The federal government isn't prepared to relocate America's climate change victims

This article was produced in partnership with Columbia Journalism Investigations, the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations.

SMITHFIELD, Va. — When flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 destroyed Betty Ricks’s home, she rebuilt it. Several years later, she posed proudly for a Christmas photograph beside her daughter and granddaughter in her new living room.

Then another flood — brought by Tropical Storm Ernesto in 2006 — claimed her house a second time, leaving soggy furniture and appliances jumbled sideways.

“Everything gone again,” Ricks said. The only thing she salvaged was the photograph, now water-streaked.

After that storm, she rebuilt her home from scratch once more. Yet more flooding followed.

Now she and some of her neighbors on Great Spring Road, who live adjacent to a creek that overflows during bad storms, see no way out of this dangerous loop but to move. With an increasing number of communities at high risk from worse and more frequent disasters fueled by the changing climate, experts warn that many Americans will find themselves in a similar situation.

Betty Ricks sits on a couch holding an open envelope in front of a stone fireplace, around which are framed photos of people.
Betty Ricks in her home in Smithfield, Va. The family photograph in the background is all she could save after a devastating tropical storm. (Julia Shipley/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

But the only way to leave without putting new buyers in the same position — or abandoning their homes altogether — is to seek relocation funds from the federal government.

Twice now, Ricks and her neighbors have asked for that help. Both times, their applications were denied.

Columbia Journalism Investigations in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations spent a year digging into the growing need for climate relocation across the United States. Little organized government assistance exists for preventing the loss of homes and lives before a disaster, the investigation revealed — and there is no comprehensive focus on helping people escape untenable situations like Ricks’s.

That leaves people in harm’s way to fend for themselves. Many can’t.

Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners analyzed federal disaster declaration data over the past three decades to identify communities repeatedly hit by major hurricanes, floods or wildfires, events that climate change is worsening.

The analysis revealed dozens of communities across the country in recent years — and hundreds over the last generation — bearing the brunt of successive disasters, from California to North Carolina, Washington state to Texas. Many are located near the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf coasts, but the impacts are also felt far from the shoreline, in Missouri, North Dakota, Kentucky and elsewhere. No region of the country has been spared.

Cassandra Wilson stands on a dirt path and points to stone caskets and lids strewn about beneath trees.
Cassandra Wilson of Ironton, La., gestures at her community's cemetery, flooded by Hurricane Ida in 2021. The storm surge pushed caskets out of the crypts. (Olga Loginova/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

What unites these pummeled communities is that they are often more socially and economically vulnerable than other places, the analysis revealed.

People of color make up more than half the residents in counties that experienced at least three climate disasters in the past five years. These counties also have a higher proportion of residents who speak limited English and people in poverty than the rest of the country.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster preparedness spending — which includes money to help people relocate — already falls short of the need, experts say. And it’s not flowing out equitably, according to the analysis by Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners.

Among hard-hit counties, places with a higher share of residents of color than the national average received about 40% less funding per person. A similar trend held over the last three decades.

Taken together, the findings highlight how, in the face of climate-driven disasters, communities across the country in the greatest need of government assistance receive less of it — if they get anything at all.

These challenges affect a large and growing number of people. In 2018, the government’s most recent National Climate Assessment warned that more than 13 million people across the country may need to move by the end of the century due to sea level rise. Add the effects of hurricanes, flooding rivers and wildfires, and millions more will need to seek out safer parts of the country — or remain trapped in damaged, dangerous conditions.

Take Smithfield.

Sea levels in this Hampton Roads region in Virginia, by the Chesapeake Bay, are rising faster than anywhere else along the Eastern Seaboard. Additionally, the land along the Virginia coast is slowly sinking, causing high tides to push water farther and farther inland. Along Ricks’s Great Spring Road, amid the region’s coastal floodplain, sudden heavy rains can cause water to rise up to 7 feet in just an hour, turning the streets into rivers.

Ricks has been rescued by boat from her home twice.

One-story house with cinder block foundation and American flag over door and what appear to be two statues of Canadian geese in front lawn.
Ricks’s home in Smithfield, Va. (Julia Shipley/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

In 2010, she and her neighbors applied for a federal buyout through Isle of Wight County, where Smithfield is located. For decades, FEMA has facilitated the purchase of flood-prone homes. Following the buyouts, the government demolishes the structures, returning the land to open space to stop the cycle of damage and loss.

On Ricks’s application, a hazard mitigation consultant attested that the grant “would eliminate the possibility that another homeowner will suffer the same misfortune as Mrs. Ricks.”

The state agency denied Ricks’s application for unknown reasons; according to one official, no documentation that could explain the decision could be located.

In 2020, Smithfield officials tried again, applying for $920,240 in funding from FEMA to acquire and demolish Ricks’s home and four neighboring properties. The project would be “100% effective in preventing loss of property and life due to future flooding,” the town’s funding paperwork stated.

