Two years after being evacuated from their home in Santa Rosa, CA, due to an approaching wildfire, Christy Gentry and her husband had to evacuate again. Gentry told CNBC, “It was just one thing after another. It was smoke, it was the fire danger, the potential of fire danger, the potential of being evacuated. It changed the way we viewed our property.”
In 2021, the Gentrys moved about eight hours away, buying a home in Bend, OR, after renting in the area for a year. Their move is part of a growing trend of people leaving their homes due to the impacts of climate change. But like the Gentrys, many people forced to leave stick relatively close to home. A new study from Rice University, the first to examine climate change moves, found that people don’t tend to move far from their original residences, but instead relocate to nearby places less threatened by extreme weather and climate.
The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program
In “Managed retreat: a nationwide study of the local, racially segmented resettlement of homeowners from rising flood risks,” published in Environmental Research Letters, researchers examined address-to-address relocation data from thousands of homeowners in the United States. The homeowners moved between 1990 and 2017 after selling their homes via the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).
A program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the HMGP has been implemented in over 500 US cities. Through the program, homeowners are paid a pre-emergency, fair market price for their homes to be acquired and later demolished. According to the Rice University study, the intention of the HMGP “is to promote climate adaptation by returning the purchased parcels to their prior undeveloped state, never to be built-on again except possibly for flood mitigation infrastructure.” The reason such homes are demolished, rather than rebuilt and resold, is to prevent harm to future families. NPR describes HMGP as “a crucial tool for reducing damage from floods and protecting people.”
Though the program is in high demand, NPR reported it has also “faced a slew of criticism for making homeowners wait years before their buyout is approved and for not making buyouts available to low-income households.”
Where do homeowners go after selling their flood-zoned houses through HMGP? On average, to areas with 60 percent less flood risk, according to the study. NPR describes such a move as “equivalent to leaving a home that’s likely to flood with a foot or more of water within the next 30 years, and instead moving somewhere with a small chance of a few inches of floodwater over that same time period.”
It makes sense that people who go through an evacuation or destruction of their homes due to climate change would want to relocate to areas less likely to experience that same disaster. As reported by Forbes Home, almost a third of Americans surveyed in 2022 listed climate change as a reason to move—and over half said their own move was unexpected.
But while climate change relocating is on the rise, the study found that long-distance moves due to climate change were a rare occurrence. Instead, 58 percent of moving people stayed within a 10-mile drive of their previous home while 74 percent stayed within a 20-mile drive.
Debunking a Worst-Case Scenario
The shorter distance moves uncovered by the study make less likely the worst-case scenario feared by some, that climate change could prompt mass migrations to safer areas of the country.
Moving while staying relatively close to home makes sense for a variety of reasons. People may still have family or support networks in their former cities or towns. Children may still be enrolled in nearby schools. Climate change-prompted moves are not usually made willingly and are often accompanied by feelings of loss or regret. Ashley Tom, whose family relocated a 30-minute boat trip from Newtok, AK, due to escalating erosion, told the Guardian, “It was sad having to leave our old house because I grew up in that house; I have a lot of memories.”
The experience of losing one’s home due to climate change is such an intense experience, one which may be occurring more and more, the Atlantic proposed a specific term for it, the Welsh word hiraeth. The word encompasses both a deep longing for home, and the anxiety and anger caused by displacement. “We live in an era of radical change, when it feels like everything is being remade and altered,” Madeline Ostrander wrote in the article.
“If you’re moving [away] from a majority-white neighborhood, you almost inevitably and exclusively will only relocate if you can find housing nearby in another majority-white neighborhood.”
But the shorter distance moves uncovered by the study make less likely the worst-case scenario feared by some, that climate change could prompt mass migrations to safer areas of the country. In a 2020 article titled “The Great Climate Migration,” the New York Times expressed concern that as the Earth heats up, millions of people “will be forced to choose between flight or death,” leading to what will “certainly be the greatest wave of global migration the world has seen.”
Such fears have raised the alarm for some local government officials: that helping people fleeing climate change could take money away from their cities. But as one of the study’s authors, sociologist James Elliott, told NPR, “You can help your constituents reduce their future flood risk without necessarily losing their tax dollars.”
The study also uncovered how race factors in climate change moves. As reported by NPR, “racial segregation shows up in government efforts to help people move away from flood zones.”
“I feel more safe over here since we’re on higher ground.”
By following where residents in majority-White neighborhoods move, the study found that housing segregation continued. “If you’re moving [away] from a majority-white neighborhood, you almost inevitably and exclusively will only relocate if you can find housing nearby in another majority-white neighborhood,” according to Elliott, whose study determined that 96 percent of people who moved away from majority-White neighborhoods moved into neighborhoods with similar demographics.
Elliott told NPR that studies in the future will follow up on such issues, examining how people fleeing climate change choose their new homes, and how race and segregation play a part.
And though they may not be going too far, people will likely use climate change as a factor more and more in deciding on their new homes. As Alaskan Ashley Tom told the Guardian, “It’s just a blessing to be in a better environment compared to Newtok, and I feel more safe over here since we’re on higher ground.”