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For Peat’s Sake: Rebuild or Relocate – A “Wicked” Problem for Natural Disaster Risk Management

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

A “wicked” problem is what planners call a situation that is “difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements.” A wicked problem often requires a critical mass of people to change their worldview and behaviors – a situation that we are facing with climate change.  The World Bank describes climate change as a wicked problem “due to its complexity, severity, and apparent political intractability.” At ASWM’s annual State/Tribal/Federal Coordination Meeting this past March, we dared to show a controversial documentary called “This Time Next Year” that explores this challenge in the context of rebuilding efforts by the Long Beach Island (LBI) community after Hurricane Sandy. Overall, the film directors seemed to promote the concept of “resiliency” as rebuilding.  It focused on the devastating emotional and physical impacts to the community and their process of finding the strength to support each other and rebuild. The film got mixed reviews from our crowd – all of which were charged with deeply ingrained values and emotions – many of which expressed frustration and anger that federal tax dollars were being spent on rebuilding efforts.

4915femaIn an old X-Files episode I was re-watching last night, one of the characters quoted his father who told him, “You better respect Mother Nature, because she surely doesn’t respect you.” Nothing could be more true in light of the massive amount of destruction that can occur from a hurricane the size of Sandy, Katrina, Ike or any other recent ones we’ve seen happen over the last decade. Or for the recent floods in Vermont, Colorado and elsewhere either.  But how do you uproot an entire community?

History is rife with examples of displacement and its impacts most typically during times of war or invasion or other human migrations.  The cause differs but results may be similar when it is nature that is changing. How do you tell a community that, well, sorry about your bad luck and sorry that due to the entire world’s contributions to climate change, your community is now uninhabitable and therefore you have to take the brunt of the impacts to which we have all contributed? We’re all responsible for this mess, but we don’t all share the impacts equally. It doesn’t seem fair. Of course, it also doesn’t seem fair to have an entire country of taxpayers foot the bill to rebuild a community that is destined to endure destruction once again in the not too distant future.

4815fema5But life isn’t fair, is it? That’s why we have developed a democratic society with laws and regulations – to provide a fairer playing field and to protect the rights of people regardless of their demographic make-up.  So what are we not doing right when we still have communities demanding to rebuild in harm’s way? I think there are three primary barriers that we need to resolve.

First, many of us need to do a better job of listening and empathizing with the communities who are clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s easy to tell people what they should do. It’s much harder when you understand on a very personal level the loss that not only the recent tragedy has caused them but what they risk losing to relocation. They want life to go back to the way it was, so of course they want to rebuild. These imminent threats of intense natural disasters didn’t have nearly the odds of happening before as they do now. Homeowners in these locations have generations of families who have lived in the same areas without the level of risk that they are facing now. Any person who suffers from PTSD will tell you they just want life to go back to the way it was – even if it’s unrealistic. We need to sympathize with what they are going through in order to gain their trust.

4815fema3Secondly, in contrast to my first point, there are those of us who are trying to do our best to provide assistance and support, but it is often not enough, and in other instances is misdirected.  We are not doing a good enough job of communicating the real risks that these communities are facing by rebuilding in these high risk areas. Instead, we have government programs providing funding to help them rebuild, rather than relocate. Just build higher, we say. Just harden the shoreline with bulkheads and seawalls. Just do some more sand replenishment.

These are not solutions – they are only band aids. These actions will not protect these communities when the Arctic ice caps and the Antarctic ice sheets collapse and all of our sea level rise predictions get blown out of the water (pun intended!). Granted these two specific events are not going to happen immediately – they will unfold over decades. However, our most extreme predictions from 10 years ago have already proven to have underestimated what we are now experiencing particularly along the eastern coast of the U.S.  So let’s stop giving folks false hopes and let’s start creating policies that are based on science and realistic projections and that provide real long term solutions. Let’s stop offering funds to rebuild in areas of high risk and start providing the necessary funds and assistance for relocation. Let’s stop allowing developments to be built and/or rebuilt in floodplains. And let’s restore the natural ecosystems such as wetlands, seagrasses, buffers, etc. that protect us from storm surges and floods.

4815fema6And third, we need to do more to help communities create solid emergency management plans. When disaster hits, it is the local community that typically provides the first responders. The federal and state emergency management agencies can only do so much – it’s the locals who know their neighbors, know who has special needs, knows how to develop immediate support structures to get folks to safety. Without a clear and comprehensive local emergency plan in place, local residents have a harder time getting the assistance they need. When they don’t, they’ll blame their federal and state government for not doing more. One of the most important things these agencies can do is to help local communities be prepared. Realistically, we won’t financially or politically be able to relocate everyone in high risk areas right away – especially with the massive shift of people moving to live closer to shorelines over the past thirty years. But we can help them be prepared and provide the funding they need to recover and relocate when disaster hits.

So we took a chance with showing the film “This Time Next Year” at our annual workshop. And not everyone embraced it. But we need to start having these conversations and we need to build more trust. We need to stop enabling poor decisions. We need to recognize that we are all part of the problem. And For Peats’ Sake, we need to recognize that we’re all in this together and start finding solutions built on a critical combination of empathy, science and common sense.

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2 Responses to For Peat’s Sake: Rebuild or Relocate – A “Wicked” Problem for Natural Disaster Risk Management

  1. I agree that these wrecked coastal communities should be in effect forced to relocate uphill and inland to get new construction out of the way of the next storm surge; and to restore the natural coastal ecosystems and landforms. I might point out that in all the places hit by Superstorm Sandy, FEMA 320 puts in the “high risk zone for extreme winds” and urges a “safe room” in every home and small business. We don’t even have teeth in this guidance. The need to build a safe room out of a place which is vulnerable to flooding raises the question of whether one can be built in a house on stilts, however sturdy they are. I’d rather not.
    Not so long after Sandy, I contacted some highly placed elected officials in New Jersey and New York, presenting the case for relocation and offering my work to help make it happen – the right way. I spoke of some groups of neighbors probably wanting to stay together in a new place; also that the local residents have the best, most detailed knowledge of the locational factors for a new place to be built, or possibly including moving in to existing housing, at least in part. I never got any replies. This is partly the sort of work I went to college for, and have continued learning for after graduation. I have never been allowed to do 1 job yet requiring any college education, let alone to start my career. The writer of the article says “we…”. Maybe the “we” is “them that has professional ‘success’ and a good soapbox to stand on.” I’m not part of this “we.” And I’m not part of the problem. I’m part of the solution. Part of the problem from where I stand is the exclusion of people who are a real part of the solution from productive participation in the recovery.

    • mstelk says:

      Hi Jean,

      Thank you for your comment and for doing your best to help communities in high risk areas relocate. I am sorry you have had so much trouble kickstarting your career. I hope you will be able to stay optimistic and find meaningful employment soon. Best of luck in your efforts!

      Marla Stelk

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