FEMA denied the request.

The money would have come from FEMA’s newly launched Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, which allocated $500 million for disaster and climate change preparedness projects across the country. But Victoria Salinas, FEMA’s acting deputy administrator for resilience, said there wasn’t enough funding to help Smithfield in 2020. Across the country, requests for assistance exceeded $3 billion.

An aerial view of a flooded neighborhood.
A Coast Guard helicopter conducts a flyover of the Charleston, S.C., area that was affected by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Alexandria Preston/USCG)

“We were oversubscribed,” Salinas said. “There are so many good projects that need to be funded, and communities want to invest in their resilience. They want to be making sure they’re safe today and tomorrow. There’s just not enough money on the streets to [fund them all].”

Ricks sees no way out without that help. She leaves the TV on in her bedroom, checking news broadcasts for warnings about incoming storms. She keeps important papers wrapped in plastic bags in a trunk at the foot of her bed, hoping that will be enough to save them when her home floods again.

Faced with intensifying hazards and a federal government failing to act, she asks a question with no clear answers:

“What am I going to do?”

No 1-stop shop for climate relocation

On a hotter planet, rising sea levels, largely driven by melting polar ice, and harsher hurricanes are threatening coastal areas. In the West, wildfires are more frequent and devastating. Every region of the U.S. is likely to experience more intense rainfall, according to the National Climate Assessment.

The federal government knows that climate change will displace millions, but it has been slow to respond to the growing threat. No single agency or program is responsible for helping Americans move to safer parts of the country.

“There’s not a one-stop-shop program for this,” Salinas said. “I think right now, what we do offer is pieces of it.”

Aerial view of coastal land with larges swathes of water throughout with mountains in the background.
The tundra near Kivalina, Alaska, in 2019. Permafrost, which is found to some extent beneath nearly 85% of Alaska, has been melting due to the Earth's rising temperatures. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Vulnerable Americans must navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth, seeking funding from grant programs spread across multiple agencies. Taken together, Salinas said, the existing “patchwork quilt” of programs can help communities relocate. But tapping into them is difficult at best for small, under-resourced communities on the frontlines of climate change. Often they don’t have the resources to apply at all.

“What’s really frustrating is that every different program has different eligibility requirements and determinations,” said Kelly Main, the executive director of Buy-In Community Planning, a nonprofit that helps communities apply for buyouts. “Just being able to go through all of the different eligibility determinations for each of those programs, if you’re a one-person staff in a small town somewhere on the Gulf Coast, is extremely challenging.”

Smithfield is not alone in its struggles.

In Washington state, where rising seas cause repeated flooding, at least four tribal nations are seeking federal help to support relocation efforts and still need millions of dollars in order to move.

In Colquitt, a small community in Georgia, Hurricane Michael leveled a mobile home park in 2018. Records show that officials applied to FEMA for buyouts twice and received no assistance.

In Horry County, S.C., a working-class community just up the coast from Myrtle Beach, residents applied for a HUD-funded buyout program, but the process has dragged on for years, leaving homeowners stranded.

Because government assistance programs are so difficult to access, communities often find themselves dealing with the aftermath of disasters on their own. In De Soto, Mo., residents said they sit in their cars when it rains, ready to evacuate quickly if the Joachim Creek floods. The Army Corps of Engineers recommended buyouts for about 70 flood-prone properties in 2019. Since then, the city has applied for FEMA buyouts twice, but state and federal officials approved funding for just one property. The homeowner chose to remain in their home, according to De Soto’s city manager. No one in De Soto has been moved out of the flood zone.

A dozen and a half vehicles appear parked near one another, all partially submerged in brown water.
Vehicles under water in Philadelphia on Sept. 2, 2021, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. (Matt Rourke/AP)

With no aid on the horizon, some residents have sold their flood-prone houses at a loss. “Right now they’re selling on this block, but they’re selling for 25 cents on the dollar,” said Ken Slinger, a De Soto resident who lives across the street from the Joachim Creek.

A federal buyout would allow him and his wife, Cindy, to move to a safer area, he said. Without one, they can’t afford a comparable home nearby.

For the government, the cost of doing nothing can escalate quickly.

In flood-prone areas, for example, the government might need to provide repeated rounds of aid to help residents recover and rebuild, said Jeffrey Peterson, a former Environmental Protection Agency official and member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration. The “smarter investment,” he said, is for the government to buy out residents — avoiding the need for additional help.

“We could end up spending $500,000 on your house,” Peterson said. “So let’s buy it now for $250,000” and prevent escalating costs.

Mitigation efforts like seawalls may delay encroaching waters, but they also require large upfront investments. And even then they are only an interim solution, Peterson and other experts warn.

