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Climate change is causing people to move. They usually stay local, study finds

An ornamental palm tree stands in an empty field where there were once houses in Houston. A new study follows thousands of families across the country who sold their flood-prone homes to the government, to see where they moved.
Claire Harbage
An ornamental palm tree stands in an empty field where there were once houses in Houston. A new study follows thousands of families across the country who sold their flood-prone homes to the government, to see where they moved.

Most people who move because of climate change in the United States don't go far, and they end up in homes that are less threatened by the effects of global warming, according to new research. The findings underscore the degree to which climate-related relocation is a hyperlocal phenomenon that can nonetheless protect people from disasters such as floods and hurricanes.

Sociologists at Rice University studied thousands of homeowners who sold their extremely flood-prone homes to the government through a special federal program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program has moved about 50,000 families out of flood zones since the 1980s, and demand for such federal buyouts is growing.

The study is the first to examine where those families ended up living, and it found that most people stayed within a 20-minute drive of their original homes. Most families also moved to homes with lower flood risk, meaning the program successfully accomplished its primary goal.

It makes sense that people are moving only short distances, says A.R. Siders, a faculty member at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Most Americans who move for any reason do so within the same county, Siders says. "It's useful to see that, even when people are moving because of a flood-related program, they are staying close."

The study casts doubt on the idea that climate change could cause mass migration to places in the U.S. that are less disaster-prone, like New England or the Upper Midwest, Siders says.

The findings could also be good news for local officials in places where climate change is already driving catastrophic flooding. The cost of flood damage each year in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since the 1980s, according to FEMA, and the dangers are only growing because of climate-driven extreme rain, more intense hurricanes and rising seas.

In recent years, many local governments have expressed concern that helping people relocate could decimate their tax bases. Knowing that most people stay nearby could help alleviate that concern.

"You can help your constituents reduce their future flood risk without necessarily losing their tax dollars," says James Elliott, a sociologist at Rice University and one of the authors of the new study, which was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Asking homeowners to voluntarily sell their flood-prone homes to the government is a crucial tool for reducing damage from floods and protecting people. Through the federal buyout program, the government pays market value for homes at risk and then demolishes them, with the goal of preventing future families from moving into harm's way.

Although demand for the program is growing, it has faced a slew of criticism for making homeowners wait years before their buyout is approved and for not making buyouts available to low-income households.

Relocating makes people much safer, the study found. On average families moved to homes with about 60% less flood risk, compared to where they used to live. That's equivalent to leaving a home that's likely to flood with a foot or more of water within the next 30 years, and instead moving somewhere with a small chance of a few inches of floodwater over that same time period.

Housing segregation persists as people move because of climate change

The researchers also considered how race affects where people move when they're fleeing flooding. Race is an important factor in studies of housing in America, because of widespread, entrenched housing segregation.

That racial segregation shows up in government efforts to help people move away from flood zones. An NPR investigation in 2019 found that majority-white neighborhoods received a disproportionate share of federal funds for flood-related relocation.

The new study goes further, by tracing where residents of those majority-white neighborhoods moved. They found that an overwhelming majority, 96%, of people who started in a majority-white neighborhood also ended up in such a neighborhood after they moved, meaning housing segregation persisted despite migration.

"If you're moving [away] from a majority-white neighborhood, you almost inevitably and exclusively will only relocate if you can find housing nearby in another majority-white neighborhood," Elliott says.

The study wasn't designed to tease apart the reasons for this, although it determined that people did not choose majority-white neighborhoods because those areas have less flood risk overall, or because property values there are higher. Follow-up studies will try to explore why homeowners chose the neighborhoods they did, and how race affected those decisions, Elliott says.

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Corrected: June 14, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of the story incorrectly identified A.R. Siders as the director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Siders is a core faculty member at the center.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.