When Climate Change Makes the Home Unsafe – Center for Public Integrity
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Standing on a bridge between downtown Freeport and its east side, I could see why flooding in this Illinois city is not an equal opportunity disaster.
On the downtown side of the Pecatonica River, the bank was reinforced with a stone wall. The east bank was lower but had no protection.
The East Side was for years the only part of Freeport where black people could get home loans, residents said. And while the floods in Freeport were nothing new, they were getting worse, hitting residents to the east again and again.
Experts warn that climate change will exacerbate long-standing inequalities. But seeing it in action is particularly sobering. So much more of this happens.
Over the past year, I have reported on climate relocation with a team of reporters from Columbia Journalism Investigations, Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations. A key takeaway from this “Harm’s Way” series: The federal government is not prepared to help the millions of Americans who, according to its own experts, will have to escape the worst impacts of climate change by moving.
Cheryl Erving, whose house on the east side of Freeport was badly damaged by the floods, told me: “I feel like we’re up against a wall. She lives in conditions she knows are dangerous and does not trust her government to help her move.
At the start of this project, before it really took shape, the reporting team spoke with Miyuki Hino, an environmental social scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She told us that no one knew how many people in the United States already wanted help moving because of climate change.
Communities seeking this type of assistance must cobble together funds from programs split between federal and state agencies. But the federal government doesn’t keep comprehensive records, and the information that does exist is locked away in local and national databases, maintained by multiple agencies that don’t coordinate with each other.
Hino said the academics are trying to paint a clearer picture of how climate-related displacement is happening now and what kind of help people are getting. But even quantifying the demand for flood buybacks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was difficult.
We thought we’d give it a try anyway.
One of the first things we did was submit Freedom of Information Act requests to FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking for rejected requests to fund programs that could provide assistance. to climate relocation. We wanted to know where people wanted help and couldn’t get it. Rejected applications to these programs seemed like an easy way to get answers.
About this series
The federal government knows that millions of Americans will have to relocate to avoid the harshest impacts of climate change, but the country offers little organized assistance for such relocation. When communities ask the government for help, they face considerable obstacles – a particular problem for communities of color.
While we waited for responses from federal agencies, we started making calls. My colleagues and I ultimately conducted over 200 interviews for this project. I have over 60 hours of recorded interviews alone.
We also compiled thousands of pages of documents that we obtained through public records requests – but unfortunately not what we had originally hoped to obtain from FEMA and HUD.
After much back and forth with both agencies and some nudges from Public Integrity’s attorney, we finally received information from FEMA about a year after submitting our FOIA requests and just weeks before publication. None of this revealed which communities had been denied federal assistance to relocate. Luckily, we had also submitted document requests to the States, and these proved useful.
In the end, we relied on these documents, experts, community organizations and lots of data to report these stories.
Journalist Zak Cassel and I compiled county-level data that showed us how many disasters a county has had, how much funding it has received through FEMA programs, how many FEMA buyouts have taken place there- low and what were the demographics of the county. Analyzing this data took us months. We teamed up with a Columbia University researcher, Carolynne Hultquist, to help us do just that.
And ultimately, all that data work came down to a few sentences in each story. We felt it was worth showing that the stories we were telling about individuals were part of a bigger picture.
After all, we’ve featured a handful of communities in this series. There are many more places like them. (You can read more about how we analyzed our data here.)
And what we’ve discovered is that the places already facing tough choices brought about by climate change are all across the country, some far from shore. We weren’t telling stories about expensive oceanfront homes, but about people harmed by increasingly flood-prone streams and rivers, increased wildfire hazard, worsening hurricanes or melting permafrost.
And getting out of such a situation is difficult. House prices are falling. If you can find a buyer, you’re putting someone new at risk. That’s why people are looking for government buyouts, which turn stricken homes into open public space.
Many people and organizations not named in the stories have been important to our reporting process. Just a few examples:
Anthropocene Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of communities facing climate change and environmental injustices, connected us with people across the country seeking help to adapt to climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization, shared data and expertise that shed light on the growing issues facing communities.
Jamie Judkins of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Washington state helped us understand how tribes navigate federal programs, and University of Miami researcher Carolien Kraan walked us through datasets from FEMA. Current and former officials from FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, HUD and various state agencies were also crucial sources.
In each of the places we visited, residents helped us understand the key issues. Windy Pearson in Freeport and Susan Liley in De Soto, Missouri were particularly helpful in my reporting.
Investigative reporting relies on people sharing their expertise and experiences so everyone can understand. To everyone who took the time to talk to me and the other journalists on this team, a sincere thank you.
One of my goals as a journalist is to show that decisions made in the rarefied rooms of federal agencies have repercussions across the country. By telling stories about climate effects and the people struggling to adapt to them, I hope we have made more people aware of how the climate crisis and federal politics could affect their own communities.
Advance warning can make a difference – if people start planning now.
Alex Lubben is a news reporter for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at Columbia Journalism School.
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