Photo ©Greg Kahn

The year is 2100


You are standing on land that used to be Logan International Airport in Boston. It has become part of the 90,000-mile-long park that wraps the country’s evolving coastline.

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The year is 2100

 

Those who took flood insurance funds and rebuilt in place have finally left because the oil refineries, power plants, and offices nearby are leaching toxic chemicals into the soil.

 

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Buy High, Sell Low

Like it or not, retreat from the coasts has begun. The only question left is whether it will be managed or chaotic..

By Elizabeth Rush

Picture yourself on a beach by the seashore, with evergreen trees and cobalt-blue skies. Some salt spray beckons, and you look out quickly: a humpback of indomitable size. So starts your afternoon of relaxation, a respite from the 30-hour work week you just put in at the local public utility. Your picnic basket is full of fresh produce, bread, cheese, and a ginger cookie; tucked into the crook of your arm is a juicy novel you are excited to devour.

You’re not alone. Scattered along the sand are a couple of dozen other people—some with toddlers who wade out into the tidal shallows while others play music through portable solar-powered speakers, their bodies swaying nimbly in the sun.

The year is 2100, and you are standing on land that used to be Logan International Airport in Boston. But today, through one of the most innovative and forward-looking public-policy initiatives ever enacted in the United States, it has become part of the 90,000-mile-long park that wraps the country’s evolving coastline. The Nationalize the Seashore Project began in 2025, when the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)—swamped by the weight of a season of storms so powerful the National Weather Service had to invent new color codes for their flood maps—decided to remove all the subsidies that inadvertently supported development in high-risk coastal areas. In their place would be offered an alternative: if you lived along the water and wanted to move away from the increasing risk that comes with human-driven climate change, the NFIP would (with the help of FEMA) foot the bill. Some people called it managed retreat, others called it cooperative relocation; either way, so began the “Great Transition”—where what were once some of the most vulnerable parcels of private land became a public commons, with rights and access held by all.

Now picture a different scenario unfolding. The year is still 2100. Seas are still rising. But instead of recognizing this physical reality, the federal government has decided to continue with business as usual, requiring those who file flood insurance claims to rebuild in place, regardless of the number of times that place has flooded in the past. Some property owners took this money and lifted their homes onto stilts, others flood-proofed their basements. But it’s impossible to lift a landfill above the ever-rising tides or to flood-proof a wastewater-treatment plant. So, many of the residents who at first stuck it out eventually leave because the oil refineries, nuclear power plants, and office buildings nearby are leaching toxic chemicals into the soil; because the roadways are under water even when the sun is shining, thanks to the uptick in high-tide flooding that comes with climate change.

The absence of property taxes once provided by the wealthier residents makes restoring the land and removing the infrastructure that degrades it prohibitively expensive. Instead of embracing the largest national park in the world, we have a country whose coastline is covered in crumbling monuments to the era of fossil-fuel extraction.

In both instances, retreat from the lowest-lying parcels takes place, but in the second scenario the coastline is unmanaged and, as a result, much more devastating with regard to its long-term impact—not just on the land but also on the human and other-than-human communities that have long called these places home.

Currently in the United States and in many coastal countries the world over, both managed and unmanaged retreat are ongoing. In some places after a particularly devastating storm, local, state, and federal programs are utilized to help residents move permanently away from risk. In others (sometimes just a stone’s throw from the communities that are being bought out), the only adaptation funding available requires that residents double down, rebuilding on top of land that has flooded and will continue to flood. There is as yet no unified vision of what comes next.

Coastal development is central to our globalized trade networks and regional identities, yet “managed retreat” has thus far been considered a four-letter word, making its implementation rare and, where it does occur, decidedly small-scale. But as one record-breaking storm follows on the heels of the next, that is beginning to change. More and more researchers, residents, city planners, and policy wonks have finally started to have a conversation about managed retreat. And yet the dialog remains hamstrung by the paucity of experience we have to pull from. So, where do we begin?

