Report: Federal Home Buyouts Take Too Long

Sep 18, 2019

After big floods like those in 2016 that inundated many homes in the Baton Rouge-area and beyond, sometimes a home buyout is the right choice. People whose homes have flooded multiple times can get money from the federal government to relocate to safer ground. But a new report from an environmental advocacy group finds that those buyouts can take a long time.

WWNO’s Tegan Wendland talked with report author, Anna Weber, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Q: Why are buyouts so important and what is FEMA's obligation to provide them?

Weber: I think if we zoom out and look at the big picture there are tens of thousands of people in the U.S. who have already moved someplace else within the country due to climate and weather-related disasters. These are mostly people who are moving out of desperation because they're trying to escape their flood-damaged properties. And this is the only option that they see as possible. These movements are happening in a haphazard way and usually without any government support, and it doesn't have to be that way. We can help people move to safer locations - which is going to be increasingly necessary as the impacts of climate change worsen - and we can do it in a way that makes sense for people. It's a viable option and reduces the risk of damage to future disaster.

Q: In your report you've found that FEMA buyouts can take upwards of five years to go through. So why is it bad that these buyouts are taking so long?

Weber: The bottom line is that we're not providing assistance at the time when it's useful for the actual people who are participating in the process after a flood happens. People are going to need to make their choices pretty soon afterwards - are they going to rebuild or are they going to try and move? And if assistance to move to higher ground doesn't come four years after the fact, that's just not that useful to people. We need to make sure that assistance is coming at a time when it makes the option actually acceptable to people instead of keeping them in limbo for so long.

Q: So basically after a big disaster - a flood or a hurricane - the state has to request help from FEMA and then projects get approved as part of that funding, and the state has to coordinate with local governments to execute those projects. You have this crazy illustration of how this works in your report. Wasn't this bureaucratic process set up this way for a reason?

Weber: Sure. I mean there's lots of aspects of the process that are important and it's necessary to coordinate with the local governments and get public participation and make sure that all the participants are buying into the process. The problem is that when you add up all of those things it takes a long time, and then any delay in any of those steps sort of cascades through the rest of the process as the decision-making sort of balances from federal to state to local levels of government.

Q: FEMA's response to your report was that this process has to take a long time. They can't just give money to people to help them move, the money has to run through all these different levels of government – state, territorial, tribal, and local government. What are some ways that they could potentially speed up that process?

Weber: So there are a certain number of efficiencies that could be had within the process as it currently stands. There are some localities and states that have done a lot of really good work seeking efficiency. For example, there are some states that have gotten approval from FEMA to sort of pre-review projects that are coming from the localities within the state. And so FEMA doesn't have to take as long doing their own review because it's already been previewed by the state. It's also really important to look at other more innovative options for delivering this assistance.

Q: What happens if FEMA doesn't figure out some ways to speed up this process?

Weber: Well, there are always going to be people who are going to move. And people who have enough resources to move on their own without government assistance are going to be the ones who can do this. At the same time, that means that people who can't afford to wait who really need the assistance to move to higher ground are going to be left behind. This is particularly important to keep in mind because low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be located in flood-prone areas to begin with. And now compounding on the fact, is that this assistance takes so long to receive - this means that the people who are most likely to need the assistance are most more likely to drop out of the process or not participate because they just can't afford to wait.

Q: So it's often the low income who are left behind.

Weber: Yes.

NRDC is an environmental advocacy group. Our reporter also spoke with FEMA and represented their feedback to this report in this interview.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.