"Managed Retreat": A Solution to Communities Impacted by Climate Change
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry. At the beginning of April, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report stating that global greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise. This puts the world at risk for more climate change related issues, unless immediate action is taken extreme weather events are likely to force millions from their homes, creating climate refugees across the world and right here in the United States. In advance of these perils, some are trying a new process known as managed retreat.
A.R. Siders: Managed retreat is a category of adaptation options to deal with the effects of climate change and it involves moving people, homes, other infrastructure away from some of the most hazardous places in order to reduce risk and keep people safe.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's A.R. Siders a climate change adaptation expert and assistant professor at the University of Delaware. I spoke with Siders about what managed retreat is and how it has been implemented across the US?
A.R. Siders: This is a socially negotiated process. That's academic jargon for it's something that's decided by the community, by the power structures that are in place, it's not just an engineering decision when we say some places to dangerous. Most of the managed retreat that I work on in the US is not like the infamous green dot map. Most of it is voluntary and so it's homeowners who are themselves saying, "Hey this home is too dangerous.
I am no longer willing to live through flood after flood after flood," or "This is the," in some cases, "16th, 34th time I've had to rebuild my home after a disaster. I'm tired, I don't want to live here. We need help in order to get out and we need help in order to make sure that when we leave, we don't just have another family coming in and making this place dangerous." The point you raise is really important that there's a technical element. Sometimes geography just doesn't work to put in a wall to keep someplace safe.
At the same time, it's not just a technical decision to say, "This place is too dangerous." There's also that social component where we say, "How much money are we willing to spend to make it safe?" Or, "There will always be some level of risk. How much risk are you willing to live with?" Some people are willing to kayak out of their homes to the grocery store. That's fine, I'm not but some people are and so it's all about an individual or a community level of risk that they're willing to accept.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It seems to me, there's got to be at least one more player when we start talking about risk and how much risk we are willing to accept and that is insurance companies. There comes a point where they are unwilling to cover whether it is residential homes or whether it is commercial businesses. Once insurance companies are out, then it gets harder to even have a grocery store to kayak to.
A.R. Siders: That is a really good point and this is one reason that in the US, most of our flood insurance is actually run through the federal government. Back in the '60s flood risk was becoming so problematic that a lot of insurance companies said, "Hey, we can't ensure in these areas." The federal government took over and on the one hand, not being able to get an insurance policy is a really good signal to a homeowner that, "Hey, this place is dangerous."
On the other hand, we don't want the lack of insurance to force people out of their homes where they've lived for a long time. Right now wildfire is going to be facing the same tension of should we have a federally subsidized or a government subsidized form of insurance for these places, because you want to support people living in these places, on the other hand you don't want to subsidize people living in places where they're going to be exposed to extreme danger.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the past few years, we know that there have been California coastal cities like Del Mar and Pacifica that have actually rejected managed retreat as a solution. I'm wondering when we're talking about those kinds of communities, very different than Lower Ninth Ward. What are some of the reasons for not wanting to retreat in this way?
A.R. Siders: I think it's always difficult for communities to think about the end of their community or that their community might change in fundamental ways. In some cases it might mean that this community ceases to exist. I think that's a really difficult thing for any community to face is how are we going to change? The decision to not think about managed retreat, I think is problematic because we need to start thinking long-term about these issues.
There's a lot of places like Del Mar that don't have to retreat today, but very well might have to think about that in the next century. Taking tools off the table for the future can really limit our options down the road. Reasons people don't want to think about retreat, run the gamut from very personal reasons. Like, "I've lived here for generations," or, "My grandfather built this house," to things that are more place based. "This is the only place I can afford to live that's near my job or it's near family."
To, "I like the recreational activities that are nearby," or it can come down to finances. Maybe this is the only community where a person could afford to buy a home or the town might be thinking, "Hey we can't afford to retreat because every home that disappears, that's lost property tax revenue. There's a huge range of reasons why people live in the places they do and why they care about those places.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if there's either dispersive ways or even more tangible selective incentives that help both elected officials and community members think in longer-term ways about their communities and climate change?
A.R. Siders: One just real easy fix, I think sometimes is the way we talk about these risk exposures. We're building here in Delaware, we're building a lot of homes in the 10 year flood plain and the 10 year flood plain, if you do the statistics, it means you have a 1 in 10 chance of flooding every single year. That still doesn't sound so bad, but if you calculate that out over a 30 year mortgage, you have a 96% chance of flooding.
If we told people like, "Hey you're buying this house," and we didn't say, "it's in a 1 in a 10-year flood plain." Instead, we said, "You have a 96% chance that your house will flood before you've paid for it." I think that might shift the way people think about this. Sometimes just the language we use to talk to people about these risks can be really important in making this feel like something that's happening today.
Then also just being really transparent about it. You see so many stories of people saying, "Before I bought this house, I wish I'd known that it was going to flood." States need to do a better job of people to disclose that risk to people who are buying homes and then home buyers hopefully can do a better job of trying to learn about those risks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've talked a lot about flooding. What are the other risks that one might be retreating from?
A.R. Siders: Managed retreat as a adaptation idea works for all the different kinds of climate change hazards. This could be high erosion rates, this could be wildfire, there's some talk about the idea that this could also apply to drought or heat. At the moment, we see most people discussing and most relocation happening because of flooding. I think partly because it repeats so frequently.
