For those who lived through the storms, their names — Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Michael — are enough to trigger memories of homes, businesses, and loved ones lost in rising floodwaters. Other disasters elicited similar reactions, from the Midwest floods to the California wildfires, and droughts in the Great Plains.
The eventual response to catastrophes tended to be a defiant vow to rebuild, turn loss into lesson by making protective seawalls higher and stronger to hold back floods, or raising homes onto stilts to stay clear of the encroaching waves.
To this, A.R. Siders says, “Enough.” The time has come to consider a different path: retreat. Abandon areas prone to repeated disaster in favor of those that are safer and do so in a deliberate, thoughtful way.
Known as “managed retreat,” Siders, an Environmental Fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment who recently joined the faculty of the University of Delaware, said the strategy has the potential to save not only lives, but possibly billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs to cities and towns. The idea is described in an Aug. 23 paper published in Science with co-authors Miyuki Hino and Katharine Mach.
“Traditionally speaking, there are three ways people respond to floods or hurricanes,” Siders said. “There is protection — basically building a sea wall. There’s accommodation, which often means homes that are elevated, or there’s retreat.
“We see retreat listed as an option as early as 2001 by the [Intergovernmenal Panel on Climate Change], but retreat has been seen as largely theoretical — somewhere, sometime people might have to move. But what we’re seeing more and more is that it might be here and that it might be now. It’s no longer a theoretical last resort. It’s something we should talk about now as a realistic option.”
The purpose of the paper, Siders said, is to call attention to the need for a greater focus on the strategy as a way to avoid the fallout seen from earlier disasters.