Increasing temperatures will require new flood management strategiesGetty Images/BBC

The threat of flooding is increasing for coastal communities in the UK and around the world. “In some places, the scale of the threat may be so significant that recovery will not always be the best long term solution. In these instances, we will help communities to move out of harm’s way,” said Emma Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency (EA), in May this year.

She was announcing a new approach the EA would take for a world of increasing risk: with 4°C of global heating we will need both resilience and protection. This requires using a range of tools to increase the ability of communities to adapt to and recover from flooding and coastal erosion. These tools include traditional measures such as flood walls and levees, natural flood management solutions such as leaky dams and silt traps, and equipping communities to rebuild in safer houses after flooding. The last item on this list of potential tools is “moving people to new places”, also referred to as “managed realignment”. This means abandonment, a concept unthinkable in the UK as a response to flooding a few decades ago.

In fact, abandonment had been almost completely absent from the national conversation on flood management until March 2018 when it was brought up in a speech by Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency: “Some argue that it would be cheaper and safer to move the houses and the people than to carry on defending them where they are. I’m not saying we should do that: I know how important place and community are to people. I am saying we should be prepared to have the debate.”

For some communities around the world the stage of debate has passed: abandonment has happened or is happening. As we prepare to have the debate ourselves, it is worth considering the stories of Valmeyer, Illinois, and Newtok, Alaska.

They had to abandon the town and build a New Valmeyer out of harm’s way

In 1993, Valmeyer was a town of 900 perched on the Mississippi river. It had a strong sense of community and a long history going back to the early 19th century. Valmeyer had dealt with floods throughout the first half of the 20th century, but since 1947 the town had been protected by a levee built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The problem with levees – flood walls built parallel to the riverbank – is that rather than mitigate risk, they displace it. When the river is high enough to finally breach the levee, the resultant flood is far bigger than it would have been without the levee. This is only compounded by the false sense of security a levee gives to developers and homeowners building on the floodplain. This is just what happened when the levee was breached in August of 1993: floodwaters engulfed the town and reached the second story of some houses – a level that far exceeded anyone’s memory of the floods of the 1940s, and a level higher than any town officials had planned for.

The sense of loss was immense. Many citizens couldn’t face returning to their damaged or destroyed houses. It was clear that the risk of remaining in Valmeyer was too high. Some considered letting the federal government buy their properties through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) buyout program and leaving the town for good. The mayor of Valmeyer, Dennis Knobloch, knew that there was only one way to protect his citizens from future flooding while keeping the town together. They had to abandon the town and build a New Valmeyer out of harm’s way.

The citizens of Valmeyer were central to planning the move from the beginning. While Knobloch liaised with FEMA to secure funding, seven citizen’s committees were set up to work with engineers, architects, and city planners to design their new town. New Valmeyer was built less than two miles away on the hill behind the old town, and the current limits encompass both the new town and the remnants of the old. It cost the state and federal governments over $40 million to buyout the damaged properties and build the infrastructure, housing and services for the new town.

The population of Valmeyer has since increased to 1,200 and many citizens are grateful for the wealth of public services relocation has brought them. Brand new schools, a gym, and new emergency services are some of them. But for most citizens of New Valmeyer, modern houses and schools aren’t going to replace the memories and history swept away. Trauma from the flood still afflicts many of them, and their sense of loss isn’t likely to fade for decades or more.

In 1983, almost 10 years before the flood washed Valmeyer away, the town of Newtok, Alaska, conducted their first assessment of erosion rates on the Ninglick river. The report concluded that at current rates community structures would be endangered by 2013 at the latest and that “relocating Newtok would likely be less expensive than trying to hold back the Ninglick River.”

Newtok, is a tribe of 350 Yupik Eskimos whose ancestors have lived in the Nelson Island region for over 2,000 years. In 1958 they were forcibly settled on the Newtok river by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose site placement for the school was determined only by how far the construction barge could navigate up the river. In 1983 the town of Newtok, conducted their first assessment of erosion rates on the Ninglick river. The report concluded that at current rates, community structures would be endangered by 2013 at the latest and that “Relocating Newtok would likely be less expensive than trying to hold back the Ninglick River”. Below sea level and on thawing permafrost, the Traditional Council of the tribe started the process of relocation in 1994.

Neither federal nor state policies are designed to manage slow-moving disasters

In 1996, the town’s rubbish dump fell into the river, and in 2005 they lost their barge landing site. By this time, Metarvik, a site nine miles upstream on the Ninglick river, had been chosen for relocation and transferred to the village by an Act of Congress. Plans to relocate had left the town ineligible for funding to repair the barge landing, fuel tanks, and the now failing sewer system. Between 1994 and 2004, 29% of Newtok infants were hospitalised with lower respiratory tract infections.

In 2019, Newtok still has not relocated.  Metarvik now has important infrastructure to start the process, including a quarry with an access road, housing for construction workers, a water source, and a community centre. Much of this was achieved thanks to Congress giving an extraordinary $15 million to Newtok in the 2018 federal budget, significantly increasing on the $23 million Newtok has already raised from federal and state agencies but falling far short of the estimated $130 million it will take to complete the move.

There are a number of major barriers that Newtok has faced in raising funds so far. Neither federal nor state policies are designed to manage slow-moving disasters, and housing grant or infrastructure providers are either hesitant or unable to support such towns. For example, in 2016, a formal disaster declaration submitted to FEMA was denied because it was not for a singular event such as a hurricane, an earthquake, or a major flood. All this means Newtok has had to patch together funding from anywhere they can, struggling to convince numerous government agencies to give them the tens of millions of dollars they need to survive.

With the money from Congress, it looks like the relocation is going to go ahead, meaning the people of Newtok have reason to be hopeful again. But this one-off endowment does not come close to covering the full costs and does nothing to address the eleven other indigenous Alaskan villages that are in the process of relocating due to climate breakdown.


Mountain View

Climate change and condos

As with almost all indigenous communities, historical injustice put Newtok in danger. Meanwhile, their geographical isolation inflated the price tag of relocation beyond what they could raise without direct Congressional support. But it was the structure of existing policy that cost Newtok a generation between identifying the problem and addressing it. Valmeyer demonstrates that abandonment and relocation can be done in a quick and managed way, but only when responding to singular events such as one-off floods. Our societies are not yet equipped to deal with slow-moving disasters: not just permafrost thaw and coastal erosion, but sea level rise, drought, and environmental degradation too.

All these threats are set to increase with continued climate breakdown, and abandonment of towns will have to happen again and again to protect communities. Hopefully, no British coastal towns will have to be abandoned even in the highest global heating scenarios. With the right tools to increase resilience and mitigate risk, we might be able to avoid replaying Newtok on the north Norfolk coast. But in the event that communities do have to relocate to avoid harm, it should be clear that having the right policy framework will not only save decades of time and millions of pounds but, preserve the dignity of communities whose places are becoming unliveable.