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Wealthy Counties Get Many FEMA Buyouts of Flood-Prone Homes, Study Finds

Harris County, Texas, which undergoes a major flood about every two years, has used FEMA's buyout programs more than any other county, the researchers said

FEMA buys flood-prone homes more often in wealthy, populous counties than in poor, rural areas, even though lower-income rural areas may be more likely to flood frequently, a new study found.

The reason is probably that better-off local governments have the resources to apply for and administer the programs — and that could keep many of the people who most need buyouts from getting them, according to the study Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

As climate change increases flood risks, there will be greater need to move people and property out of danger, turning the land to open space, lead researcher Katharine Mach of the University of Miami said during a press teleconference Tuesday.

"When it comes to weather and climate events ... we are unambiguously behind the eight-ball," she said, noting that U.S. storm damages in 2017 alone totaled more than $300 billion. Those included Hurricanes Harvey and Maria and river floods.

The study of publicly available FEMA data identified 3,780 completed buyouts — those in which every building had been demolished and the land maintained as open space — from 1989 through 2017. The average buyout takes 5.7 years, the researchers said.

In all, more than 43,600 buildings were bought. Buyout costs weren't part of this study because the data was patchy, Mach said in an email.

If only communities with planners and 25% in matching funds are using FEMA's flood buyback programs, such grants probably aren't going to reach people who may need it most, said researcher A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware.

FEMA doesn't choose where to buy buildings: local and state governments decide whether and where to offer buyouts, David Maurstad, deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, said in a response emailed Wednesday.

Harris County, Texas, which undergoes a major flood about every two years, has used FEMA's buyout programs more than any other county, the researchers said. Its total of 2,190 properties is 1.5 times that for St. Charles County, Missouri, the second-biggest user.

The biggest buyout year by far was 1993 — the year of the Great Midwest Flood — with more than 8,000 properties bought, the study said.

Congress boosted FEMA's share of its biggest buyout program from 50% to 75% that year, said George Haddow, who teaches at Tulane University's Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy and was not part of the study. Haddow, who was White House liaison to FEMA during President Bill Clinton's two terms, said there's never enough money to buy all the buildings people want to sell.

About one-third of all the counties, parishes, boroughs and cities in 49 states and three territories have used buyouts, the study found.

It found that FEMA buyout grants have covered fewer properties over the years, from an average of 19 per grant in 1989-98 to an average of seven by 2009-2017. That could result in patchy change without cutting overall flood risk, the researchers wrote.

"There's a huge amount of talk about buyouts and managed retreat ... but the doing is a whole lot harder than the talking," said Mark. S. Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy and the Tulane Center for Environmental Law.

Davis, who wasn't part of the study, said its results aren't surprising but "provide a little more rigor and some context for people trying to figure out what is working, what isn't, and what hasn't even been tried."

Counties getting FEMA buyout grants have tended to use them in neighborhoods with lower income and education, the study said. It noted that the data cannot show whether planners intended to help low-income areas nor whether there's a pattern of either white flight or relocating people of color.

FEMA's grant programs "are not designed to discriminate or address economic inequalities," and the agency doesn't collect demographic data for grants, Maurstad said.

The top three states in total property damage are in the middle of the buyout pack. Florida had $98.8 billion in damage, Louisiana $85.4 billion and Mississippi $34.2 billion.

Yet Florida is 24th in the number of homes purchased, Mississippi 22nd and Louisiana 19th, with a total of just over 2,000 buyouts in the three states.

The top six buyout states — Missouri, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, Iowa and New Jersey — all are among the top 10 in damages, the researchers said.

"FEMA may not be a huge part of how flood risk is managed" in the three states with most damage, said researcher Caroline Kraan, a doctoral student at Stanford University and the University of Miami.

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