“There are several great case
studies of buyouts, but no one has looked at the whole program, the
whole country, and that gives a different perspective.”
By examining the records of more than 40,000 bought-up homes, the
researchers found that over 1,100 counties in 49 states (Hawaii is the
only state that does not take part in the program) have purchased and
demolished at-risk homes to create open space and restore floodplains.
“It’s a great response to anyone who says managed retreat is too hard
or no one will accept it, no one will participate. Well, here: Tens of
thousands of homeowners have accepted it, and more than 1,000 counties
have accepted it and figured it out,” Siders said.
“Yes, we need to
learn more about how it can be done, how it can be improved, but the
baseline of just, ‘it can be done,’ is good visibility.”
And by examining the risk and demographic characteristics of the
1,100 counties that administered buyouts, the research team was able to
build a detailed roadmap for future critical research on equity, race
and other topics.
Siders recently answered questions about the study.
Q: What made you and your team look at the FEMA buyouts?
Siders: Managed retreat is a hot topic, but it’s also data
starved. There’s so little information out that any data point that
comes out in the managed retreat literature is really exciting. The most
obvious starting point for us seemed to be, let’s see what’s been done.
Where have they happened, how have they been done, who’s doing them,
who’s not, how’s it working out. Before FEMA can scale this up or change
the program, they need to know how it’s worked so far.
Q: What are the key findings?
Siders: One is that managed retreat is happening all over the
United States, in 49 states. That’s a really big finding for me because
it means no matter how difficult it is to do managed retreat, there’s
1,100 counties that have figured out how to do it. So that makes me
Another is that we found that counties that are more affluent and
denser are using buyouts more, and that was surprising because the
economic models suggest buyouts should be happening in rural places.
Which makes sense: If you’re in a rural area it probably doesn’t make
sense to put in miles of seawalls to protect one home. So the models had
suggested that the buyouts should have been occurring in rural, less
dense, less affluent areas and instead we were finding the opposite.
However, although our data showed that local governments in counties
with higher population and income were more likely to administer
buyouts, the bought-out properties were actually concentrated in areas
of greater social vulnerability within those counties.
Q: What are the implications of the findings?
Siders: The findings point to concerns about equity. Richer,
denser counties might be using buyouts more because they have the staff
and resources to navigate FEMA’s bureaucracy. That could be a problem
for small, rural areas that want to retreat.
The fact that rich, dense counties are buying up homes in low-income
neighborhoods – is that a good thing or a bad thing? Lower-income
communities might be in riskier areas, and they may be less able to
recover after a disaster, so relocating could be a good decision. Or it
could be a problem with the program. We know the issue is widespread –
they’re not symptoms of one racist place, or one deviant mayor. This is a
widespread, systematic issue. And that’s why it’s worthy of trying to
solve whether or not it’s harmful.
Q: What does the study say about the effectiveness of the FEMA buyouts?
Siders: The good news is that buyouts are happening in places
that are at-risk and have experienced damage in recent disasters. So
that tells us the program really is helping people in risky places, as
it was designed to do.
There are still open questions, though. Right now this program puts
no restrictions on where people move after a buyout. So in one case
study that looked at the post-Sandy Staten Island buyouts, 20 percent
of people moved into other floodplains. So they’re just as at risk as
they were before. The program isn’t even requiring people to move back,
it could be moving them sideways. Moving sideways along the coast
doesn’t help you.
Q: Where are the buyouts most common?
Siders: In North Carolina, there were 7,000 properties. That’s
a lot. Compared to 40,000 across the United States, 7,000 in one state –
that’s a big chunk of it. Maybe not surprisingly considering North
Carolina’s exposure. Florida is not using buyouts as much, which opens
up comparative research. What is it about Florida that’s limiting the
scope? What is it about North Carolina that’s enabling it? Houston has
one of the largest buyout programs in the U.S. Delaware, meanwhile, is
doing very little.
A lot of the research is focused on what makes homeowners say yes or
no to a buyout offer. I think there’s a lot more research that needs to
happen on what makes a government decide to make an offer in the first
Q: What’s the next step?
Siders: We’re hoping the piece is a call to action in that it
shows that managed retreat is happening, it tests a couple of
hypotheses, and opens up a lot of really interesting questions that are
not answered, but could be answered. OK, there’s a big equity concern.
You know what we need? We need more research on why this is turning out
this way and whether or not that’s a good thing. That’s a wide-open
research field requiring lots of case studies. And it won’t all be done
Article by Peter Bothum; photo by Lisa Tossey
Published Oct. 9, 2019