The February warning from the global watchdog on climate change was stark: No longer theoretical, the planet-altering effects of climate change are here. Worse, we are nowhere close to investing enough to “adapt” to sea level rise, increasingly brutal storms, year-round wildfire threats and much more, wrote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2022 report.
Few people in the United States feel that conclusion more than Camille Manning-Broome, who heads a Louisiana nonprofit helping the state’s communities navigate the current and expected fall-out from climate change. “We’re all paying for the disasters already,” said Manning- Broome, president of the Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge. “What we’re not paying near enough for is prevention.”
Louisiana faces a quadruple whammy of climate impacts: rising sea and sinking coastal land, extreme heat events, along with increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes and thunderstorms, all leading to more frequent river flooding. “Forty percent of the contiguous United States drains through Louisiana,” she noted, so even when not hit by a tropical storm, heavier rains upstream can eventually inundate much of the state. In 2016, every parish in Louisiana was declared a disaster area, most from river flooding.
Our financial systems, our policy decisions, and our governance are not in a place where we are making smart investments in climate adaptation.
In recent years, Manning-Broome said, federal disaster relief has accounted for as much as 40 percent of the state’s budget. While the aid is welcome, she said, surprisingly few of those dollars were going to flood management systems, raising roads above flood stage, burying power lines and hardening the power grid, relocating people from harm’s way or myriad other disaster-prevention strategies. “Financially, at this point I would hope to see more responsibility and good stewardship of resources from not only the feds but also the insurance companies and banks, to have a more preventive focus,” Manning-Broome said. “Our financial systems, our policy decisions, our governance are not in a place where we are making smart investments in climate adaptation.”
“Even now, the biggest home sales and high growth are in high-risk coastal areas and wildfire-threatened areas, and the banks are still investing in development in those areas,” she added. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are awakening to the contradictions, old habits persist, she said. “When there is a disaster, on the flip side, we are putting money back into rebuilding in those areas through FEMA and HUD policies. In Louisiana, the majority of HUD-backed mortgages are for high-risk homes.”
Louisiana is the canary in the coal mine, a portent of what is coming rather than an outlier, said Joyce Coffee, president of Climate Resilience Consulting. “There is no escaping climate change. Every state in the nation is facing current risks and will grapple with increasing effects.” Communities in those states should be investing now to prepare for climate risks, including storms and flooding, coastal inundation, extreme heat, wildfires, tree and crop loss, an influx of climate refugees, even an increase in vector borne diseases.
“Cities are responsible for 70 percent of global emissions and most vulnerable to the impacts,” said Bella Tonkonogy, U.S. director for the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), whose mission is “to help governments, businesses, and financial institutions drive economic growth while addressing climate change.”
CPI regularly performs a global study of climate finance needs for water and energy systems, buildings, industry, transportation, and other mitigation and adaptation measures, and then tallies where the money is actually going. CPI estimates that, worldwide, the public and private sectors need to increase their investment by at least 590 percent, to $4.35 trillion a year by 2030. And while investment in mitigation — moving from coal to renewables, from oil to electricity for transportation, etc. — is critical, the shocks we are already experiencing trumpet the need to shift the balance toward adaption in a hurry, Tonkonogy said. “Our study found that just 7 percent of climate finance is going to adaptation.”
A federal infusion brings opportunity and peril
If U.S. communities play their cards right, the recently authorized, massive infusions of federal pandemic relief and infrastructure investment represent the biggest down payment yet in aid to localities steeling themselves for climate impacts. While November’s bipartisan, $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act specifically allocates $50 billion to projects designed to make communities more climate resilient, the truth is that states will have wide latitude as to how they screen projects for funding, Coffee said.
“The bottom line is that today local governments should be planning as if there is so much money, they don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “If a coastal community knows that coming sea level rise will require a new or stronger sea wall, or if flood-prone cities know they need a much more robust stormwater management system, or they need better transit networks to reduce emissions and keep people moving, now is the time to move on those plans. The peril, however, is that the money will be spent for projects conceived before the threats were understood, and that those old-school projects could exacerbate future disasters. If that money goes to ‘shovel-ready’ projects from a previous era we will miss a huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It would be nothing less than tragic.”