First and foremost, we must start by asking the right questions. What do we mean when we call for managed retreat? Who gets access to such programs? Where do residents go when they leave, and are they better off after they get there? What about the land that was vacated? Who is responsible for it, and what might it become? One thing is certain: the past is no longer an appropriate analog for what lies ahead. Ultimately, we must shift the conversation around managed retreat away from the losses we want to avoid and toward where we want to go in the climate-changed future that we increasingly share.

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Today roughly half of US GDP is generated in coastal communities. We can harness the power of property-tax and flood-insurance funds generated therein to help us transform the very lowest-lying land into something other than a future liability.

Isle De Jean Charles, Sea-level rise

Isle De Jean Charles ©Elizabeth Rush

The first flood-prone neighborhood I watched get wiped off the map was in New York City. The place: Oakwood Beach, Staten Island. The year: 2013. Just twelve months prior, Hurricane Sandy had spun into the harbor, inundating over 400,000 residents. At the height of the storm surge, over 17 percent of the city’s total landmass was under water. Many say Sandy was a 500-year storm. But the year before, Oakwood residents had experienced Irene, the 200-year-storm. And the spring before that, they had endured a 300-year rain event, amounting to what one community leader told me was “one thousand years of storms over three short years.” With Sandy, local patience reached a limit. All along the eastern shore of Staten Island, residents began to organize—asking that the state pay pre-storm prices for their homes and then demolish them, so that the land might be returned to nature and act as a buffer in the storms to come.

Eventually the governor agreed, matching the disaster-recovery funding made available by the federal government. As I watched house after house being demolished along the soggy side of Staten Island, my idea of what resiliency looks like shifted. I began to understand that, instead of retrofitting our present-day communities to recover quickly from increased flood risk, it might make more sense in select cases to diminish the likelihood of exposure. And that, more importantly, this would mean walking away from beloved homes and places—a difficult transition, to be sure, but one that can be made easier through intervention.

At its most basic, this is what managed retreat amounts to: a government entity intervening so that homeowners who are regularly exposed to flooding might move somewhere safer while maintaining most, if not all, of the equity they had in their property. Zoom out to a bird’s-eye view of the situation, and a couple of attendant goals come into focus. In order for a municipality to be interested in promoting retreat, it likely will want to decommission, even if not immediately, the infrastructure that services the community, cutting down on long-term maintenance costs. And for state and federal governments to participate, they need to reduce the number of properties that are regularly exposed to risk while also increasing the security of those nearby, thus bringing down the cost of disaster recovery overall. Ideally, managed retreat provides pathways toward more sustainable ways of dwelling such that individuals and communities recovering from a disaster experience it as both a significant loss and an opportunity for transformation.

“The thing is that we do a lot of retreat that is unmanaged. Unplanned and uncoordinated. And I don’t think that is the best approach,” says A.R. Siders, Environmental Fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. “Or it is half-managed like in Houston. Houston has the largest “managed retreat” program in the United States, and yet they are also developing rapidly in the floodplain. It’s one step forward, two steps back.” Between 1992 and 2010, Harris County (which houses Houston) lost over 30 percent of its wetlands to the kind of development that Siders calls out, a fact many hydrologists pointed toward when explaining Harvey’s particularly devastating impact. Managing retreat, then, ought not just to mean moving vulnerable communities away from risk in the present tense: it should couple this relocation to the curtailing of development in flood-prone areas, thus reducing the need for this strategy in the future.

Oakwood Beach managed retreat
Oakwood Beach sea level rise
Oakwood Beach

Oakwood Beach, Staten Island ©Elizabeth Rush

What if we make space to mourn what was lost while also engaging with the new set of opportunities that come with profound disruption?

And that points to a second and equally important part of the retreat conversation. Where people go is just as important, if not more so, than the places they leave behind. The overwhelming majority of ongoing buyouts gives this important factor little if no consideration, pointing to a problem of the imagination that defines disaster recovery writ large.

