In 2021, President Joe Biden approved disaster declarations for more than 25 flood-related events. And over the past four years, all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and several U.S. territories have experienced floods that upended communities and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. For millions of Americans, these impacts are nothing new; rather, they are part of a cycle of devastation and recovery.
Whether a community has repeatedly flooded or is experiencing severe flooding for the first time, property buyouts—in which a state or locality purchases flood-prone properties and reverts them to green space, wetlands, or other natural conditions that absorb floodwater and promote better flood plain management—can be one of the most effective strategies to mitigate flood risk for the long term. However, a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Property Buyouts Can Be an Effective Solution for Flood-Prone Communities,” finds that significant challenges related to federal funding sources limit the scale and effectiveness of many state and local buyout programs. The study also identifies opportunities for collaboration across levels of government to reduce barriers that buyout efforts face.
The report, which draws on a series of extended discussions with disaster mitigation experts and state and local agency officials from around the country, focuses on hurdles to effective state and local buyout programs funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other federal agencies that support disaster response initiatives broadly and buyout programs specifically.
Challenges highlighted in the report include a lack of coordination between local, state, and federal agencies, as well as among federal agencies themselves; a tendency for buyout planning to be reactive, occurring after a disaster, instead of proactive with an eye to future risk; and inconsistent long-term planning related to the maintenance and management of acquired properties.
These issues vary by location—and state and local governments have important roles to play in addressing them. But to improve the scale and success of buyout programs nationally, FEMA, HUD, and other federal agencies will need to take the lead. The report emphasizes key steps these agencies can take quickly and without congressional action to align their policies governing buyouts, support state and local planning, and give flood-prone communities better flexibility and tools to develop and implement successful buyout programs.
Pew recommends that these federal agencies harmonize guidance across funding programs and provide greater flexibility and targeted assistance for local and state buyout initiatives. Additionally, the report calls for enhanced pre-disaster planning and encourages collaboration among local entities and across levels of government, including better federal support for community-led efforts to create buyout programs and improved outreach and engagement to raise public awareness of current and future flood risk.
By implementing these recommendations, federal agencies can elevate buyouts as a viable—and potentially attractive—option for states and localities seeking to help communities move out of harm’s way.
Mathew Sanders manages state planning for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.