Jeff Masters Weather Blog

Why moving people out of harm’s way isn’t as easy as it might sound » Yale Climate Connections

Every year in Newtok, Alaska, about 70 feet of land are lost to erosion, thawing permafrost, and ocean storms. The small Native village is located along the Ninglick River in western Alaska, and climate change is creating a situation so precarious that village leaders have been working for years to move the community to a site called Mertarvik about nine miles away. 

It’s a story that is unfolding repeatedly around the world. A 2017 Nature Climate Change study reviewed 27 cases around the world where managed retreat was used to resettle about 1.3 million people. 

“When we first tallied up the number, 1.3 million people globally, honestly it was a lot more than we thought there would be,” says Katharine Mach, an environmental science and policy professor at the University of Miami and one of the coauthors of the study. “It’s still almost nothing compared to the scope of future risk, but it’s a big number.” 

For Newtok and other communities forced to move out of harm’s way, the task is monumental: It requires a coordinated, strategic effort that often involves governments buying out high-risk properties, decision-makers choosing who will be offered a buyout, constructing or finding new homes, and preparing for the impacts on communities that people are departing from and moving to. 

First, you need funding 

Newtok had 209 residents as of the 2020 census, down from 354 residents in the 2010 census

Despite the relatively small size of the community, it’s proved costly to plan and construct new homes in Mertarvik. The complex process involves everything from sorting out contracts with barge companies to deciding who in the community should get priority for housing. 

Newtok is one of 11 tribes receiving funding from $115 million allocated to help with climate adaptation in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. Some of that money is intended to be used for relocation assistance. The Newtok Village project will receive $25 million, along with funding from other sources, including FEMA and the Denali Commission, to help with community-driven relocation efforts. Newtok and Napakiak, Alaska, along with Quinault Indian Nation in Washington, will serve as blueprints for other communities that may need to relocate in the future. 

Meanwhile, in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, where residents face coastal erosion and sea level rise that has reduced the island from 22,000 acres to 320 acres, the community received a $48.3 million federal grant to help with relocation in 2016. “The New Isle” 40 miles north is expected to include 500 homes, as well as community spaces like a community center, trails, and a number of other amenities. The first residents moved into the new community in 2022.

Many people don’t want to move 

The decision about whether to move can be difficult.

The 2017 Nature Climate Change study of managed retreat notes that home is “the central reference point of the human existence,” so it’s not surprising people have a significant attachment to where they are from. 

“The piece of people being reluctant to move, it is such a tricky question to get past and there are so many reasons for that,” says E. Barrett Ristroph, director of resilience for the Anthropocene Alliance, an organization focusing on environmental justice and climate impacts in communities. Ristroph is a lawyer who also holds a doctorate in climate change planning and coordinates a group for the American Society of Adaptation Professionals focusing on climate migration and managed retreat

“Sometimes it can be place attachment. I find that is particularly true in Louisiana where, when people are moving, they are no longer able to walk across the street to the water and get their dinner out of the water.”

What happens after people move? 

Ristroph points out that not enough attention is being paid to how to accommodate people once they reach their new location. She says very few people move together as a whole community like the residents of Newtok. In order to help with resettlement, she points out the need to identify receiving communities, make them welcoming places, and plan for new residents, including capital improvements to accommodate the new residents.

Buyouts disproportionately help wealthy communities, urban areas 

In a 2021 paper in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Mach and colleagues focused on the 45,000 voluntary home buyouts that have taken place in the U.S. over the past 30 years. Such voluntary buyouts generally involve government entities purchasing homes in high-risk flood areas and tearing down the structures in favor of open space. The study points out these buyouts are usually more prevalent in communities with greater wealth, and they are concentrated in urban areas. 

Such buyouts can be complicated and may take years, leaving people in need of temporary accommodations, especially if their previous home was made uninhabitable by a hurricane or other disaster. 

Some may feel they have no other real options and others — such as renters and people living in mobile home parks where they don’t own the land — may have no options if the property owners decide to participate in buyout programs.

Debra Butler, executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, says it is vital that “justice, equity, and intentionality all are at the very beginning of the discussion of managed retreat.” Butler says these factors can’t be “an add-on or something to choose later as a checklist for community engagement,” and they must be intentional from the beginning. 

Buyouts can reduce property tax revenue 

After buyouts, homes are often torn down, with the remaining open space often used for things like wetland restoration, amenities like playgrounds, or just left vacant.

And turning homes into open spaces can reduce the amount of property tax a municipality collects, reducing funding for community needs. 

Despite the challenges of managed retreat, it remains an important piece in the climate change adaptation tool kit in many communities.

As residents of Newtok begin to settle into their new homes in Mertarvik, they join an increasingly long list of people around the world who are packing up and moving as a result of climate change. The list will likely grow in the years to come.

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