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Study: FEMA Flood Buyouts Favor the Wealthy

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 4 days ago Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder
a house next to a body of water: GRAFTON, IL - JUNE 7: Flooding from the Mississippi River inundates a neighborhood on June 7, 2019 in Grafton, Illinois. Residents along Mississippi river are bracing for the expected arrival of the crest at near record levels on Friday. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images) © Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images GRAFTON, IL - JUNE 7: Flooding from the Mississippi River inundates a neighborhood on June 7, 2019 in Grafton, Illinois. Residents along Mississippi river are bracing for the expected arrival of the crest at near record levels on Friday. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Federal buyouts for properties that face flooding are typically going to wealthier communities, according to a new study.

The buyouts are part of a strategy known as "managed retreat," which involves abandoning flood-prone areas in favor of higher ground. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers voluntary buyouts to properties affected by flooding, paying for 75% of the costs while the states or local governments that opt into the program cover the remaining 25%. Once purchased, the property is torn down and turned into open space.

"No matter how difficult managed retreat sounds, we know that there are thousands of communities in the United States, all over the country who have made it work," A.R. Siders of the University of Delaware said in a call with reporters on Tuesday.

But a new study from Siders and other researchers published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances found that these buyouts are typically going to wealthier and more densely-populated counties, which may not be the areas that need them the most.

Their analysis looked at over 40,000 voluntary buyouts from 1989 to 2017. It found that while the federal buyouts are more likely in richer counties, the neighborhoods within those counties where the homes are purchased tend to have lower incomes.

This could reflect the fact that better-off neighborhoods are more likely to be insured and more likely to rebuild after each disaster instead of taking the buyout, according to Alex de Sherbinin of Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network, who was not involved in the research.

"On one hand you could say they're more resilient, but on the other, they're effectively shielded from the sort of difficult decisions that's required of some homeowners to uproot and leave a neighborhood that they may like for many other reasons but had become increasingly untenable," de Sherbinin says.

According to Siders, the communities getting buyouts likely aren't the places that need them the most, like the rural, lower income areas that might not have the resources to meet the required 25% match.

Local governments apply to the FEMA program on behalf of the residents. So if they don't have adequate resources to put toward the process, "that means that you are going to have people who are trapped in at-risk places," Siders says.

"The reality is that managed retreat is likely to accentuate many of these inequalities in the future because who gets assistance and who doesn't is going to be a political process," and those who have the resources and clout will get more attention, de Sherbinin says.

For FEMA, these buyouts are probably seen as a small slice of the pie in terms of their mitigation efforts, which include large infrastructure projects like levees, says study author Katharine Mach of the University of Miami.

The agency left more than half of some buyout entries blank, which the authors said hurt their ability to fully evaluate the program.

Larry Larson of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, who was not involved in the research, said one major problem with the program is wait times, which can take up to five years.

"If my house is really damaged, I can't live without a house for five years while I find out if I'm accepted or not," Larson says.

He adds that the program also has a patchwork problem. Because it is voluntary, some homeowners may sell while others will stay, creating a mix of homes and open lots. In that case, the buyout is helpful to individuals, but not necessarily the community, which still has to provide infrastructure and maintenance services, Larson says.

“FEMA has not had the opportunity to fully review the research and thoughts expressed in this report,” David Maurstad, FEMA’s deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, said in a statement. He added that FEMA does not choose what properties participate in the buyouts and that the program is not meant to address economic inequalities.

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