Managing Managed Retreat in New York

The New York League of Conservation Voters, our members, our partners in the environmental movement, and our allies in state government work hard every day to fight climate change and reach a zero-carbon future. But even if we eliminated all global greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow and built seawalls around all of our coastal cities, we will still be living with the effects of climate change for many generations. As we adjust to a new normal of more severe storms, more frequent droughts, and more flooding, we will have to be flexible about how – and where – we live our lives. One strategy we’ll need to adopt is called “managed retreat” – and unfortunately we’re not managing it very well right now.

Bloomberg published an informative article recently about the town of Sidney, NY, which is on the banks of the Susquehanna River and was devastated by flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee. It was the second time in five years that the town flooded. In the aftermath of the storm, the town decided to use federal and state disaster recovery funds to demolish the neighborhood closest to the river and relocate the residents to a new, planned development on higher ground. While the upfront costs of such a plan can be intimidating, in the long run, everyone is better off – residents, insurance companies, and the government don’t have to pay for disaster recovery every time the river floods, and the banks of the river are returned to nature and can better absorb flood waters. But in Sidney, seven years after Lee, very few people have been relocated.

Managed retreat is difficult for a number of reasons. It’s expensive and typically requires a complex mix of federal, state, local, and private funding, with approval processes that can take years. It’s emotional for people who are relocating because they have to say goodbye to a home that holds happy memories. It’s a feat of land-use planning on a scale that has not been seen since the middle of the twentieth century.

But these are problems that can be solved and need to be solved soon.

Globally, waterfront communities that are home to tens of millions of people will be underwater by the end of the century. Here in New York, the Rockaways, Staten Island, parts of Long Island, and many towns along the Hudson River, among others, are in danger. As we fight to reduce emissions and invest in grey and green infrastructure to protect us, we also need to plan for areas on the water in which we will no longer allow development and areas in which residents need to be bought out and relocated.

Fortunately, we know how to move forward. Since the 1990s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent billions of dollars buying tens of thousands of homes, especially along the Mississippi River. As a result, the Mississippi’s semi-regular floods are much less damaging than they used to be. After Hurricane Sandy, New York State bought out hundreds of homes on Staten Island and Long Island and demolished them, returning entire neighborhoods to nature in order to better protect all New Yorkers from future storms. Now, it’s time for New York to scale these programs up and identify which other areas we need to retreat from, before the next Sandy.