Ricky Wright points to the banks of a river to show a way in which his hometown has been affected by climate change.
- A “controlled retreat” is the planned relocation of people vulnerable to floods and rising sea levels
- Parts of Louisiana, Wisconsin and Illinois have been using this strategy in the United States since 1989
- Parts of Florida, California and New York may one day have to use the same strategy
Many banks have been eroded or collapsed, and now some favorite fishing grounds that once lay on solid ground can only be reached by boat.
Wright is part of Gullah Geechee, a group of black Americans descended from slaves and living off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Society has existed for centuries, but is now threatened by a combination of rising seas consuming their land, higher temperatures changing the way they cultivate and fish, and devastating storms that threaten their lifestyles.
“I want to say [it’s] depressing to lose such places, especially if one has grown up there, “said the 65-year-old fisherman, noting other changes, such as the great white shark migrating to the waters off Saint Helena Island.
“It is scary.”
The risk to Gullah Geechee and other communities is intensified enough to raise a surprising question: Should some populated places simply be left to nature?
Planned or chaotic retreat?
One strategy that is gaining ground is the so-called managed retreat, which is the planned relocation of vulnerable people.
Stephen F Eisenman, director of strategy for the environmental group Anthropocene Alliance, said this was a “huge problem”.
The biggest question is whether the retreats are planned and methodical or unplanned and chaotic.
The question also raises concerns about economic justice in this landscape, home to Hilton Head Island, a popular destination for affluent tourists visiting its many resorts.
While Gullah Geechee is being asked to think about relocating, hotels remain open and the industry gets new permits, said Harriet Festing, co-founder of the alliance.
“So there is a lot of mistrust of the government’s intentions and the messages that come to them,” she said.
Forms of controlled retreat have existed in the United States since at least 1989, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began buying properties in flood-prone areas.
Parts of Louisiana, Wisconsin and Illinois have used planned relocation to try to save communities from floods and rising seas.
Strategies to save communities
With the help of public procurement, some communities are simply moving to nearby areas that are less prone to disasters.
Others migrate to different parts of the country or to different countries altogether.
But buyouts are not the only component.
Other strategies include habitat restoration, replacement of concrete-filled areas with green areas and the use of zoning legislation to curb development in troubled places.
Parts of Florida, California and New York may have to use the same strategy at some point.
AR Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, said, “Imagine New York City moving its density north over the next hundred years. It could happen.”
One reason the idea is met with resistance is because of its name.
“Managed retreat” is too technical for some and too defeatist for others.
Advocates are beginning to adopt other descriptions, including planned relocation and climate migration.
Whatever it’s called, said Dr. Sides that more and more communities have considered a version of the idea, especially in the wake of major disasters like Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which claimed 147 lives and left an estimated damage bill of more than $ 70. billion ($ 98 billion).
The concept “pushes us to make better adaptation,” she said.
“But it is also a challenge because it scares people.
“They get scared that they’ll be forced out of their homes.”
In a study published in Science Advances in 2019, Dr. Siders and other researchers believe that FEMA’s buyout program was more likely to help richer, more densely populated counties.
But even within these communities, FEMA buyouts were concentrated in less affluent, less densely populated areas with lower English skills and more racial diversity.
Environmental activist Hilton Kelley has been trying for years to get federal assistance to relocate herself and members of her community from Port Arthur, Texas.
Port Arthur is closer to the Gulf Coast than large parts of Houston, and both communities have been ravaged by hurricanes over the past 20 years.
But Houston had gotten more attention and more money for relocations because of its far larger population, he said.
“This city has been destroyed,” he said.
Sir. Kelley said many people in Port Arthur were ready to relocate if help was available and that they could take the lead in planning the relocation.
But this is not the case in other cities.
Tiny DeSoto, Missouri, has been hit by devastating lightning floods four times in the last eight years.
After a particularly bad flood in 2016, Susan Sherrow Lilley began organizing her neighbors to accept buyouts.
But they seemed only interested in the immediate aftermath of a flood.
“It has not been flooded for five years and people are very comfortable now thinking it is not going to happen again. But it will,” she said.
Ms. Lilley and other concerned residents have organized 22 homes and a business to apply for FEMA money, but only about a third of the structures recommended for acquisition by Army Corps of Engineers.
She said they need buyouts for everyone because even when people move to higher ground, their abandoned homes are often bought, repaired and put back on the market.
“And then people go through a flood, and it’s just this vicious circle over and over again,” she said.
A recent World Bank report predicts that 200 million people across the globe will be forced to relocate due to climate change by 2050.
Other countries have already begun planning massive relocations, including Indonesia and the Marshall Islands.
The process was “extremely complex and there is a high risk that it will leave communities even worse off than they were before,” said Ezekiel Simperingham, global migration leader for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
‘It will not get cold anymore’
Among Gullah Geechee, major storms have become well-known.
At least seven named storms have hit the region of the southeastern United States where they live, including Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017 and Dorian in 2019.
Thomas Mitchell, a crab that lives on Saint Helena Island, comes from a family that catches fish, shrimp and oysters.
But oysters have been hard to get hold of because they need cold weather to survive, and the warm seasons have become longer.
“The oysters do not come until it is cold and it does not get cold anymore,” he said.
But the idea of leaving their historic home is a nonstarter for many of Gullah Geechee.
“The only way I want to move is when I face my death,” Mr Wright said.
‘We are rooted in this earth’
Marquetta Goodwine, a community leader on the island known as “Queen Quet,” said Gullah Geechee was inextricably linked with the country.
“I do not run. I do not come from the stock of people who run,” she said.
“I come from the stock of people who are struggling, people who are holding on, people who stand for what they believe in.
“And we are rooted in this earth.”
While waiting for a fish to pull in his bait by the creek, Mr. Wright repeated these feelings.
“When we [were] children, our parents taught us… if you are ever going to run anywhere, do not run from home, “he said.
“Make sure to run and get home.
“And so it’s instilled in me, and this is home.”