Wealthy Counties Benefited Most From a Flood Relief Program

People who live anywhere near the Missouri River must be pretty worn out by now. After near-record floods last spring that affected more than 14 million people, many residents thought the worst was over. But recent heavy rains have kept water levels high, making it nearly impossible for the US Army Corps of Engineers to repair the 350 miles of damaged levees from last spring.

As a result, Corps officials are releasing more water from the six dams it controls on the upper part of the Missouri River, hoping they can patch up the nation’s arterial drainage system before winter and snowmelt next spring. “The dams are still full, the rivers are above flood stage, and it’s already snowing in Montana,” Mike Crecelius, emergency management director of Fremont County, Iowa, told The Wall Street Journal.

If ever there was a time to consider selling your home and moving to higher ground, this would be it. But a new study of the government’s flood buyback program finds that it’s mostly wealthier counties around the country that are selling their homes for taxpayer dollars. Less well-off areas in Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi have had the highest levels of property damage from coastal and inland flooding in the US, but rank in the middle of home buyouts. At the same time, wealthier parts of coastal New England are making the greatest use of the FEMA money.

This means that as climate-driven floods and hurricanes continue to wreck homes and property, low-income residents will likely be squeezed even when the government tries to help. “There is a real potential for our responses in a changing climate to make the fat cats fatter, so to speak, and to be to the detriment of our marginalized frontline communities,” says Katharine Mach, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami and coauthor on the study published today in the journal Science Advances.

Mach and her colleagues combed through data from 43,000 FEMA buyouts since 1989 and correlated their location and size to local income and census data, as well as post-flooding damage estimates. The goal of the FEMA buyout program is to create something called managed retreat from places that face a high risk of natural disasters and that scientists say are increasing in intensity under a rapidly warming climate.

If some property owners who live near the ocean or in a river floodplain can be convinced to sell their homes, and the land is returned to open space, the entire community will benefit. The idea is to allow vacant properties to be restored and allow nature to form a green barrier against flooding.

It sounds like a great idea on paper, but not so easy in real life. In order to get the money, local officials have to assess and determine which homes would qualify. They have to come up with a 25 percent match for the total amount of buyout money. In theory, the more homes that FEMA buys and removes from the land, the better the “managed retreat.”

But the research team found FEMA is only buying a couple of homes in each community, rather than removing entire blocks or neighborhoods. Small buyouts are less economically efficient than larger ones and may result in patchy property removal. If only a few property owners sell their homes, the community’s overall flood risk doesn’t change much, according to the research team.

Federal rules require local government officials to apply for the program, put up a 25 percent match, and ask individual homeowners if they want to participate. Because smaller towns in these places often can’t afford local planning staff and outreach, they aren’t getting as many federal FEMA dollars against storms and floods as places like New York, Houston, and Charlotte, according to A. R. Siders, a social scientist at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center and a coauthor on the paper.

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