Proactively Planning for Community Relocation Before and After Climate Disasters

“Leaving your home and land is a deeply emotional process and must be approached in a thoughtful way,” said Tracie Sempier, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and the coastal resilience engagement specialist for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. “The report includes opportunities for federal, state, and local entities to collaborate on a system that will support households and communities during this complex process.” 

Relocation is currently managed using a “disaster-recovery model,” meaning that most funding and technical assistance comes episodically in response to a specific disaster or as annual nationally competitive programs, rather than being available year-round and allocated based on risk and need.  

“Disaster recovery is typically reactionary and fails to provide the systemic support needed,” said Janice Barnes, the founder and managing partner of Climate Adaptation Partners and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our recommendations offer guidance for a path for federal, state, and local agencies to improve on, and expand, existing systems to better serve those most likely to be affected by disaster.”  

Strengthening Preparations for Community-Driven Relocation
It is essential that agencies recognize the scale of climate threats and the importance of developing a regionally relevant threat assessment by convening the appropriate agencies and community members. The report recommends that prior to a disaster FEMA pre-approve properties for acquisition and deem relocation as “cost-effective” in identified communities. FEMA should also revise its benefit-cost analysis process, including developing a rubric that accounts for a community’s qualitative values, characteristics, and root causes of vulnerability. 

Federal agencies currently involved in relocation (e.g., FEMA, USACE, and HUD) should increase payments to property owners so they can afford a comparable home in a safe location; provide relocation assistance to renters and those living in mobile or manufactured homes; and use management costs to support buyout offers to property owners above typical pre-disaster fair market values. Federal agencies should fund application and implementation assistance through the establishment and training of people as hazard mitigation “navigators.” These navigators would assist communities in applying for and implementing a relocation strategy and provide household- and neighborhood-level planning assistance throughout the relocation process. 

Mitigating Stress and Centering Well-being During Relocation
Relocation can lead to high levels of chronic stress and physical health effects for communities that must relocate, as well as for those receiving a large influx of new community members. The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Climate Change and Health Equity and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use should support and coordinate efforts across HHS and other agencies to use evidence-supported mental health care, prevention, and promotion methods that community members and community-based organizations can adopt and directly provide. To provide holistic mental health support for communities, HHS should facilitate federal-level collaboration and regional-level coordination of public health and mental health services. The agency should also establish metrics, indicators, and baselines to assess the well-being of individuals in the context of relocation. This data should be combined with existing data and evaluated regularly to improve programs.  

Developing and Sustaining Local Collaborations
Planning for community-driven relocation should incorporate local perspectives about the histories, impacts, and perceptions of displacements and forced relocations. The report says that federal and state agencies should institute systematic, Gulf-wide investigations into past adaptations and the policies that influence attitudes and behaviors toward relocation. FEMA and regional counterparts should create plans (e.g., the Justice40 Initiative) to address inequities that have reduced the resilience of communities most likely to face relocation. Agencies should foster meaningful partnerships with and among communities that are relocating and with the communities that will receive them, including assisting receiving communities with proactive planning to increase investments to prepare infrastructure for new residents. Federal, state, and local entities should work together share data about receiving communities and assess the impacts of regional population shifts.