As the two agencies most intimately involved in disaster relief and recovery, FEMA and HUD have in recent years begun to develop programs aimed at “precovery” — measures to prevent the displacement, destruction and disruption associated with extreme weather, fires, and the like. FEMA has created a competitive grant program known as BRIC — Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities — that funds adaptation measures absent a disaster declaration. HUD, too, provides funding on a competitive basis through its Community Development Block Grants to states, with an emphasis on aid to low-income and communities of color. To qualify, projects must emerge from an action plan that describes how proposals would address “disaster-related impacts to infrastructure, housing, economic revitalization and mitigation in the [most impacted and distressed] areas.”
The catch: Federal grants require a plan and a local match
The catch with these and other grants is that local governments need to have spent the money and time to assess their risks and come up with a detailed plan to head them off, and they need a local match of as much as 50 percent of total costs of a given project. That’s money that many local governments can find hard to come by.
Massachusetts has sought to help its localities overcome these barriers with its Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program. The MVP first provides money for locals to conduct assessments of their threats and then run an inclusive process with citizens to develop action plans. With those done, participating communities can apply for MVP Action Grants to implement projects. Taking a cue from their neighbor, Rhode Island created a similar program, dubbed Resilient Rhody.
Florida, too, has a Resilient Coastlines Program that provides threat assessment and planning dollars to local communities on a competitive basis, said James Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County. More recently, the state has acted to establish a more consistent stream of tax revenue for adaptation projects. “Florida is one of a half-dozen states without an income tax,” Murley said. “In lieu of that, we have a high real estate transfer tax executed by the state on the sale of any property. It has been authorized for land purchase, affordable housing and most recently to address sea level rise and flooding.” Interestingly, he added, “This is out of a very Republican leadership team. They have found religion on adaptation, even if they aren’t eager to talk about reducing emissions.”
Florida municipalities looking for a funding source for their local matches or to complete projects on their own dime also can create stormwater utilities under state legislation. Separate from water and sewer agencies, stormwater utilities charge fees for managing the results of ever-more-frequent deluges and can use those dollars to pay off voter-approved bonds for infrastructure investments. “Cities like Miami Beach are using these funds to raise roads and upgrade their pumping systems,” Murley said.
Even a heavy rain can trigger massive flooding, and they are coming more often.
Gaining voter approval for bonds, though, can be a trick, he added. “The challenge with educating the public to be prepared to pony up is that absent a crisis, it’s hard to get people to worry about something that could happen. Most people are trying to make a living and get through COVID,” Murley said. “But these days even a heavy rain can trigger massive flooding, and they are coming more often, so people are starting to see the evidence. Still, you have to have a whole campaign and persuasive messengers.”
That approach worked for the city of Miami in 2017 when voters authorized the $400-million Miami Forever Bond. As one of the U.S. cities most threatened by sea level rise, Miami in the previous decade had seen a 400-percent jump in frequency of floods. Bond proceeds are going toward building “a stronger, more resilient future for Miami, alleviating existing and future risks to residents, economy, tourism and the city’s legacy,” as the city’s website says. With an eye toward equity and aiding the most vulnerable communities, funds are allocated to five categories: flood prevention, roadways, parks, public safety, and affordable housing.
Like Miami, Norfolk, Va., is especially vulnerable to sea level rise and has won voter approval of a dedicated funding source. Lying on sinking land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Elizabeth River, the city of 250,000 also is home to the world’s largest navy base. Both city and the base experience increasing “sunny day flooding,” thanks to rising tides and sinking land. To provide matching funds for a slew of proposed adaptation projects, the city asked for and got voter approval for a dedicated property-tax increase of $.01 per $100 assessed value that was dubbed “the resilience penny.” The $1.8 million raised per year can be used to pay off up to $20 million, repaid over 20 years.
