In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian churning up the eastern seaboard, leaving destructive flood waters in its wake, a new national report describes FEMA policies creating a nightmare for disaster survivors deciding what to do with destroyed or damaged homes. For those who want to move out of a flood zone, the wait time for a home buyout can stretch five years or more, according to a first-ever analysis of nearly 30 years of data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“Because the process takes so long, many homeowners simply rebuild after a flood disaster and hope the next flood misses them,” said Anna Weber, a senior policy analyst with NRDC and co-author of the new report Going Under: Long Wait Times for Post-Flood Buyouts Leave Homeowners Underwater. “As sea levels rise and flood risks escalate, we need faster and more equitable ways to help the millions of homeowners affected by repetitive flooding. Buyouts should be an accessible option for anyone who wants to move.”
FEMA sets the expectation that projects funded by its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will be completed in just over 3 years. NRDC’s first-ever review of FEMA’s nationwide buyout data shows that most projects take far longer than 3 years. In an analysis of the more than 43,000 properties acquired, or in the process of being acquired, using FEMA funding, NRDC found it typically takes more than 5 years from the flood event to close out the long and complex process that involves local, state, and federal governments, as well as the individual homeowners who want to relocate.
Relatively little FEMA money is spent to help people relocate, compared to the $68 billion dollars the nation has spent since the late 70s to rebuild flooded homes. The median buyout amount was approximately $54,000, based on the pre-flood market value of the home. A buyout is a specific property transaction in which a government agency – usually a local municipality – purchases private property voluntarily offered at pre-flood values, destroys the structure and preserves the land in public trust as open space, thus eliminating the risk of flood damage on that property.
Among states with at least 500 buyouts since the late 1980s, the longest time frames are found in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas.
Long wait times make buyouts less accessible, less equitable and less effective for the millions of people whose lives will be impacted by repeated flooding as sea levels rise and severe weather events become more frequent and cause greater damage. Hurricane Dorian is the third major flooding event in the past four years for southeastern coastal states; Hurricane Florence, which caused an estimated $24 billion in damage in the region, occurred this same week in September of last year.
In Houston, hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, thousands of families have sold their homes to real estate speculators for a fraction of their value after giving up on a publicly financed buyout, due to uncertainty and years-long waits. Earlier research conducted by NRDC found the most flood-prone homes in the nation are likely to be owned by lower-income residents, making equity issues a significant concern related to the long wait times.
“The way we do buyouts is already horribly insufficient to help people move to safer locations. As hurricanes and flood disasters become more common and sea level rise threatens coastal communities, we need to vastly improve how we deliver this assistance,” said Rob Moore, Director of NRDC’s Water and Climate Team and report co-author.
Moving people out of the way of increased flooding risks is an essential piece of the nation’s climate adaptation strategy. There is no single solution to address the growing flood risks faced by millions of people in the U.S., however NRDC recommends a number of approaches to improve buyouts, including:
- Investigate the reasons for delays in the current process and study how to make buyouts more timely and accessible, especially for low-income homeowners;
- Make direct assistance for buyouts available through the National Flood Insurance Program;
- Pre-approve and guarantee buyouts for people whose homes have flooded multiple times;
- Leverage the capacity of nonprofit organizations to facilitate buyouts, similar in the role they play in acquiring land for conservation.