Managed Retreats: Could They Save Coastal Cities from Environmental and Financial Ruin?

Why you might NOT want that beachfront property after all

flooded pier managed retreats

For many of us, a beachfront home with a view of the sea has often seemed a far-off dream or perhaps a luxury occasionally enjoyed on vacation. Yet now with the growing effects of climate change and rising water levels, those properties are starting to feel like an albatross around the necks of their owners.

Homeowners living in coastal communities are increasingly facing the troubling combination of rising home insurance premiums and lowered home value. In some cases, a property that looked like a solid investment 10 years ago has seen multiple storms and floods that caused serious damage in the past few years. And all signs point to the future only bringing more extreme weather events.

As of 2010, 39% of the people in the United States lived in counties along the shoreline. A recent FEMA report found that many of those people can expect their risk of dealing with a flood to increase 45% due to climate change.

That’s over 100 million people in the United States alone who are forced to weigh the decision of whether staying in their homes is worth the risk of extreme weather damage and increasingly unaffordable home insurance premiums. This is a massive and alarming concern, but still one that we as a country are trying to sort out.

FEMA: 2 in 5 Americans live in coastal counties and face increasing flood risk due to climate change.

Introducing “Managed Retreats”

One of the suggested solutions for the problem is to implement managed retreats.

managed retreats aerial view coastline

What are managed retreats?

A managed retreat is when the government works directly with the people in threatened coastal communities to move those residents further inland, usually by offering homeowners a buyout to encourage the move.

It’s as difficult and controversial to pull off as it sounds, but it’s a solution that communities around the world have already started to make use of.

The Benefits of Managed Retreats

  1. Safety: The danger and physical damage that comes with living somewhere increasingly hit by hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods is its own huge problem. Managed retreats serve to create a more controlled space where damaging storms might hit and which can serve as a buffer to future floods.
  2. Environmental: One of the most important benefits managed retreats offer is that they can help restore coastal ecosystems to their natural states. When the structures people leave behind are converted into open space, it gives the ecosystem in the area a chance to bounce back from the strains human activity have caused.  
  3. Financial: A growing number of people living in coastal environments feel they’re drowning in unsustainable insurance payments that just keep rising every year. To make matters worse, as the cost of insuring a home increases, selling it becomes harder. Managed retreats can provide solutions to these property and financial concerns by setting homeowners up with a financial alternative.
  4. Emotional: It’s critical not to underestimate the emotional toll a natural disaster can have on a person or community, from fearing for their lives to the loss of a home and personal possessions to toiling with the long-lasting stress and heartbreak of figuring out to deal with a home wracked with damage. Avoiding these hardships with a managed retreat is one preventative plan.

With managed retreats, the homeowners grappling with these issues get an affordable out. They can start over in homes that don’t hold all that risk.

managed retreats flood damage living room
Flood damage caused by Hurricane Katrina

The Challenges of Managed Retreats

As attractive as the benefits of managed retreats may be, winning people over to the idea and putting the concept into practice are both difficult uphill battles.

  1. Emotional and psychological ties: To start, people love coastal views. It’s hard to imagine what it will take for people to give up on the promise of taking vacations at oceanside resorts or pining after homes that have a view of the ocean. Of even bigger concern is the psychological hurdle the coastal homeowners themselves face. When you buy a house, you immediately imbue it with special emotional significance. The structure itself matters less than the feeling of safety, comfort, and ownership you attach to it. Expecting people to leave behind the homes they cherish and the communities they’re a part of is a big ask, and many of the people in at-risk communities aren’t prepared to give all that up.
  1. Alternatives to moving: Many communities prefer to try methods for increased protection, like higher seawalls or reinforced levies. But these are expensive to build and maintain, and some climate experts insist that they’re only a temporary solution.
  2. Legislation: At this time, perhaps the main impediment to managed retreats happening on any kind of significant scale is the lack of a bureaucratic framework to make it happen. There’s no governmental organization in the U.S. assigned the task of identifying communities that can benefit from managed retreats and none committed to managing the process.

Right now, the country deals with disasters responsively rather than proactively. Funding only becomes available after extreme weather events occur. Without a shift to a more proactive approach to climate disasters at the governmental level, this option will remain out of reach for coastal communities.

Right now, the U.S. deals with disasters responsively rather than proactively.

For the people in these communities that face the extreme storms of climate change and insurance premiums that feel out of control, there are no easy solutions. One step you can take now is to research, talk about, and advocate for available solutions like managed retreats, if it sounds right for your community.