare that every homeowner says yes. So the result usually is sort of a patchwork where you get some open lots surrounded by the occasional home.

And so the sort of the purpose of the buyout, which is to return an entire contiguous area to a buffer of some sort, typically doesn’t work. And cities hate that because they have to keep on paying for services for those handful of houses. So I actually can’t think of any examples yet where it worked in the sense of everybody who was in the area in question left, and the result was you got sort of a return to nature. That might happen down the road, but so far, it’s a very piecemeal process, and it’s largely because officials just do not want to impose this through eminent domain on people who would rather stay put.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. A tweet came in from Brandon on Twitter who says, should insurance companies also take part in some of these buyouts?

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: I mean, NFIP, the federal flood insurance program, is certainly an actor in this, but they have the same issue where they’re not forcing anyone. And there’s no mechanism in federal flood insurance to say to somebody, we have paid x number of times to rebuild your home after a flood, so we’re not going to do it anymore. You’ve got to move. I think there’s a real political reluctance in this country still, but it’s shifting.

But so far, nobody wants to say, you’ve got to leave. And my sense from hoarding this here and in other countries is that’s probably the next step– some way of making these community wide buyouts to really gain the benefit. But I think the problems going to have to get worse before local officials would be willing to consider that step.

IRA FLATOW: Insurance companies have put some restrictions on individual– I know individual homes after Sandy, they were told if you want to get insurance, you’ve got to raise your foundation up 10 feet. Put it on stilts, things like that.

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Yeah, look, there’s certainly things that NFIP and other insurers are doing to try to encourage behavior. But again, I think it comes down to, in most cases, you can still get insurance, especially through NFIP. And for a lot of people, their home is their identity. And whatever the financial consequences for living somewhere that’s vulnerable, that is not only how they think of it. And I think there’s a real emotional component, and it’s so hard to make this a policy debate around money or around safety when people still think of their homes in those heartfelt terms. So it’s a really tough issue.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about the retreating from flooded areas. Let’s go to a message left on our SciFri VoxPop app.

AUDIENCE: I live in Houston, and when I first heard the question if I have thought about relocating because of climate change, I thought, no, that’s ridiculous. But then I thought again about it, and I actually have been thinking about leaving because of the increased flooding and the increased risks from hurricanes and the damage that they bring.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Christopher, what do you think?

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Look, it’s–

IRA FLATOW: Is this common– people who don’t worry about climate change, but do think about flooding?

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Yeah, there’s a semantic issue here, right? I mean, you call it what you want. Nobody wants to have their home ruined again and again. And what I found in the reporting is the point at which people tend to change their minds is when they don’t have just one event they’re exposed to, but if they get hit multiple times in a short period of time, say, two floods in two years, two floods in three years, that’s when you see a real shift. And you get a big number of people saying, I’m willing to leave. But until that happens, you get a really mixed response, and I think policymakers struggle with that.

IRA FLATOW: Hm, and that brings up an interesting question about where it happens. Dr. Siders, does this managed retreat seem to work differently depending on whether a community is urban or rural? Dr. Siders?

AR SIDERS: Hi, so the managed retreat in the United States, we tend to use the same buyout process, so it’s often the same kind of government intervention. One of the biggest differences between the two appears to be where people are able to move afterwards. So particularly in really dense urban places that are experiencing housing crises and affordable housing crises, especially, if you’re purchasing and demolishing affordable homes, that can put even more pressure on the housing crisis. And so it really goes back to this original question of once people are bought out, where do they go? What options do they have? Do they have options to stay in the community?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and so we should be looking beyond just buyouts then.

AR SIDERS: Absolutely. We need to be thinking about something much larger than just buyout programs. Buyout programs are a type of managed retreat, but there are so many other ways we could do managed retreat and that would involve far more management, far more of the kind of large planning processes that Chris described in the beginning, thinking about the receiving communities, and then also thinking about how do we prevent people from building in places in the first place.

So right now, in the United States, we’re building in the flood plains. We’re actively putting more homes in the flood plain, even in the same communities and the same towns where we’re buying up homes, which are sort of nonsensical, right? So if we could think about this in a larger, more holistic way, we could not put more homes in place that eventually will need to be bought out. And we could start using other strategies for community engagement, insurance regulations, other pricing issues in order to help communities think about shifting their location.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Dr. Siders is going to stay with us through the break. I want to thank you, Christopher Flavelle for taking the time.

CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE: Thanks for having me on. Sure.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, New York Times reporter covering climate adaptation. We’re going to take a break, and what about global perspectives? How Nigeria, the Philippines, and even Japan are tackling the question of retreat and stories from Midwestern towns that relocated decades ago– what did we learn from that? We’ll be right back after the break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about adaptation to climate change and in this case, adapting by moving away from areas of repeated catastrophic flooding, rising seas, intensifying rainfall, even fire areas. We may get into that a little bit. Dr. A.R. Siders, assistant professor of Public Policy and Geography at the University of Delaware, is with us.

I want to turn our attention to a more global perspective. What are other countries doing? Are there examples of successful retreat? The US is not alone in trying to relocate people out of flood plains. I want to welcome some new guests. Dr. Jola Ajibade is the assistant professor of Geography at Portland State University and looking at how managed retreat is playing out in Nigeria and the Philippines. Welcome to Science Friday.

JOLA AJIBADE: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: And Dr. David Casagrande is a professor and chair of anthropology at Lehigh University. He’s been looking at Midwestern towns that moved decades ago to avoid flooding rivers. And of course, if you want to talk about it, you’re welcome to give us a call, 844-724-8255. Have you moved or thinking of moving, and what are you wondering about? You can also tweet us @scifri.

Let me ask you first, Jola. We’ve talked a lot about the United States so far and FEMA’s buyout program for homeowners. But your work has taken you to two large cities in other countries. So let’s talk about that. What does managed retreat look like in Lagos, for example?

JOLA AJIBADE: Well, managed retreat, the work I did was in Lagos and also Manila. And managed retreat looks very differently in both cases. It looks different from what is going on here in the US. In the case of Lagos, what we see in terms of concerns around sea level rise, storm surges, as well as flooding, is very real. But what the government is doing is forcibly removing people from those areas. And the government also have in place a policy around relocation of people on account of climatic risks, but how they are doing it is really where the problem lies.

IRA FLATOW: What do you mean by that?

JOLA AJIBADE: So what I mean by that is in the policy document, what you find is that the government lays out a very elaborate explanation around how we should do managed retreats and who should move. And in that document, those who should move include not just vulnerable people, but industries, transportation, infrastructure, all the areas that are around the coastal places. Particularly places that are at risk of sea level rise and flooding are supposed to be removed.

And there was also another elaborate information in terms of the ministries that should do this relocation. So the Ministry of Environment is involved. The Ministry of Waterfront is involved. And so there are all the types of ministries that are also supposed to come together and work in how the city of Lagos should encourage the relocation of people from areas that are at risk.

IRA FLATOW: Now see–

JOLA AJIBADE: But what happens in practice–

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead, I’m sorry.

JOLA AJIBADE: Yes, what happens in practice is that those who are actually being forcibly removed are the vulnerable people, are the urban poor. And so as the urban poor are being removed from those places, you also see the new cities or new mega structures are being built right on the Atlantic Ocean, an example being the Eko Atlantic city, which is currently being built. There is a Diamond City as well.

There are about four new cities that are actually popping up right on the lagoon and on the ocean. And so this makes you question what is really the purpose of managed retreat and the policy, and why is it that the rich are being advanced and to live in those places while the poor are being forcibly removed?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. They just trade one for the other. But on the other hand, I understand that in Manila in the Philippines, you have a completely different situation unfolding.

JOLA AJIBADE: Yes, that’s very true. In the case of Manila, while Manila doesn’t have any policy around relocation per se or managed retreat, it’s not in their large policy. But in terms of the practice, right after the Ondoy storm accord, what you see was there was the swift move by the government to relocate people, particularly people living within three meters near the coast, near the river areas that were being removed, but not forcibly removed. They were given some incentive. They were given money to relocate them to the province.

But what happens is that where they are being relocated to, which is outside of the city, they have been relocated to places like Bulacan and Cavite. But those places just have housing, and all you get there is the housing. You don’t have the infrastructure you need for your– you know, basic infrastructure. They don’t have social amenities. They don’t have really any source of livelihood. And so this has led to a cycle of what I call a cycle of retreat and return, where people move, but then they return back to the city of Manila because they don’t have any real source of livelihood in this new relocation site. And that has been the major concern for the urban poor in Manila.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. David, I want to talk about success stories, communities that have actually relocated in their entirety in the past and are still around to tell us about it. You’ve done a lot of work on that front in the Midwest. What’s the story there?