Whether you support managed retreat or not, migration away from the coast is already ongoing. It’s just that most of what’s happening is completely unassisted, especially in lower-income communities. Following Hurricane Maria, 130,000 people left Puerto Rico. The population of New Orleans shrank by 20 percent after Katrina. Many who left moved to affordable but flood-prone land in Houston and then were walloped by Harvey a little over a decade later. “This kind of migration benefits no one. People are abandoning their homes, moving using their already scarce resources, and the communities are left with a diminished tax base,” cautions Rob Moore, Senior Policy Analyst for the Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One of the only systematic studies of the United States’s federally run managed retreat program suggests, in its current incarnation, that like so many other climate-change adaptation strategies, it inadvertently increases the distance between the haves and the have-nots. Those communities with the most resources going into a storm are, not surprisingly, the most likely to receive recovery funding in its wet wake. Meaning that counties wealthy enough to pay designated public servants (such as floodplain managers) to oversee the recovery process are more likely to receive funds for retreat. In rural areas, and in places where property taxes are low and residents often uninsured, homeowners are left with precious few options: scrape the mold off the walls and pray that this storm was the last, or sell for below-market rates to a real estate speculator—shifting flood risk onto future residents.

By looking at the inequitably unmanaged retreat that is ongoing, we can ask ourselves: do we want more of that? Or do we want a better result for both the people and communities being left behind and those who are part of this early wave of climate refugees? Were the federal government to adapt a pro-retreat attitude, it could remove some of the barriers to participation that exist particularly in more marginal communities. For instance, the NFIP could offer reduced-rate insurance to homeowners who, in advance of a disastrous flood, agree to relocate should their property be destroyed or significantly damaged in a storm to come. The NFIP already offers rate reductions to those who undertake flood risk–mitigation measures such as elevating structures and installing flood vents. Why not include retreat in that category, removing the barriers to broader participation?

Years after the first house in Oakwood Beach was removed, I returned to see what had become of the land itself, who managed it, and on what terms. The demolitions were almost complete, with each empty lot resplendent with native grasses. An osprey circled high overhead, Canadian geese waddled down the roads where kids used to play basketball, and at the muddy terminus of Tarlton Street I discovered a couple of deer prints pressed into the dirt. The absence of the human community had given the non-human community a chance to flourish, at least in the short term.

In 2017, the city rezoned the area as a “Special Coastal Risk District,” which significantly limits any new development. One idea was to connect it to the Staten Island Bluebelt program, which preserves natural drainage corridors, but the city parks department has yet to get on board. Azimuth Land Craft, an award-winning landscape-design firm, offered to install something they call the Climate Chronograph: a field of graded flowering cherry trees that will die, row by row, from saline inundation as sea levels rise. But their idea for this new kind of public monument was rejected.

In the meantime, the few residents who choose to remain have the option to purchase the empty lots which the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery still maintains. That is, until 2022, when the grant money will run out. As is the case with many areas that undergo managed retreat, what this place should become in the future, and who will oversee it, remain unresolved. As I walk the broken berm that still runs along Oakwood’s edge, I know, as I have known little else in this life, that what we need most is a vision to work toward: one where vulnerable land and the vulnerable populations who have long resided there are cared for—not just in a moment of crisis, but also when the immediate danger has passed and everyone else has moved on to the next disaster.

The idea is simple. If you want to build outside the floodplain in Norfolk, you need to earn resiliency credits. One way to do that is to extinguish development rights in the low and wet part of town.

Norfolk VA Sea-level Rise

U.S. Army photo by Patrick Bloodgood

A few places are beginning to experiment with new public policies that reflect the potential for transformation inherent (yet rarely realized) within the ongoing cataclysm that is climate change. Take a spin around Norfolk, Virginia, and you’ll notice a whole lot of coastal homes for sale, many priced well below market value. “People are discounting houses to move them. You might not even live in the flood zone, but if the perceived value of your home is based on surrounding properties, then you have to sell for $30,000 less as well. It’s like 2008 all over again,” says Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a small non-profit working in coastal Virginia.

