Resistance and Retreat

Damaged homes seen on Sunshine Key, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Damaged homes seen on Sunshine Key, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Since late August of this year, three hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, and Marie – have devastated parts of the southern United States and its territories.  In the face of the destruction wrought by these powerful storms, we have seen remarkable and heroic efforts by individuals, companies and non-profits, local governments, state governments, and the federal government to respond.  In each case, individuals have come to the aid of their neighbors and friends.  Businesses and companies have sought to throw their doors and wallets open to provide shelter, food, and rescue.  Governors have acted forcefully and with focus before, during, and after the storms. These storms have revealed the strong social networks and incredible importance of social capital in responding to devastating natural events such as these.[1] 

Resistance in the face of these natural threats is a powerful and compelling human response. On the one hand, it is a force for good: individuals stocking supplies, boarding, ready to batten down the hatches, survive the storm and, out of the wreckage, help themselves and their neighbors.  This is human resilience at its best.

Stories of individual resistance took center stage in news coverage, and were frequently framed as a difficult calculation which could only be made in the moment, based on personal risk tolerance and binding life circumstance. One intrepid Florida Keys resident stayed back to watch over his 50-foot sailboat along with his two dogs, despite the Governor of Florida’s orders. He survived Hurricane Irma dogs and all, and remarked:  "Climate change is nothing more than 'Shit happens,'" he said. "And this [storm] right here? Shit happens.”[2]

But resistance, no matter how stoic, does have its costs: during natural disaster events, it can put resistors at risk at the expense of first responders and others when they do not heed the call to evacuate. Over the long term, resistance can leave residents fighting to preserve the past. Resistance, while admirable in many ways, can distract from or preclude the possibility of planning for a future where retreat or relocation may better serve residents, their communities, and their nation.[3]

The last of the three recent storms – Marie – and the unfolding devastation it has wrecked on Puerto Rico, hints at the impacts of unmanaged retreat as tropical storms become more devastating.[4] It is possible that tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, especially those with means and family connections in the mainland, will move off the Island, draining it of the social capital, labor, and talent needed to rebuild, while simultaneously stressing communities and local governments dealing with unexpected large scale migration of US citizens to the mainland.[5]

What the last month illustrates is how important it is to consider the role of coastal retreat, both now and in the future, as one tool of many to preemptively limit the damages of natural disaster. This is most obvious in neighborhoods for which devastating flood damage has become routine in recent history.[6] Shortly after Harvey’s floodwaters began to recede, Congressman Jep Hensarling from Dallas got himself into trouble—and received a great deal of criticism—for stating that U.S. taxpayers should not have to pay for homes repeatedly flooded via federal flood insurance.  He was quoted as saying, “At some point, God is telling you to move.”[7]

While the Congressman perhaps lacked timing and tact in the face of ongoing suffering during early recovery, the difficult truth behind his statement will have to be taken up by communities in the months and years ahead as they are threatened by increasingly frequent, powerful storms.

Patrick Field is Managing Director of CBI and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He leads CBI's Energy, Environment and Land Use practice. He often works with and between local, regional, state, and federal governments and is a dynamic trainer and lecturer, delivering curricula to professionals across sectors in the U.S. and globally.

Patrick Field is Managing Director of CBI and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He leads CBI's Energy, Environment and Land Use practice. He often works with and between local, regional, state, and federal governments and is a dynamic trainer and lecturer, delivering curricula to professionals across sectors in the U.S. and globally.

 

[1] "HURRICANE IRMA:  Splinters, Cha Cha Cha and a 'rising seas thing’.” Adam Aton, E&E News reporter.

Published: Friday, September 15, 2017 in Climate Wire.

[2] Ibid.

[3] "Guidance on protecting people from disasters and environmental change through planned relocation.” The Brookings Institute, Georgetown University, Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 in The Brookings Institute.

[4] “Does Harvey Represent a New Normal for Hurricanes?” Robinson Meyer.

Published: Tuesday, August 29, 2017 in The Atlantic.

[5]Mitigation induced by sea-level rise could reshape the US population landscape.Mathew E. Hauer.

Published: Monday, April 17, 2017 in Nature.com

[6] “Amplification of Flood Frequencies with Local Sea Level Rise and Emerging Flood Regimes.” Maya K. Buchanan, Michael Oppenheimer, and Robert E. Kopp.

Published: June 2017 in Environmental Research Letters

[7] "GOP rep on paying for flood loss: ‘At some point, God is telling you to move’.” Julia Manchester.

Published: Thursday, September 21, 2017 in The Hill.