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Sea-Level Rise Threatens 13 Million Americans.  Can FEMA Help?

For Sale (Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.

Entrepreneur and presidential hopeful Andrew Yang caught flak at the second Democratic debate in July for saying that the time has come to move Americans living in the path of sea-level rise to higher ground.  “You can run but you can’t hide” doesn’t make a particularly good presidential slogan.  After all, admitting defeat and letting nature take its course isn’t exactly our first instinct as human beings.

Managed retreat — abandoning areas that become so threatened by sea-level rise that they are, for whatever reason, considered not worth saving — has been a far less popular idea than adaptation strategies like flood gates, levees, and pumps.  (Just look at Miami.)

But in many respects Yang’s realism is spot on.  If the world keeps burning fossil fuels as usual, between four and 13 million Americans will see their homes inundated by sea-level rise this century.  In the future, managed retreat will become unavoidable.

Don’t take Yang’s word for it.  That’s one of the conclusions of a new study in Science Advances — the first to evaluate how managed retreat is functioning in the United States on a national scale.  The study’s authors analyzed the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s voluntary buyout program — an initiative that allows owners of flood-prone properties to sell their homes and land to local governments, usually in the aftermath of a disaster.  The aim of the program is to get vulnerable people and assets out of flood plains and to ensure that at-risk property doesn’t go back on the market so some other unfortunate soul ends up buying a house that floods once a year.  So far, a little more than 40,000 people in 49 states have taken advantage of the program.  That’s not a lot of households, and the study found that the number of buyouts overseen by FEMA has actually gone down over the past three decades.

Sea-Level Rise Threatens 13 Million Americans.  Can FEMA Help?