DAVID CASAGRANDE: Yeah, so there were a lot of communities who had to move after the floods of 1993, which were very bad throughout the Mississippi Basin. And so Valmeyer, Illinois, as you were discussing just a little bit earlier, is kind of a textbook case of a successful relocation. And so they experienced significant flooding in 1993 and kind of recognized that because of changing hydrology and deteriorating levees, that it was probably a good idea to move.

The town had about 1,000 people. And thinking about success, after they moved, after they moved most of the town, the population dropped to about 600. But it’s slowly come back to close to 1,000 again. And so that’s one way of thinking about success.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And then so what hints do you have for people who are thinking about relocating now– retreating?

DAVID CASAGRANDE: Well, as the earlier conversation indicated, this idea that the FEMA buyout program targets individual homeowners actually creates a lot of conflict within communities. And so what we see in the Midwest is there tends to be better success if the relocations are done as a community. And so contrary to what appears to be happening in Lagos, what we see in the Midwest was that people were involved in the planning process and had a lot of say in how both the process would be done and what the results would be.

And so that’s actually very empowering. And that actually brings communities together, as opposed to the typical FEMA buyout process, which turns neighbors against each other because they’re arguing about loss of tax base and losing the school because the population is going to decline and so on. So moving as a community, I think, is a really powerful concept to keep in mind throughout all of this.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Jola, does your work in studying global situations give us any lessons for the United States?

JOLA AJIBADE: Yes, I think when you were thinking about successful retreat, based on the range of literature, which is really about 100 literature that I looked through, there is no consensus on what a successful retreat is or what that even means. And the reason, of course, being that retreat sometimes is often seen as something that is involuntary, and there is a sense of resignation that it’s sort of like a defeat for some people. But if you think about it in other perspective, it is also about the safety of people.

And so the tension between making sure that people are safe and they are not faced with repeated flooding and having to remove people from places of wealth– because most of the places we are asking people to move away from are places that used to be buoyant economic zones for the rich. It’s places where you have high property values for the poor. It’s places where engage in tourism activities. They engage in farming and fishing. And so there is this tension between safety and economics, which makes it even difficult when we’re trying to think about what success means.

And some of the lessons that I see in the work that I do is that particularly in the case of the global side is that retreats are expensive. The United States is the wealthy country. Can afford to do the buyout for multiple people, whether individual or community based relocation. But for some countries or some cities, it’s expensive to relocate a large number of people, thinking about 1 million, or in some cases, hundreds of thousands of people away from those zones. So those are some of the challenges in terms of what is required to achieve some kind of successful retreat.

So another issue is also the politicizing of retreats. Oftentimes, like I said in the example of Lagos, you retreat some people, but then some other people take over those new places. And so it can reinforce this social stratification and this inequity in society. So that makes it difficult. And also ignoring local knowledge or imposing expert knowledge on people in terms of how they need to relocate becomes a problem.

Also, retreat can create this invisibility for the poor because they are no longer seen in those places. They are pushing places that are remote. These are some of the problems you have, including the issues of availability of land. When you relocate people, where exactly are they going to move? Particularly thinking of now, because we have 20 million people.

IRA FLATOW: We have a lot of people who want to know that. Let me get to some of the calls, because they’re asking, where do I go to? Let’s go, first of all, to Symsonia, Kentucky, to David there. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID: Hey, Ira. Thank you. I grew up in far western Kentucky, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. All my life, I have watched the water. I knew where the historic floods were. I knew where the intermediate floods were. And I bought a nice farm in the river valley, but thought it was high enough. And over the preceding years to 2011, I watched the flood waters continually rise every year. And in 2011, we went from 15 acres to less than 1, just surrounding the house.

IRA FLATOW: So where did you go? Did you move someplace better?

DAVID: I did. I decided that global warming is real, that waters will flow more because of rain. And I decided to go up on the plateau.