If you have a wildfire and you think, "Oh but it won't come back for another 30 years," maybe you don't worry about that, but a flood could happen this year and next year and again and again and again. Then it's also very spatial. You should know, if you're in the flood plain it's going to hit over and over. I think that repeat hazard is what really convinces people at the end that these areas are potentially dangerous or it's what makes them rethink the weight. Are they willing to accept that in order to stay?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I must say that when our Takeaway intern first pitched this to us and said the words managed retreat, I was like, "What is this about?" Like Russia leaving Ukraine, it sounded like you're losing a war, time to get out. Is that what it means that we've decided not to fight climate change anymore, we're just going to keep moving in and in and in until we're battling over the last pieces of arable land that are left?
A.R. Siders: No, it doesn't mean that, but I love this military imagery. I just want to pause and think about that for a minute, that we're treating this as though we're fighting a war against the ocean?
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to lose that one.
A.R. Siders: Yes exactly. In the history of wars that maybe weren't a good idea, fighting a war against the ocean is classically not a great idea. This idea that we're going to win against the ocean, sure but also we could think about other strategies and so even in a military sense, retreat doesn't necessarily mean defeat. It doesn't mean you give up. Think about very classic retreats. Dunkirk retreating or the retreat of Washington across the Delaware River.
We have these retreats and they didn't mean we lost those wars. They meant exactly what it sounds like that we took a step back. We realized, "Hey maybe this isn't the right direction to go," we regroup and think about a different direction. My favorite quote about retreat actually comes from a US Marine Corps General. He's famous for leading a major retreat in Korea and then saying, "Retreat, heck."
He didn't say heck but heck, we're just advancing in a new direction. It's so wonderfully [unintelligible 00:09:22] but it's also really true that retreat isn't about losing the battle or giving up. It's about choosing to go in a new direction and that's what makes me feel actually optimistic when I think about managed retreat. It's about choosing to say, "Let's build the new housing but let's build new housing on the bluff where it can look over the ocean." Or, "Let's build new housing slightly farther back and have a great public beach where everyone could access the beach, not just the people who can afford to live on it." Or, "Let's talk about using the beach, but maybe not having to put our homes, all of our financial assets and our family safety at risk." It's choosing to think
about spatial and the ways we engage with the coast or with wildfire areas or forests or any of these hazards in a different way. I think that if we can think about retreat not as we're losing this battle with the ocean, but we're making different choices. I think that can open up a lot of creativity and a lot of space for us to have exciting conversations not just depressing ones.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Quick pause. You're going to be back with The Takeaway right after this break.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and we've been discussing planned relocation of communities affected by climate change. While managed retreat is an option some communities are willing to take, there are others who want to stay on their land in their neighborhoods and in the homes they built like Hilton Kelley.
Hilton Kelley: I'm the founder and director of the Community in Power and Development Association located in Port Arthur Texas on the Gulf coast.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's take a little peek into life in Port Arthur.
Hilton Kelley: Port Arthur is located about 100 miles East of Houston Texas. Basically Port Arthur is surrounded by levees, Bayou and what have you. We have alligators. We have Garfish. We have all sorts of things you would find in the Southern swamps and Bayous, and Port Arthur is a very unique place with very unique foods and atmospheres.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hilton also told us that his community is facing serious issues.
Hilton Kelley: Some of the storms that we are facing, and we believe that's due to climate change. We're seeing an unprecedented number of hurricanes coming into the Gulf every year. Back in 2005, Hurricane Rita was the first hurricane Port Arthur had seen in more than about 15 years. Prior to Hurricane Rita hitting Port Arthur, Katrina two months earlier had hit New Orleans and devastated New Orleans.
Katrina came into the Gulf and here it is two months afterward, Hurricane Rita came into the Gulf, and there were quite a few others that were not as strong as Hurricane Rita and Katrina. One thing we're also seeing a large number of hurricanes coming into the Gulf every year since 2005 is a large amount of flooding.
Hurricane Harvey devastated my home and I live in what they consider a no flood zone on a higher ground situation in East Port Arthur. In 2017 our home was inundated with water up to 3 feet, and so needless to say that our home was basically destroyed and we had to rebuild, but on the west end of Port Arthur Texas people had to be flown out of their area by military helicopters. There were amphibious vehicles that went into the area to rescue people out of the apartment complexes. It was a huge huge mess on the west end of town.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Despite the storms and the flooding, the community of Port Arthur has rebuilt. They're not thinking of leaving anytime soon.
Hilton Kelley: The consensus is many people would like to stay in their area if it's doable. We want to keep our neighborhood together. We want to keep our community intact and our culture and our way of life. One thing I do believe is that if we can manage to get the support that we need here on the Gulf to fight climate change, to fight sea level rise, that is preferable but if there is no hope on turning the tide when it comes to climate change when it comes to sea level rise, then we have no choice but to move further inland.
I think one have to stop and take a look at the fact that if we continue to go inward because of sea level rise, and hurricanes, and climate change issues, then where we all going to end up because there's coastal areas on the east coast and the Atlantic on the Pacific side and on the west coast, and now we are like that south coast.
I think it would be behoove of our federal government, our state government, and foundations to assist communities on the Gulf of Mexico even on the east coast and the west coast with building stronger, helping to sustain those coastal areas as much as we can because we must stay in place to fight for the reversal of climate change issues. If there's no one on the coast, then who will be here to fight.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks to Hilton Kelley from the Community in Power and Development Association. Thanks to our producers Katerina Barton and Michelle Liu for their work on this segment.
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