With those dollars as a match, Norfolk in 2020 won a HUD grant toward its $122.2-million Ohio Creek Watershed Project. The project is intended to create an integrated flood control system while connecting two predominantly African-American neighborhoods with a park, walking trails, a new fishing pier and sports field. The green spaces can hold water and filter pollutants. To be completed in 2023, the project also includes a raised road, a flood wall, an earthen berm, and a tidal gate.
Creating land to save land: A proposal for new Manhattan real estate
Manhattan is home to some of the richest companies and individuals in the world, but even New York City is struggling to find the resources to protect an island that faces six feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Wake-up calls have come in succession: Superstorm Sandy in 2012 claimed 44 lives and caused $19 billion in damage and economic displacement. Summer 2021 brought a record heat wave followed by tropical storm Henri and then Hurricane Ida, whose intense rains triggered the first city-wide flash flood emergency. In late 2021, the office of outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio released a master plan to protect lower Manhattan’s Financial District and Seaport that envisions extending the shoreline to make room for flood walls to protect against rising tides and severe storms, to create new green space, elevated walking and cycling trails and more. Still to be answered: Where to get up to $7 billion to execute the plan.
Enter Rutgers economics professor Jason Barr with a notion worthy of a brash global city: Build and lease more Manhattan real estate. “My idea is to take everything in the mayor’s plan and push it out into the harbor and build up new land in between, above expected sea rise,” Barr said. “Manhattan real estate is the most expensive on the planet. Revenue from leasing the land would more than pay for creating it and the new climate-protection infrastructure, and you could build thousands of units of affordable housing.” Barr’s proposal would expand the island of Manhattan 2.5 miles into New York harbor, creating a new neighborhood of 1,760 acres.
“Everything has to be on the table going forward and we need to get the public to understand that the work has to start today. We can see how kicking the can down the road for the last 40 years has left us playing catch up with reality. The public is too often told to measure how infrastructure work today is going to benefit them today. But the work today, which certainly has economic benefits and costs today, is always the work we are leaving to future generations. This requires leadership willing to look out past the next quarter or the next election,” said Sandy Krueger, CEO, Staten Island Board of REALTORS®.
Creating new land from in-water fill is a practice in other countries. The Dutch did it when they settled New York (New Amsterdam then) and are still doing it in the Netherlands. Numerous Asian countries are doing it as well, Barr said. To gauge the potential cost of his idea, he looked to Hong Kong, whose Lantau project to create a new neighborhood of more than 4,000 acres is expected to cost about $81 billion. That translates to about $34 billion for his plan, he said. “It sounds like a lot, but, literally and figuratively, it’s dirt cheap.” He estimates there is more than enough fill dredged from ports around the globe to complete the project. “The market value of the land would be worth $240 billion at today’s prices.”
A perfect storm: Climate disasters that kill the tax base needed to meet them
Most places, of course, don’t have the option of creating pricey real estate from fill dirt. In fact, many of the most vulnerable communities are home to low-income residents, people of color and Native tribes who see already modest tax bases declining in the face of climate disasters.
“People with means reach the tipping point earlier and move out of high-risk areas,” said Manning-Broome. “In Louisiana, we are seeing the slow death in our less affluent communities over time. Every time we see a hurricane, from Katrina to Ida, we see a decline in population and property values.
St. Charles had two hurricanes back-to-back and never recovered 16 percent of their population. How are they going to pay to protect themselves without a lot of outside help?”
The costs of preventing or adapting to the displacement of people by climate disasters go beyond infrastructure, she added. “Last year’s Hurricane Ida hit a mostly Native area and people were displaced across Louisiana. For people like them, we need a plan not only for housing, but also wrap-around services in relocation areas.”
“For us as a county with 34 cities,” said Miami-Dade’s Murley, “we have more of them with serious financial needs than not.”
