Claire Harbage / NPR
A comprehensive analysis of federal records showed that homeowners who wish to move out of the flood plains in the US do not have equal access to the main source of federal funding to help them.
The study looked at more than 40,000 people and kept records of flood-prone housing purchased by local communities since the late 1980s with the help of the Federal Agency for Civil Protection. Such voluntary purchases of flood-prone property are an important political tool to get people out of the way, especially as climate change is leading to sea-level rise and extreme rainfall in many parts of the US. However, homeowners can only buy up if their local government has launched the program through the FEMA
. This study found that not all flood-prone communities are able to do this.
"We've found that the districts that manage buyouts have a higher average income and population density on average," says Carolien Kraan, a graduate student at the University of Miami and one of the authors of the study.
Previous studies have identified similar patterns of wealth, and an NPR survey earlier this year found that government-funded homebuyers made disproportionate purchases to whiter communities. (Search the FEMA buy-out database here.)
One reason wealthier districts may receive more buyouts is that they require considerable bureaucratic and financial resources to apply for and distribute buyout funds. FEMA usually pays 75% of the cost of a home, so local and state governments need to find the money they need elsewhere.
"Homeowners who want to move out can not turn to FEMA directly, relying on their local government to file their petitions in their name," said AR Siders of the University of Delaware, one of the authors of the study is. "If your local government does not have these resources, you will have people trapped in those vulnerable places."
"Without public support, it is clear that many people are not getting enough resources out of the way", says Liz Koslov, who investigates how communities are opting for a move to the University of California at Los Angeles, and the study prior to its publication on Tuesday in the journal Science Advances.  Siders notes that wealthier, denser parts of the country receive much attention for their response to floods, but smaller, poorer areas are also trying to deal with the flood risk.
"We talk a lot about takeovers that have taken place in New York or Houston or Charlotte. But what about all the little towns along the New York state coast or along the Texas or Mississippi or Louisiana coast? "Siders says." What about places that do not have dedicated planners who do not have the resources to bring the 25% into line with FEMA? Their homeowners may need as much or more help to avert the risk. "
The Study The authors point out that wealthier and denser areas are more likely to have options beyond the relocation.
A place like South Florida thinks there are enormous amounts of wealth, "explains Miyuki Hino, a researcher at Stanford, who is also one of the authors of the study." This also provides a tax base on which they spend a lot of money on pumping, beach food and other things than buying up. "
The survey also found that the number of purchases in coastal communities is increasing: In the 1990s, most of the government-purchased homes were in the Midwest, in flood-prone areas along major rivers. Today, sea-level rise in coastal communities is causing more and more floods.
Junia Howell, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who deals with relocation, justice and disasters, says the study's findings raise some important questions that need to be answered as soon as they are possible, considering how climate change is Flood risk increased.
Where do these people live then? "Howell says." What does it mean for rural, less densely populated areas that do not receive [flood] mitigation or flood control measures? How does this affect the long-term life and economic opportunities? "
In short:" Who benefits from these acquisitions, how do they benefit? "
These are questions no one has yet been able to answer in general, and the authors of the study say they are doing more research on these issues, but they also call for the wider community of sociologists, city planners, climate researchers, and local officials to adopt the strategies "Helping and Encouraging Humans to Protect Against Flooding, Investigate Aggressively-Dangerous Areas."
"We need to know more," says Sierre. "There's a lot of talk about scaling [buyouts] … and that is encouraging because people are thinking about a managed retreat and are taking floods and storms as well as the protection of future communities very seriously. "
" It's also a little worrying because we do not know what worked and what was not bought up in the past became. "