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Saving Coastal Communities Requires a Community-Based Approach

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma exposed how vulnerable our communities are to extreme climate events. With the two storms destroying thousands of houses and causing well over $200 billion worth of losses, questions have been raised, particularly about how we don’t seem to be doing enough to move homes out of harm’s way; Harvey was Houston’s third “500-year storm” in three years.

The worst is yet to come for many at-risk communities, especially those on the coast and exposed to multiple hazards such as coastal erosion, land subsidence and sea level rise in addition to hurricanes and storm surges of increasing frequency and intensity.

Many people in these communities do not have the financial means to safeguard their homes against these events or rebuild their neighborhoods, and they can be dependent on the sociocultural structure of their communities for survival. It is imperative for governments at national, state and local levels to work together to facilitate processes by which such communities can move out of harm’s way while protecting their culture and the social capital of community life.

A community-based resettlement approach is necessary when those affected constitute a cohesive/close-knit community, have a historical, cultural relationship to place, are socially or economically vulnerable, have limited adaptability to new environments, have been the victims of injustice, are likely to move to other risk-prone locations unless guided and whose property rights at their existing location are complex, fragile or uncertain.

A Dire Dilemma

The sea is rising, posing the risk of displacing up to 187 million people over the century. Hundreds of coastal communities are fully cognizant of the risks they are facing, and for them the debate about whether there is anthropogenic climate change or not is irrelevant. They need to figure out how they can get their homes out of harm’s way.

In the U.S., a striking example of an affected region is the coast of Alaska. In Alaska, the village of Newtok has already lost its barge landing, sewage lagoon and landfill. It may soon lose its drinking water source and, by 2020, the airport and school; half the homes have been damaged. The Newtok Traditional Council identified a site at Mertarvik, nine miles southeast of Newtok, and negotiated a land exchange with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003.

The funding of Newtok’s relocation is a test case to see whether U.S. disaster relief laws can be used to deal with the slow-moving impacts of climate change. After the Newtok relocation decision was taken, in 2005, the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act was enacted, which permitted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake the relocation project under Section 117. Construction began in 2006, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. However, in 2007, Section 117 of the 2005 act was repealed. The village of Newtok recently requested a federal disaster declaration from the federal government so that they could secure assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, these declarations are typically only made for catastrophic events such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Slow-onset disasters such as progressive erosion and periodic flooding don’t qualify.

Can the U.S. implement caring, community-based approaches to resettling coastal communities with no other option?

Since flooding is one of the key issues in the case of coastal communities, the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by FEMA, is one of the main programs that can be assumed to be useful to these communities in addressing their problems. Under the NFIP, in participating communities, purchase of an insurance policy is mandatory for mortgage properties. When such a property is damaged in a flood, the policy can cover the cost of complying with mitigation requirements such as elevating the building during reconstruction. The NFIP insurance premiums also finance a Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program that reduces overall flood risk. The FMA program awards grants for many purposes, including state and local mitigation planning; the elevation, relocation, demolition, or flood proofing of structures; and the acquisition of properties. However, this covers individual properties. FEMA has no program yet for relocation or resettlement in community groups.

Normally, depending on the severity of the problem, communities confronting such hazards would first consider measures for structural mitigation (building sea walls) and non-structural mitigation (mandating elevated buildings) and only after would they consider relocation. However, for many communities such as Newtok, there really is no option other than to move out of harm’s way, an approach that is referred to as “managed retreat” in coastal science.

Currently in the U.S., the predominant mechanism for managed retreat is FEMA’s buyout program, which funds the acquisition of properties exposed to repeated flooding. This program focuses on individual properties. In the case of cohesive communities, the most desirable approach to take would be foresighted, systematic and sensitive facilitation of community-based relocations. Unfortunately, the U.S. has little experience moving communities in a group.

Pilot Projects Provide Hope

However, there is hope on the horizon. On the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the government of Louisiana came up with a policy document called Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments or LA SAFE. The document proposes a resettlement strategy “for culturally-sensitive at-risk communities and special needs groups, including the disabled, the elderly, disaffected minority groups and very low income populations. It is intended to capture a community’s remaining—and often rapidly dwindling—value and transfer it to an environment in which it has the opportunity to grow and ultimately thrive.”

The Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project is one of the projects currently being rolled out. Louisiana’s “Office of Community Development, Disaster Recovery Unit won a $93 million grant that is entirely focused on adaptation of coastal communities to erosion caused by rising sea levels and soil subsidence. OCD-DRU is using about half of the … award to develop a pilot project to resettle a Native American tribe living on Isle de Jean Charles that has lost 90 percent of its land mass in the last 40 years,” according to The Planning Report.

A community-based approach to relocation would not normally occur in mainstream decision-making. It is necessary to create an enabling policy environment to support such initiatives. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate leadership in implementing caring, community-based approaches to resettling coastal communities that have no other option.

B. R. Balachandran

Director at Alchemy Urban Systems

B. R. Balachandran is an urban planner and an expert in post-disaster reconstruction with over two decades of experience. He is currently engaged in doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign on issues related to environmentally forced relocation of communities.

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