Friday, September 06, 2019

Researcher says relocating towns away from disaster-prone areas may be better than rebuilding after storms

How do you rebuild after a weather-related disaster? Maybe you shouldn't: "A paper published Thursday in the journal Science makes a case that, sometimes, retreating from nature instead of fighting it can actually open up new opportunities for communities," Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for The New York Times.

Though the rhetoric tends to focus on building back better, "You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick," said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper.

"Siders pointed to Soldiers Grove, Wis., a town of about 500 that, after one too many floods, moved itself out of the flood plain," Pierre-Louis reports. "The community took that challenge and turned it into opportunity, reorienting the business district such that it could take advantage of highway traffic and powering it entirely with solar energy — and they did this in the 1970s."

Staying in place after a disaster can not only make residents a target for later disasters, but it's costly for the government to provide aid and for insurance companies to pay out, as illustrated by Dauphin Island, Alabama, which Gilbert Gaul of YaleEnvironment360 called "the unluckiest island in America." The island has been hit by more than a dozen big storms in recent decades, but residents of the beach resort keep rebuilding.

Some communities do shrink after disasters. The population of New Orleans is only 85% of its pre-Katrina population, for example. But the retreats are haphazard, and most of the people who leave have money and options, meaning it's generally the poorest who stay. "The new paper lays out ways communities could practice managed retreats that would address their broader needs," Pierre-Louis reports. "Lack of access to reliable climate-hazard maps, for example, makes it difficult to make informed choices about risk. Such maps must be improved and updated regularly, the paper said."

For those who choose to—or must—stay, post-disaster recovery is often hampered by bureaucracy, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. Though Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle in October 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't begin delivering temporary housing units to the area until late January, and people were still living in tents this spring.

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