The Government’s Failure to Move Vulnerable People Out of Harm’s Way in the Era of Massive Flooding

The Government’s Failure to Move Vulnerable People Out of Harm’s Way in the Era of Massive Flooding

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This article was produced in partnership with Columbia Journalism Investigations, the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations.
NEW BERN, NC—Janice Crews knew time was not on her side after Hurricane Florence’s record-breaking storm devastated her flood-prone neighborhood on September 14, 2018.
The retired postal worker acted quickly. She recruited an activist friend, organized neighbors, met with city officials and signed a petition for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy out their homes in the North Hills Drive community. They wanted to move out of the floodplain to higher ground.
Weeks and then months passed. Crews became more and more anxious. FEMA and the local agencies it coordinated with did not seem to have the same sense of urgency she had: She was a widow in her mid-70s and the only caregiver of a disabled daughter.
“I was devastated. I had a nervous breakdown,” Crews said. “I couldn’t go through another flood.”
She considered her options, all bad, and decided she could no longer wait for the federal government. She sold her home of 18 years, ruined by water and mold, at a substantial loss.
FEMA eventually agreed that New Bern needed buyouts. But it took almost three years after Florence had flooded the city before the agency’s approval led to an actual purchase. By then, many homeowners who initially asked for help had either moved on their own or decided in frustration that some other anti-flooding measure would have to suffice.

Hurricane Florence pushed the Lumber River to an unprecedented 29 feet, damaging homes that still needed repair from damage done during Hurricane Matthew two years earlier.
Gerry Broome/AP
This is why the country’s largest effort to relocate people from flood zones isn’t working amid climate change. It’s not only denials that lock people out. Often, whatever assistance the government does offer comes too little, too late and doesn’t address the underlying problem: Entire neighborhoods and communities need help moving.
For decades, FEMA has funded voluntary buyouts under its “hazard mitigation” programs that support disaster preparedness initiatives. It’s moved people out of 50,000 properties, with states and municipalities doing key legwork and often sharing the cost. They then demolish the structures and return the land to open space in order to stop the cycle of damage and loss.
But the federal agency did not design its flood programs with mounting climate disasters in mind. FEMA buyout applications are complicated and the wait times are long—five years or more for the average homeowner, research shows. As millions of Americans discover in the coming decades that they must relocate because of rising sea levels, flooding rivers and intense storms, the mismatch between the buyout process and the need is going to get worse.
One potent example of that future: In Lumberton, North Carolina, residents eligible for a FEMA buyout after a 2016 hurricane found themselves slammed by another in 2018 before anyone could be moved out.
In a year of reporting on climate relocation, Columbia Journalism Investigations in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations found that the government’s failure to meet the needs of communities facing climate challenges comes at a steep social and economic cost. It worsens inequities because those who can’t afford to wait for help, mostly low-income residents and people of color, are more likely to live in flood zones, research shows.
Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners obtained data on FEMA-funded buyouts from 1989 through 2017. Nationwide, the vast majority of counties had fewer than 50 properties bought out over that time, and most had none.
But among counties hard hit by hurricanes or floods, places with a higher percentage of white residents than the national average received three times as many buyouts per capita.
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