Federal flooding buyouts more available in wealthier areas


Flooded Home
Photo by Chris Sirrine, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 15th, 2019

A federal program that buys and demolishes homes in flood-prone areas has been disproportionately implemented in counties with higher incomes and higher populations, a recent study found. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought more than 43,000 homes since 1989 in an effort to make communities less vulnerable to flooding. Though this study raises concerns that the program isn’t helping the areas most at risk. 

The number of Americans with flood insurance has been declining in recent years, while flood-prone areas in coastal states have the highest rates of construction, as the frequency of flooding events increases. The buyout program allows homeowners to relocate further inland, rather than continuously rebuilding after a storm, in a process known as managed retreat. 

Homeowners can’t apply for the buyouts themselves, and FEMA doesn’t determine who can participate. That decision is left to local officials. One explanation for the wealth disparity offered by the study’s authors was that wealthier and more populous jurisdictions may be more likely to have the staff and expertise required to successfully apply for federal funds. Within the counties that receive more funding, poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be demolished.

Another paper, published last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council, also highlighted inefficiencies in the FEMA buyout program. The NRDC found that wait times averaging five years for FEMA to complete a project contribute to inequity in the program, as many give up waiting and rebuild instead. 

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