Wed, Sep 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The US’ great climate exodus is
starting in the Florida Keys

A ‘managed retreat’ in the face of rising waters could be the best of bad options, but even those efforts are moving at the speed of government

By Prashant Gopal  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

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.

“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.

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