When Hurricane Irma made landfall in the United States last weekend, it first brought its fury to the Florida Keys. For much of the past century the roseate spoonbill — that funky, pink shorebird with a bill shaped like a serving utensil — has called this island chain home. But about a decade ago, researchers observed a remarkable and unprecedented shift: Spoonbills were abandoning their historic nesting grounds in staggering numbers, aiming instead for somewhere higher and drier on the mainland.
If spoonbills can't find adequately shallow water, they can't feed; and if they can't feed themselves, they can't feed their chicks. Adding several centimeters of water into the wetlands where spoonbills traditionally bred (as has occurred over the past 10 years in the Florida Bay, thanks to wetter winters and higher tides) significantly changed the landscape, eliminating the habitats where these gangly waders had long found dinner. When the spoonbills realized it was no longer possible to live on the Florida Keys, they left.
It's time for humans to learn from them. That two storms of Harvey and Irma's caliber would make landfall in the United States during the same swampy fortnight seemed exceptional at first — and then, of course, it didn't. That's because surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic, where many hurricanes are born, are between 0.5 degrees Celsius and 1 degree Celsius above average this year. Warmer seas, combined with higher atmospheric temperatures, feed storms, helping turn average hurricanes into spectacularly destructive events. Add accelerated sea level rise into the mix, and you get large swaths of North American coastline inundated in previously unimaginable amounts of water.
Many living in Louisiana, New York, on the edges of the Olympic Peninsula and all along the coast of Alaska have recently found themselves in the same difficult position as those recovering from Harvey and Irma, weighing the same limited choices. Irma killed about 30 people in three states, wrought extensive damage on Florida's economy and, combined with Hurricane Harvey, racked up costs already estimated to surpass those of Hurricane Katrina. Retreat or rebuild? Some have followed the spoonbill's example and headed for higher ground. But legal and regulatory conditions don't make moving away from increasingly dangerous coastal areas easy. If we're going to adapt to climate change without loss of life and unnecessary financial hardship in Harvey- and Irma-like storms, federal, state and local governments need to start financing and encouraging relocation.
In late 2012, just a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy inundated more than 400,000 New Yorkers, an unexpected cry started rising from the edges of Staten Island. Along the eastern shore, residents were banding together and asking the state to pay pre-storm prices for their flood-prone homes. Instead of returning and rebuilding, they decided they would rather relocate. Some posted signs on their lawns that read "Mother Nature wants her land back " or "Buy out wanted, buy out needed ."
Nine grass-roots buyout committees formed in the storm's wake. Members went door to door, gauging interest, raising awareness and mapping the areas where they no longer felt safe living. Rather than viewing retreat as further evidence of the systemic marginalization of their borough, many working-class Staten Islanders began to see it as a chance to finally move away from the flooding and long-term neglect that contributed to their vulnerability. It was an opportunity for a fresh start.
Eventually, residents brought their case directly to New York's governor, who praised them for coming together to make a difficult decision. In January 2013, he announced that he would use federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds (made available after major storms to help communities address recurrent issues) to purchase homes in three areas. Then those homes would be knocked down, giving the wetlands a chance to return so they might provide a buffer against storms to come. Some 500 residents have applied for buyouts since Sandy, and entire neighborhoods are now being demolished along the island's shore.
Retreat is slowly gaining traction as a climate change adaptation strategy. Simple enough on the surface, it amounts to relocating or demolishing structures that are threatened by erosion or regular flooding. But while the process may be straightforward, the politics surrounding it are less so: Not only is it difficult to get a group of people to agree to leave en masse, it is even more difficult to require them to stay in the area. Otherwise, local governments are faced with a significant loss in tax revenue and in some cases the devaluation of nearby properties. But there are ways to address these downsides. In New York, for instance, residents were offered a 5 percent bonus on closing if they could prove that they would use the money to purchase another home within the county.
I was teaching on Staten Island when Sandy swirled ashore. And I would visit the buyout area often in the year after the money was allocated, speaking with residents as they prepared to move. Some didn't go far. After losing her brother in the storm, Patti Snyder relocated a mile inland, to higher ground; others, like Danielle Mancuso, went farther afield. "There's no ocean in Goshen," she told me the day I called, saying she was headed upstate. For the most part, folks who received buyouts (not everyone who wanted one got one) were pleased, not only because they had finally received the help they felt they'd long deserved, but also because they had come together to demand what each on their own could not. The storm that eventually broke the community apart had, if only momentarily, also brought it closer together.
For now, significant barriers remain to considering retreat as a form of recovery. For one, if you carry a National Flood Insurance Program policy, you are required by law to rebuild on your land, even if it has repeatedly flooded. There is even a term for structures that have been inundated and rebuilt more than 10 times: "Severe Repetitive Loss properties." Many of them are located, perhaps not surprisingly, in Houston and South Florida. They account for roughly 0.5 percent of the flood insurance program's portfolio and more than 10 percent of its spending. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that, in most cases, it is less expensive to buy out these homes than it is to cover the cost of repairing and rebuilding after ever-more-common floods.
When Congress votes on whether to reauthorize the deeply indebted flood program this month, it could remove the regulation that those who file claims must rebuild near the wrack line. Instead, the program could offer discounted flood insurance to homeowners in the highest-risk areas, with a caveat: In return for lower premiums, those homeowners would agree to accept buyouts if their properties were damaged during a flood. This would help keep insurance rates affordable for low- and middle-income homeowners (a daunting task given that the program is both federally subsidized and tens of billions of dollars in debt) while encouraging folks to move out of harm's way.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Irma and Harvey, local floodplain managers can pursue buyouts where the cost of mitigation may eclipse the cost of retreat. And those who are faced with the difficult task of recovery can ask whether they want to return. If the answer is no, then the community can band together and seek money to relocate through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
The superlatives used to describe Irma and Harvey, and Sandy and Katrina before them, are starting to sound eerily familiar: "unprecedented," "record-breaking," "game changer." But the game hasn't actually changed much: We continue to backfill and build atop our buffering wetlands, and we continue to be shocked when those places flood. We continue to rely on flood insurance rate maps that use models generated from the past to predict present and future risk. But as polar ice caps melt, sea levels rise and storms intensify, the past is proving to be an increasingly unreliable guide.
We have the emotional resources to make the move, to walk away from the places that have long defined us, especially when those places are changing irrevocably. What we need now, more than ever, is to realize that our collective well-being — of the human and non-human communities along the water's edge — hinges upon how good we get at demanding that relocation be considered a form of adaptation and funded as such. Those with the most resources will be able to make the transition with relative ease, but what about those with less? For them, only good policy choices aimed at encouraging and supporting relocation can ensure a stable future.
All around us, the landmarks by which we have long navigated are beginning to slip beneath the surface of the water. Like the spoonbill, it's time to aim for higher ground.