“Protection for most of our coastline doesn’t make any sense,” said Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “For a lot of the U.S. coastline, relocation is probably cost-effective.”

Unmanaged retreat

Politicians’ unwillingness to fully acknowledge the problem is a key obstacle to funding relocation efforts, according to interviews with a dozen former federal officials.

“People’s climate risk is not something that politicians, that elected officials, that even appointed officials, or people running different agencies of governments in towns and cities across the country, are eager to know and make public — largely because they believe that they do not have the money to address the climate risks that might be revealed,” said Harriet Tregoning, a former senior HUD official who is now director of the New Urban Mobility Alliance, a coalition focused on urban transportation. “And highlighting climate risk without a plan for addressing those risks, they see as a recipe for undermining everyone’s confidence in the future of that community.”

Debris including drywall, insulation, cabinet doors, wood paneling and a basketball hoop is piled high in front of three houses.
Debris piles up on a curb as residents gut their flooded homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, La., Sept. 7, 2021. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

The most recent effort to develop a plan for climate relocation came in 2016, when President Barack Obama established an interagency working group to craft a framework for “managed retreat,” a term that describes voluntary, community-led relocation projects. The Trump administration abandoned the project after just two months, and the Biden administration has not relaunched it.

Asked for comment, the White House did not address this directly. Its Council on Environmental Quality provided a list of efforts to defend people from climate-fueled disasters, only a few of which were about relocation, and offered a statement from Chair Brenda Mallory.

“The truth is: we need a wide range of strategies and solutions — across the entire Federal government — to help communities protect themselves from disaster, respond when disaster strikes, and, in some cases, move out of harm’s way,” she wrote. “Through a series of hazard-focused interagency working groups, we are working to get critical investments to the communities that are most vulnerable, support community-led efforts to protect against climate-fueled disasters, improve climate and risk information for communities, improve building standards and codes across the country, and share best practices and policies.”

Without any federal relocation policy in place, scientists say Americans are already in “unmanaged retreat” — families and individuals are taking matters into their own hands and, without government help, fleeing areas vulnerable to climate-driven disasters.

In Paradise, Calif., the 2018 Camp Fire, one of the worst wildfires in California history, burned down more than 13,000 structures — 95% of the town. At least 85 people died. Sarah Bates, a longtime resident, lost her home and everything in it: photo albums, all her furniture, the record collection she’d compiled during her 40-year stint as a radio DJ, the electric wheelchair she needed to get around.

Person in white hazmat-type coveralls and white helmet stands looking down near the burned wreckage of where a home apparently once stood.
U.S. Army Sgt. Rodrigo Estrada leads a team conducting search and debris-clearing operations in Paradise, Calif., after the Camp Fire in 2018. (Senior Airman Crystal Housman/U.S. Air National Guard)

In the wake of wildfires, government assistance is almost entirely directed toward rebuilding, not relocating.

“There’s no precedent for wildfire buyouts,” said Robert Barker, a spokesperson for FEMA Region 9, which includes California.

Bates decided she could no longer stay in Paradise, however. She initially moved to North Carolina before eventually settling in central Virginia, funding the move on her own. Once she got to the East Coast, she struggled to find affordable housing.

“There’s still people not in housing even now,” Bates said. “And it’s inexplicable to me that the government has not worked out what to do about helping them get rehomed after three years.”

More than 14,000 people moved out of Paradise after the Camp Fire, according to Peter Hansen and Jacquelyn Chase, researchers at Chico State University who analyzed change-of-address data to map the migration across the country. More than 4,000 left Butte County and more than 2,600 left California entirely, moving to Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee and other states, the analysis showed.

“The absence of managed retreat is going to be unmanaged retreat,” said Anna Weber, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s not going to be no retreat at all.”

Aerial view of the flattened remains of a mobile home park, which includes roads that encircle dirt patches with the foundations of former homes visible.
Aerial view of a mobile home park that was destroyed during the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, Valerie Butler, a member of the Smithfield Town Council and one of Betty Ricks’s neighbors, sent an email to the town manager and her fellow council members. In it, she urged her colleagues not to give up on efforts to obtain federal aid for relocation.

“I know the bureaucratic process can be daunting,” Butler wrote. But Smithfield was facing another hurricane season, and residents were frightened. “Can you imagine,” she wrote, “being in your home, a place of protection and safety, when it rains each time and your kids ask you, ‘is the boat going to have to come [and] get us.’

“This is heartbreaking. Resolving this situation should be a priority.”

CJI research assistants Gabriela Alcalde and Samantha McCabe contributed to this story. Carolynne Hultquist, a disaster researcher at Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, contributed to the data analysis.

Julia Shipley, Alex Lubben, Zak Cassel and Olga Loginova are reporting fellows for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. The Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations, two nonprofit investigative newsrooms, provided reporting, editing, fact-checking and other support. Additional funding for this story was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.