There was not enough time to fully evacuate New Orleans before Hurricane Ida hit. The hurricane intensified too rapidly. Thousands who could flee, did. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged those left behind, including many without the money or resources to pack up and go, to “hunker down.” The storm tore off roofs and wiped out power.
We are now at the dawn of America’s Great Climate Migration Era. For now, it is piecemeal, and moves are often temporary. Brutalized by hurricanes, flooding and a winter storm, Lake Charles, La., residents have been living with relatives for months. In early August, the Dixie fire — the largest single fire in recorded California history — claimed at least one entire town, and locals took to living in tents. Apartment dwellers in Lynn Haven, Fla., were forced from their homes to slosh through streets flooded by Tropical Storm Fred. The evacuee tally has continued to rise, from New Englanders in the path of Hurricane Henri to flood survivors in North Carolina and Tennessee to people escaping fire in Montana and Minnesota.
But permanent relocations, by individuals and eventually whole communities, are increasingly becoming unavoidable.
Climate-linked disasters are now such a common threat to our homes that the real estate brokerage firm Redfin recently unveiled a rating system that scores climate risk down to the ZIP code. In the United States, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center found 1.7 million disaster-related displacements in 2020 alone.
Moving safely and efficiently from vulnerable areas more than temporarily remains a steep challenge for most Americans. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded in a 2020 report, “Unclear federal leadership is the key challenge to climate migration as a resilience strategy.”
Increasingly, Indigenous peoples, community organizations, local governments, universities and others have stepped in to fill this void in leadership. They’ve developed innovative relocation plans and tools for towns and cities scrambling for solutions. In the wake of Ida, tied as the fifth-most-powerful hurricane to lash the United States, the federal government must make climate migration a viable option for all.
Right now it’s not — nor is it the choice everyone would make. Newly released Census Bureau data shows that Americans are largely moving into risky areas: the drought-riddled West, the hurricane-prone coastal South. In this crucible of poorly informed decision making and an inflamed climate, experts have begun to insist on a coordinated, justice-minded effort to facilitate voluntary climate migration and relocation.
In its report, the Government Accountability Office recommended a “community led” federal climate migration pilot program. On this front, the Biden administration could take cues from creative local approaches already underway and add its support.
In the United States, efforts to relocate households or even whole neighborhoods have largely been facilitated by federal home buyout programs. After disasters like hurricanes and floods, state and local governments can purchase damaged homes with federal funds. Homeowners can then, instead of rebuilding, move elsewhere. In coastal communities, where residents move back from the water’s edge, this process is called managed retreat.
Unfortunately, this is all ad hoc; homeowners routinely deal with labyrinthine bureaucracy and yearslong delays to obtain buyouts. And because programs can include incentives for relocating within a certain geographic area, homeowners can land in places just as vulnerable to climate danger. This is to say nothing of renters, who may simply lose everything in a disaster.
Real change — like relocating entire neighborhoods and communities out of harm’s way — would be far better handled not in times of crisis, when the displaced must weigh complex decisions in the midst of chaos and loss, but before a crisis hits.
In August, the Biden administration amped up funding for communities before disaster strikes. This included doubling the budget to $1 billion for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program aimed at shoring up vulnerable communities; some experts have called for more. Other, similar budget increases that could support relocation projects are tucked into Congress’s pending infrastructure bill.
A more robust, specific plan is required if the United States seeks to adapt safely to a warming world.
Meanwhile, some communities have begun to problem-solve on their own. In Paradise, Calif., which lost 11,000 homes in 2018’s record-breaking Camp fire, the Paradise Recreation and Park District has started a buyout program for fire hazard zones, buying up hundreds of acres of the riskiest properties from willing sellers.
In coastal Alaska, 15 Native villages have worked with the Alaska Institute for Justice to design a culturally sensitive process for relocating communities. This has included giving a name, usteq, to the rapid, climate-driven erosion and permafrost melt — at a clip of 10 feet in one night — causing buildings to fall into the sea. Usteq means “catastrophic land collapse” in the Native Yup’ik language, and several of the villages have installed usteq monitoring devices. By gathering regular data and identifying the land loss as a disaster event rather than natural erosion, the villages are building a legal case that usteq should be a federally recognized hazard that qualifies them for relocation funding.
Some community advocates around the country have suggested that the Civilian Climate Corps that the Biden administration promised as part of its jobs plan — modeled after the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which installed thousands of infrastructure and parks projects — could build housing for climate-displaced people.
On Monday, grass-roots leaders called for the president to establish a climate migration agency. The leaders — from low-income, Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities from South Carolina to California — have been meeting throughout 2021 to discuss how climate change is shaping the uncertain places they call home. They hope that federal relocation money and information will be easily accessible to all, so that leaving home and finding a new one is no more a disaster than it has to be.
Alexandra Tempus, who has received multiple climate reporting fellowships, is writing a book on climate migration.
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