In order to get ahead of this potentially disastrous situation, the city has started to explore a groundbreaking new public policy that would link upland development to managed retreat from those parcels at high risk of flooding. The idea is simple enough: if you want to build outside the floodplain in Norfolk, you need to earn resiliency credits. One way to do that is to “extinguish development rights in the low and wet part of town,” says Mary Carson, policy director at Wetlands Watch, who has been central to writing the new ordinance. In other words, if you want to develop a mixed-use commercial area in Alden Heights, you’ll also have to help those who are flooding today to relocate to higher ground.

This coming year, a pilot project will begin—in partnership with a local land trust—to explore what shape the policy may take in practice. Four different flood-prone parcels, in different parts of town and with different perceived values, will be run through the program to better calculate both the overall cost of removing these homes from the floodplain and also the financial benefits the parcels may provide in terms of increased flood resilience in adjacent areas. Through the NFIP’s Community Rating System, removal and prevention of further wetlands development can lower the cost of insuring against flood risk in the region, an argument that the planners involved in the Norfolk study will use to “monetize” the benefits of managing retreat.

Meanwhile, roughly a thousand miles southwest of Norfolk, the state of Louisiana recently rolled out a series of maps that identified not only future flood risk, but also areas that are a high priority for managed retreat moving forward. It doesn’t make managed retreat mandatory; rather, the maps are meant to serve as a starting point for a much broader conversation about what coastal Louisiana might look like in the future—which will ideally help residents identify what in their communities they would most like to preserve.

Similar to the situation in Norfolk, Louisiana’s LA SAFE plan is very much in its early stages. However, it is to date one of the only models in the United States showing how to engage with managed retreat as a long-term effort that must take place across many scales—from the local to the national level. And it wasn’t just conceived by a bunch of bureaucrats in Baton Rouge. Instead, much effort was made to engage front-line communities in conversations about which strategies might make the most sense moving forward into our flooded future.

During the decade that I have been writing about managed retreat, many of the predictions for how high the water might rise by century’s end have doubled. During that same time period, the occurrence of sunny-day flooding has also increased twice over. Just last year, researchers from Climate Central released a report suggesting that, thanks to poorly resolved global elevation data, we may be significantly underestimating the number of people projected to be living below mean high tide in 2100. Their revised estimates show that under a high emission scenario, as many as 630 million people (roughly one-twelfth of the global population) will be living on soggy land by century’s end.

Just last fall, a team of researchers from universities around the country published what is perhaps the first systematic study of FEMA’s longstanding managed retreat program (the largest in the United States), which since its inception in 1989 has purchased and demolished 43,633 properties.This might sound like a lot. And perhaps it would be, in a world where sea-level rise is not accelerating. But consider the 13.1 million United States residents predicted to live at regular flood risk by 2100. Were we to keep going at our current pace, it would take us 9,015 years to relocate those likely to be inundated at the turn of the next century.

In other words, we need to scale up the current conversation about managed retreat by six or seven orders of magnitude. To do that, we must learn to see hurricanes, high tides, flash floods, and torrential downpours as both destructive and generative. What if we make space to mourn what was lost while also engaging with the new set of opportunities that come with profound disruption?

Today roughly half of our GDP is generated in coastal communities. We can harness the power of property-tax and flood-insurance funds generated therein to help us transform the very lowest-lying land into something other than a future liability, or we can continue to deny the fact that in some places, such as Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, the future is already here. Pursue the latter scenario, and we will end up with something like a nation-long superfund site; pursue the former, and we might just end up with a National Seashore, a more egalitarian coastline than the one currently in place. Such a shared space would grant us many gifts, including the knowledge that our resiliency in the face of climate risks revolves around knowing what climate change took away as well as the relationships it helped us mend—namely with the land and with each other.

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Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work explores how humans adapt to changes enacted upon them by forces seemingly beyond their control, from ecological transformation to political revolution.

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