These Communities Are Trapped in Harm’s Way as Climate Disasters Mount

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Source: Mother Jones

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’ home, she rebuilt. 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 less than 30 miles inland from where the Chesapeake Bay opens into the Atlantic Ocean, 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.

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 application was 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’.

For decades the federal government has known that climate change will force people in the US to relocate. And the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended in 2020 that the government form a “climate migration pilot program” to help people who want to relocate due to climate change—a recommendation it reiterated in March.

But in the absence of such a program, communities across the country must try to cobble together funding from across federal agencies through programs that weren’t designed for the climate crisis.

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.

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.

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