Moving Out of Harm’s Way
Newsletter A new study offers insights into how and where Americans are moving to escape climate dangers. The floods and fires exacerbated by climate change will push of people out of their homes. It turns out, though, that many people whove already had to move out of harms way havent gone very far. At least not in the United States, according to a by researchers at Rice University who focused on floods. And race appears to be a factor in how and where they move. The authors combed through data on thousands of Americans who moved out of their homes because of flood risks between 1990 and 2017, after being bought out through a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About three-quarters stayed within a 20-mile drive of their old homes. To find out more about the paper and what policymakers can learn from it, I talked to one of the researchers, James R. Elliott, a sociologist who has been studying disaster recovery since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Here is our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity. The why question is one we have to infer from other studies. In prior research, we ask people, and it sort of comes out in this generic I cant imagine living anywhere else. Well, what does that actually mean? And it turns out there is a really complex heuristic that people are tied to where they are through routines, commutes, social networks. What was surprising to me is that on average, folks did quite substantially reduce their flood risk. Even in this very small move, theyre making those decisions. The question then becomes, financially, you know, how many people have the resources to be able to do those types of moves and to accomplish those goals. You may say thats because theyre hoarding the resources. Like, yeah, sounds reasonable, but its also because I think communities of color, like the ones we see in Houston, are very reluctant to move. They may think, where else are we going to move? There are no other affordable houses around us, and we distrust the government. Its the racial status of that neighborhood and the investments that go in, the financial and the physical safety and the public infrastructure that gets built. Its safer to stay in that space and risk losing equity in your house where no one will buy it, because there are social investments that tend to happen in those neighborhoods. So people will wait or theyll sell on the private market. The uniform things that seem to happen regardless is people do stay relatively close and they do reduce their flood risk. And if they live in a majority-white community, I dont know their race, they move to a majority-white community. Basically, 95 percent of the time that happens, even in a metro area where you have other choices. Its to realize that its staying local. It is not this crazy biblical migration, at least not in the U.S. Not yet. And so to the extent that youre going to get people to voluntarily retreat, you have to imagine situations where there has to be housing nearby thats safer and doesnt disrupt their community life. The good news for policymakers is that people are going to stay close by and large, and thats good for the tax bases. And people are going to reduce their flood risk. They are paying attention to that. So thats good news. So more affordable housing nearby and planning thats really putting that front and center. I think the sticky wicket is realizing that there is going to be a resistance in communities of color and a distrust to being uprooted, and, in majority-white communities, they cant imagine living anywhere else. So bottom line, its not just flood risk and insurance premiums that are driving and shaping how this retreat is going to unfold. Its the racial landscape and the availability of housing nearby. Next Tuesday is the Independence Day holiday in the United States. 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