In an ideal situation, our government would have the funds to support the needs of all Americans. For example, if a coastal community was at risk of becoming submerged because of the climate crisis, it wouldn’t be a question that funds would be readily available to help with relocation.
But that is not the situation we are in.
With more and more communities requiring aid after being hit by global warming-fueled natural disasters, but with our government lacking ample funds, Congress directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to try a creative approach to distribute $1 billion of disaster relief: a contest.
The National Disaster Resilience Competition (no I’m not making that name up) pitted against each other 67 states and communities that had experienced extreme weather disasters between 2011 and 2013. In January, 13 “winners” were announced.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg’s Christopher Flavelle highlighted the absurdity of deciding which distressed communities deserved federal aid:
On the western edge of Alaska, the remote town of Newtok was losing 50 to 100 feet of coastline each year to sea-level rise and melting permafrost. It was about to lose its drinking water, its school and maybe even its airport. Its 350 or so residents had been trying to move to safety for 20 years; in 2003, they obtained new land, about 10 miles to the south.
Four thousand miles away on the Louisiana coast, another town, Isle de Jean Charles, was also starting to drown. It was home to just 25 families, some of whom remained ambivalent about relocating. It wasn’t losing land at the rate of Newtok. Its residents didn’t face the same risk of losing access to key facilities. And they had yet to select a new site, let alone secure the rights to it.
In January, the government announced its decision: Isle de Jean Charles would get full funding for a move. Newtok would get nothing.
Lavelle pressed the HUD bureaucracy for an explanation why Newtok was stiffed. The answer was a combination of rigid scoring rules and laws against talking to local officials that prevented the judges from getting a nuanced picture of how far along the local relocation plans had come.
Most of the contest participants weren’t coastal communities exploring relocation. But more and more communities may need to relocate in the coming years. NPR reported earlier this month, after another Alaskan community voted to relocate, that “at least 31 Alaska Native villages [are located] where erosion due to climate change poses an imminent threat … Twelve of those villages were exploring relocation options.”
Lavelle paints a stark future of a cash-strapped federal government forced to make even tougher calls:
…once sea levels rise another foot, the federal government may have to choose between funding the relocation of entire neighborhoods in Galveston, Texas; Hilton Head, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and even Miami. Two feet, and swaths of Boston and Charleston, South Carolina, could be underwater. According to an official with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels could rise nine feet by 2050. There will almost certainly not be enough money to dyke, pump out or elevate every community that needs it.
Lavelle recommends giving federal bureaucrats more power to use common sense judgment, instead of contests with rigid rules. Theoretically, there is another way: providing our government with enough tax revenue to fund all the services our society needs.
But we are still struggling to fund some of our most basic needs, including how to keep our communities from literally drowning.