Lori Rittel is stuck in her Florida Keys home, living in the wreckage left by Hurricane Irma two years ago, unable to rebuild or repair. Now her best hope for escape is to sell the little white bungalow to the government to knock down.
Her bedroom is still a no-go zone, so she sleeps in the living room with her cat and three dogs. She just installed a sink in the bathroom, which is missing a wall, so she can wash her dishes inside the house now.
Weather reports make her nervous.
Illustration: Mountain People
“I just want to sell this piece of junk and get the hell out,” she said. “I don’t want to start over, but this will happen again.”
The “Great Climate Retreat” is beginning with tiny steps, like taxpayer buyouts for homeowners in flood-prone areas from Staten Island, New York, to Houston, Texas, and New Orleans — and now Rittel’s Marathon Key.
Florida, the state with the most people and real estate at risk, is just starting to buy homes, wrecked or not, and bulldoze them to clear a path for swelling seas before whole neighborhoods get wiped off the map.
By the end of the century, 13 million Americans will need to move because of rising sea levels, at a cost of US$1 million each, said Florida State University demographer Mathew Haeur, who studies climate migration.
Even in a “managed retreat,” coordinated and funded at the federal level, the economic disruption could resemble the housing crash of 2008.
The US government’s philosophy has been that local officials are in the best position to decide what needs to be done. Consequently, the effort has so far been ad hoc, with local and state governments using federal grants from the last disaster to pay for buyouts designed to reduce the damage from the next one.
“The scale of this is almost unfathomable,” University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture professor Billy Fleming said. “If we take any of the climate science seriously, we’re down to the last 10 to 12 years to mobilize the full force of the government and move on managed retreat. If we don’t, it won’t matter, because much of America will be underwater or on fire.”
If not for the US$174,000 that Rittel, 60, owes on her mortgage, the Montana transplant would have left long ago.
Insurance money is insufficient to rebuild, so she applied for one of the buyouts, administered by the state with US$75 million of Irma relief cash from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, as long as it lasts.
Florida accounts for 40 percent of the riskiest coastal land in the US, according to the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, but it has done little so far to pull people back from the coasts and lags behind states such as New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas.
Across the country, the effort is still more theory than practice, even as a consensus among planners grows that “managed retreat” might be the best of bad options.
This year, the department made available US$16 billion for climate resilience, its first dedicated fund to fortify for future storms. Nine states, plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, are to decide how to use it, whether to build sea walls, put houses on stilts or move people out of the way.
The money is a fraction of what is needed and the process is moving at the speed of government.
A study by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council earlier this month found that buyouts by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which responds to disasters, take five years on average to be completed. By that time, many homeowners have rebuilt or moved.
Similar data are not available on the grants from the department, which also provides money to demolish homes.
“It’s a slow-motion emergency,” said Rob Moore, director of the council’s water and climate team. “But it’s happening right now. These last three hurricane seasons show us what it kind of looks like.”
A FEMA spokesman said that the agency supports the voluntary acquisition of flood-prone structures and provides the grant funding, but the prioritization of projects happens at the local level first and then by the state acting as the recipient.
The agency believes that each county floodplain manager and local official knows the needs of their communities best and are responsible for land usage and permitting.
About 6 million Floridians will need to move inland by the century’s end to avoid inundation, Hauer said in a 2016 paper.
By then, about 80 percent of the nearby Florida Keys, the archipelago that includes the tourist mecca of Key West, would be underwater. About 3.5 million people would be flooded in South Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward, the two counties with the US’ biggest exposed populations.
“Florida’s doing it at a really small scale,” said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware who studies climate adaptation. “Compared with the new housing units going up in South Florida, I don’t know if that would even cancel out.”
However, Florida runs on tourism and real-estate revenue, and managed retreat is a phrase that makes real-estate listing agents nervous.
Yet, there is another Florida housing bubble waiting to pop. The Union of Concerned Scientists warns of a coming housing crash — from Miami to San Mateo, California — on a scale worse than last decade’s foreclosure crisis, caused by climate change — from flooding to heat waves and wildfires.
Cities are only starting to grapple with where to resettle residents and how to transport communities and hometown identities. Homes on higher ground would also demand higher prices, worsening an affordability crisis.
Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana is trying to relocate the Native American settlement of about 100 people on the Isle de Jean Charles, a narrow island that lost 98 percent of its land over the past six decades to climate change.
It is working with a US$48 million grant from the department for buyouts and to help them start anew on a 202.3 hectare sugar cane field 65km north that the government will populate with homes and businesses. Importantly, it will be 2.7m above sea level.
All but three of about 40 households have signed on.
“They’re starting to scale this up,” said Jesse Keenan, a social scientist at Harvard University who also specializes in climate adaptation. “This is about building up institutional knowledge on how to do this.”
New Jersey has a US$300 million fund for buyouts and has purchased hundreds of houses since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, although like Florida, even more homes have been built on the coast in the meantime.
Harris County, Texas — which includes Houston and was ravaged by a series of storms, including 2017’s Hurricane Harvey — has done more than 3,000 FEMA buyouts, more than any other county in the US, council data showed.
In Monroe County, Florida, where Rittel lives, the planning is just beginning. The county has applied for US$5 million of the department’s money — the state maximum. Already, about 60 local homeowners have applied, so it will require triage.
Senior citizens, families and residents in the riskiest flood zone would get priority, Assistant County Administrator Christine Hurley said.
Rittel is not sure how long she can hang on.
Her insurance payout of about US$100,000 would cover repairs to the 59.5m2 house, but the county requires that when more than 50 percent of a home is damaged, that it be completely rebuilt to meet modern storm-resiliency codes and — in her flood zone — on stilts. That would cost at least US$200,000, money she does not have.
She dreams of resettling in Key West or Homestead, a safer spot on the Florida mainland.
“I’d like to take the money and run,” Rittel said. “But I’ll have to buy something on stilts. I’m not buying anything on the ground down here ever ever again.”
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