Affluent communities like Coral Gables have established a trust fund for dealing with sea level rise. “Many of our communities are a step away from financial ruin. They ask the county for a lot of help just keeping the sewer systems working.” But the threats to low-income people extend beyond flooding, he noted. “We now have an extreme heat officer and task force — and this goes right to our vulnerable populations because many don’t have tree canopy or efficient AC. In Miami, traditionally we rarely got temperatures over 100. Now we get that and higher and it doesn’t cool off at night during heat events, and that especially hurts lower-income communities. That’s a whole new area of climate change impact. People predicted it was coming, but now it’s here. It’s like peeling an onion, it’s one layer of impacts after another.”
Harris County, Texas, which manages flood control in and around Houston, is taking bold — and somewhat controversial — steps toward ending the cycle of disaster and decline for less-wealthy communities. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017 pounded the area with the most rain in U.S. history and flooded out 166,00 homes, county officials in 2018 won approval of a $2.5-billion bond measure to fund hundreds of flood-control projects. But rather than follow past practices of prioritizing recovery and flood prevention in higher-priced areas, county officials adopted a policy of first addressing issues in the quick-to-flood areas where mostly Black and Latinx people live.
We need to develop communities differently to advance resilience.
“Between the flooding and the winter storm that showed the vulnerability of their power grid, Houston is showing all of us the urgency of adaptation,” said Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, director of strategic partnerships and development for the Resilient Cities Network.
Houston also is showing other places how to use zoning and development codes to require raised buildings or keep development out of lowlands and other vulnerable areas, he added. “Cities can get smarter about using zoning and codes to show where to build and how to build for resilience,” Sarkozy-Banoczy said. “But they also need to partner with the lenders who finance development. We are creating tools where lenders can look at development with the same [adaptation] lens. A project in a potentially flood-threatened area might score better if it includes, say 5-foot basements, permeable pavement, HVAC on upper floors, and generator hookups. They are incrementally small moves, house by house or building by building, but on a larger scale you are moving to be more resilient and able to recover value,” both for the lender and for the tax base.
A last resort: Buyouts and relocation
When all else fails, some communities might choose — or be forced into — “managed retreat” from threatened areas. New York, for example, has rezoned to limit future development in areas threatened by sea level rise and, after Sandy, bought out more than 1,000 properties from flood zones. San Francisco, meanwhile, has openly discussed the eventual abandonment of infrastructure and removal of private structures in some coastal areas.
Faced with areas that are repeatedly applying for disaster aid, the federal government has now begun to consider buy-outs as more of an option. In 2016, the Native community of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana received federal funds to buy out homes and relocate inland. Also in 2016, Manning-Broome’s CPEX worked with the state’s congressional delegation and the city of Gonzalez to win a funding package to clear 41 homes from the Silver Leaf neighborhood so the area can revert to 50 acres of wetlands.
“This is a really challenging discussion, because someone has to be the leader,” Manning-Broome said. “But as a public decision-maker you are faced with a limited toolkit. Our mayors and elected officials are fighting for infrastructure for their communities because they need them to remain viable to have a tax base and fund protection measures. But when we look at the flood maps and think about how to make best use of resources, you actually need a plan to phase out infrastructure investment in some areas. And no politician is going to do that. So, you are left with local leaders fighting for the existence of their communities because there is no other alternative.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the federal and state governments to make some of these calls — and provide the funding for relocating communities. “We can’t continue asking individuals to be resilient on their own. We need leadership at all levels committed to developing systems and structures that support the adaptation and mitigation needed to advance resilience for all of our people.”
“This requires facing uncomfortable and unpopular realities about what our future looks like,” she added. “We have to be willing to do things differently — from the way we use our land and develop our communities, to the way in which we engage people in our economy. No one has figured it out, but we have a head start in Louisiana because of the risk and the number of disasters that we have been grappling with over the last 15 years.”
David A. Goldberg is a nationally recognized journalist and founding communications director of two national nonprofits, Smart Growth America and Transportation for America. In 2002, Mr. Goldberg was awarded a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University, where he studied urban policy.