IRA FLATOW: OK, there’s one person who decided he could get out of there. Let me take another call before we leave. Let’s go to Marlene of Ventura, California. Hi. Marlene. Marlene, are you there? No, I guess we can’t get her. And we have tweets coming in from people who say, you know, what happens to– where do I go? And people suggesting, how do I find places to live? Let me ask my guests. What would you suggest that they do? Dr. Siders, do you have any suggestion?

AR SIDERS: Sure. Actually, the New York Times and Jesse Keenan did a piece about people moving to Duluth, Minnesota, which I enjoyed quite a lot because Duluth, Minnesota is my hometown. So there are places in the country where there’s land, there’s freshwater, there’s infrastructure. There are fewer hazards to think about. You can think about moving there.

But even moving, as the caller who just did, up onto the plateau nearby can be a big step. So if you’re not willing to think about moving all the way across the country or dealing with Minnesota winters, which I would understand, then think about where in the town– and it really should be a town decision. Like, where in the town do you want to build that new housing and help people move? And hopefully, that is up on the plateau and up on elevation.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about relocating. Dr. Siders, what’s your policy wishlist for making retreat a better option for flooded communities?

AR SIDERS: That’s a really loaded question for a policy academic. All right.

IRA FLATOW: See? No one’s ever asked you to just think out loud.

AR SIDERS: I know, my wishlist. No one asks me for my wishlist. All right, so yeah, there’s so much I think we need to know. We have some examples. All of the speakers, we’ve had different examples about this, but I think we need more examples of how this has happened.

I love that you guys are reaching out to people who have actually experienced buyouts because we need to hear more stories from people who have experienced buyouts and how this has worked for them in the long term. And then also for people who wanted buyouts but didn’t get them, or who want to move but don’t have the resources– I want to hear from those people and what’s keeping them stuck in these places. How can we help that?

I think we need a lot more information about what’s working and what’s not before we start scaling up or trying to scale up buyouts and managed retreat as a policy. My biggest wish is that people would stop building homes in the floodplain. That is my biggest wish, is that we would stop putting more people at risk. Because we’re doing a lot of that right now, and it doesn’t help to buy out homes in the floodplain if we’re just going to build more in the floodplain next door.

IRA FLATOW: We like to end our conversations with one thing that people can do, and that seems to be it. Know what your risk is, right, in building there. And don’t build there.

AR SIDERS: Don’t do it.

IRA FLATOW: And we have a really handy resource for thinking about your risk of floods from Science Friday educator collaborative partner, Ralph Pantozzi. A 100-year flood doesn’t mean you only have to worry about it every 100 years. And he has some great tools for understanding that. And if you’d like to learn about that, you can go to ScienceFriday.com/risk to check that out. What do you think of that? Would that be a good tool, Dr. Siders?

AR SIDERS: I think it’d be great. I think it’s a great idea to think about where you want to move in the future and to think about the models that tell you what your risk is right now. I think everyone should know whether or not you live in a floodplain, and everyone should be– if you do live in a floodplain, you should be thinking about where you want to be eventually.

IRA FLATOW: And David, if we’ve already built in a floodplain or live in a community that has a higher flood risk, should we be starting to think, working with our neighbors about making a plan?

DAVID CASAGRANDE: Absolutely. That is one of the big takeaway lessons from the research we did in the Midwest, that the mayors we’ve talked to, the people we’ve talked to in focus groups and interviews all sort of indicated that they wished they had thought about all of that before the flood. Because what’s happening is when you relocate after a flood, you’re in crisis mode. All of the materials are very expensive. It’s hard to make decisions.

And if there was some sort of preplanning incentive, then people would be able to have less stress when the flood actually arrives. Like, well, we’ve got a plan to adopt. And so what we kind of need is some dedicated funding at the federal and state level for pre-disaster relocation planning and also for infrastructure. Because FEMA buyouts will pay for a house, but who pays for the new roads and the water systems and all that?

IRA FLATOW: OK, well, we’ve reached the limit of where we can go. I want to thank my guests, Jola Ajibade, David Casagrande, and A.R. Siders. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. And we have more information about managed retreat around the US and beyond. You can check out our website at ScienceFriday.com/retreat.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Daniel Peterschmidt

Daniel Peterschmidt is a digital producer and composes music for Science Friday’s podcast, Undiscovered. His D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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