Giving Compass' Take:

• A.R. Siders discusses the problems of government-funded buy-out programs that are intended to prevent repetitive loss from natural disasters and how they can be improved through streamlining and increased equity. 

• How can funders work to improve equity in these, and other, government programs? 

• Learn more about inequity in disaster recovery.

Destructive storms like Hurricanes Florence and Michael prompt difficult conversations about whether to rebuild or retreat. Retreat is an established part of U.S. flood management: Government agencies have been paying people to move out of harm’s way for several decades. But the process is flawed and needs to be improved.

Across the United States, “repetitive loss properties” that have been damaged and rebuilt multiple times using federal flood insurance payouts have cost the government, and taxpayers, more than US$12.1 billion. And the challenge is growing. Rising seas due to climate change may inundate 400 to 1,100 U.S. coastal cities in this century, affecting some 4 to 13 million Americans.

I recently reviewed eight of the largest U.S. buyout efforts to see how officials decided which homes to buy. It was a question I’d encountered while living in New York City during and after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. More than 2,500 people in New York City and state expressed interest in receiving buyouts, but only a few hundred received offers. I wanted to know why.

The buyout process is not transparent. Many people struggle to figure out whether their homes are eligible, based on information from websites, press releases and public documents. Some less-than-clear criteria include: “compatibility with community and natural values,” and “mutual (local and state government) understanding of the benefit” of the buyout.

Seemingly straightforward policies can have unintended consequences. Federal flood risk management programs are required to be “cost-effective” in order to prevent overspending. However, it’s rarely cost-effective to build a $34 million floodwall in front of $100,000 homes, so flood management projects like this often end up protecting wealthy areas. Lower-income areas are left more exposed to damage from storms and flooding.

Similarly, buying out a $1 million home after a disaster makes less sense than buying 10 $100,000 homes. As a result, low-income areas are more likely to be targeted for managed retreat after disasters. These communities tend to have high numbers of minority residents, due to past discriminatory policies and historic inequalities.

Helping communities that are at most risk and have the fewest resources could be a good policy, if it were done intentionally and in a way that addresses social equity. However, if these issues are not considered, flood mitigation policies can exacerbate racial and economic segregation by displacing low- and middle-income residents who can’t afford to spend large sums on climate-resilient homes.

Read the full article about government-funded natural disaster repetitive loss programs by A.R. Siders at The Conversation.