In nearly a decade since Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey’s shoreline, the Garden State has found opportunity in the tragedy: Instead of rebuilding and repairing entire communities, it spent $200 million to buy and demolish more than 700 homes so flood-weary residents could move to safer ground.
But in Maryland, where Sandy’s biggest impacts were limited to a stretch of the Eastern Shore, retreat was not a welcome option. Residents on vulnerable Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay rejected the idea of leaving their homes, and the strong opposition meant that buyouts had no part in disaster recovery work. Without a direct hit from a storm like Sandy, the sentiment hasn’t changed in many communities, like it did in New Jersey.
Federal data show that buyouts remain a rare response to floods in Maryland. In the past decade, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has reported fewer than 20 buyouts in the state.
At the same time, the risk to people and buildings is rising because of climate change. The latest flood to hit the region set record high-water marks in late October and inundated hundreds of homes in some areas. But it was not the result of any major storm — merely a confluence of rain, winds and tides in Chesapeake Bay waters that are rising a couple of inches each decade.
The trend is spurring some to confront questions about how — and even whether to — rebuild after floods along the most vulnerable shorelines.
“Will there be a point at which we say, ‘We simply can’t build back in this place because that’s not sustainable?’” said the Rev. Phil Huber, who coordinates faith-based disaster response work as chairman of Maryland Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster. Though that hasn’t happened yet, he said, “we’re looking at that more and more.”
Others who oversee disaster response across the state say that such a change in outlook is necessary, though it can be difficult to confront.
Some communities along the Chesapeake, including in Dorchester County, have explored buying and demolishing flood-prone properties, but decided against it due to a lack of funding and concerns it would shrink local tax bases.
Anne Arundel County is at least testing the idea of retreat in communities where property owners are ready to consider it. The county launched a pilot program last year that set aside up to $500,000 in grant money to buy and tear down a flood-prone home or two, and is in talks with at least one owner, officials said.
While county leaders say there has been interest, reluctance remains. Seven homes on one waterfront street in the Pasadena neighborhood of Bayside Beach have accounted for 29 flood insurance claims since the late 1970s, according to county data. But even after that late October flood hammered the neighborhood, no one is clamoring for a buyout.
“I don’t think that would go over well here,” said Kim Zimmerman, a leader in the neighborhood’s community association.
The challenge is bigger than any one community, or state. The real hurdle is this: Efforts on the scale of New Jersey’s, for example, are only possible when a disaster already has hit, allowing for an influx of government money, philanthropy and charity.
Unless that changes, it will be difficult to make the transformations that will be necessary to withstand future storms, said Anna Weber, an analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council who studies federal climate adaptation policy.
“We’re making decisions about the future like we’re driving down a highway only looking in the rearview mirror,” she said. “The road ahead is changing.”
There are some signs Maryland is beginning to change its course. Counties are establishing resilience authorities, government agencies that can develop and finance major projects that will help communities weather climate change. Baltimore is among the communities tapping new sources of federal money for projects designed to better prepare for extreme weather. And the state has established a new $25 million fund to provide loans for resilience-focused projects.
“There’s a lot more we need to do,” including buyouts, said Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.
But, since Sandy, Maryland largely has been spared the kind of storm damage that might spur buyout activity.
The only place with an organized effort to rescue property owners from extreme flood risk is Ellicott City, and the community has worked to minimize any loss of historic Main Street structures devastated during flash floods in 2016 and 2018. Howard County officials bought 10 of the most vulnerable properties and plan to demolish four of them. The county plans to renovate the other six as it pursues other strategies to protect the historic town’s center from flooding damage, including constructing water retention ponds and expanding a key culvert.
In New Jersey, discussions about tearing down flood-prone homes go back 30 years, said Jeff Tittel, who recently retired as director of the state’s Sierra Club chapter. Buyouts became an alternative to a proposal for an expensive tunnel for floodwaters, though they took time to complete, he said.
They accelerated dramatically after Sandy hit because of the scale of the damage and an infusion of federal money.
Other states and regions that have explored or pursued organized buyouts in flood-prone areas include Louisiana; Harris County, Texas; and Charleston, South Carolina. Each case shows how delicate the discussions can be, according to an Urban Land Institute report on buyouts released last year.
Buyouts typically involve turning purchased property into public green space, and are often combined with other investments and strategies to reduce or redirect floodwaters.
Since the early 1990s, FEMA has funded about 43,000 buyouts, the institute’s report said, though the full picture of flood-related buyouts around the country is difficult to track. Others may be funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or by state or local governments.
As Anne Arundel County begins to explore the idea, Matt Johnston, the county’s environmental policy director, said he sees buyouts as a piece of a larger strategy to transform and protect waterfront neighborhoods. Johnston said the county plans to help vulnerable communities develop their own vision for how to weather floods.
That could include some buyouts, he said, but also so-called green infrastructure that uses natural shoreline profiles and vegetation as a buffer against surging waters. Anecdotally, Johnston said it seemed that areas with green infrastructure investments fared better during the late October floods than neighborhoods relying on older types of defenses such as sea walls and bulkheads.
Johnston said there has been interest in buyouts from “a handful” of residents, though he declined to say exactly how many or in what parts of the county they live.
The idea is welcome in Oyster Harbor, a community south of Annapolis that fronts the Chesapeake Bay, said Eric Epstein, president of its property owners’ association — if only from the owners of waterfront lots that have been passed through generations of families but remained undeveloped.
But elsewhere, residents are eager to hold on to their waterfront view.
In Bayside Beach, Zimmerman and neighbors are working to learn what sort of resilience investments could be made to better protect their public beach from storm waves.
State emergency management officials acknowledge there will be a need to explore buyouts beyond Anne Arundel.
Kyle Overly, director of disaster risk reduction for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said that while solutions such as raising homes a few feet or flood-proofing foundations can prevent storm damage, they don’t get residents out of harm’s way permanently the way buyouts do.
Overly said he believes attitudes around retreat from climate threats are changing.
“Folks are realizing we’re at a point that’s becoming unsustainable,” he said. “At some point, 10 coastal flooding events a year is becoming 20, is becoming 30. It’s becoming so disruptive to communities that maybe that conversation is ready to be had.”
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But, he said, MEMA would not go so far as to suggest or encourage buyouts anywhere, because they are strictly voluntary. Plus, Overly said, the best solutions “are community driven.”
Huber, who coordinates volunteer-based disaster relief in the state, wondered if a decision to retreat might be forced on a community one day soon — if, for example, donors to the charities that fund his work say they don’t want their money going toward rebuilding in a flood-prone area.
That hasn’t happened yet, however, and he is now fundraising for relief and repairs to some 200 households in Somerset and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore that were flooded in October. Without many news headlines or any government disaster declaration, Huber and the people he is helping are desperate for donations.
Meanwhile, the same fall flooding event, as well as a deluge two months earlier from the remnants of Hurricane Ida, are feeding discussions of how to expand buyout and demolition efforts in New Jersey. And Shawn LaTourette, that state’s commissioner of environmental protection, said it needs to be proactive, rather than reacting to the latest disaster.
But LaTourette acknowledged that it often takes a disaster to convince people they need to move out of harm’s way.
“Without Sandy, where would this be?” he asked. “I think it would be nowhere, sadly.”
Climate Change: Ready or Not is an occasional series examining Maryland’s readiness and adaptations to climate change by Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance, funded in part by the Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism at Harvard University.