Tag Archives: hurricane katrina

States buying up coastal properties as sea levels rise and storms grow fiercer

As coastal communities are confronted with increasingly costly storms, they are turning to buyouts to create natural buffers along the coast and help protect nearby neighborhoods and businesses from flooding. While some efforts have met resistance — some don’t want to leave their beachfront homes, some fear a declining property tax base — others are showing results.

After suffering heavy losses from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York pledged to spend $400 million in federal and state money on buyouts to create more buffers on the coasts of Long Island and Staten Island. The state has made 525 offers, worth $64 million, out of 750 to 1,000 it had anticipated in 2013.

New Jersey has a similar goal. After Sandy, the state used the same mix of federal grants and state funds to put $300 million into its existing Blue Acres program, and said it expected to clear 1,300 homes from flood-prone areas near rivers and the coastline.

The Garden State has made 700 offers and closed on more than 400 properties.

Although many coastal homeowners were willing to sell, the state found it was unable to buy enough houses — despite offering pre-storm prices for storm-damaged houses — in clusters that would allow for buffers of open space.

Some property owners simply didn’t want to leave, said Bob Considine, of the state’s environmental agency.

That’s not unusual, said Chad Berginnis, director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Beachfront houses serve as valuable rental property that owners don’t want to part with.

The post-Sandy programs in New York and New Jersey, which rely on allotments from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are the largest buyout investments by single states.

Similar programs exist in nearly every state and are run by other federal agencies with state and local partnerships. A program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent almost $900 million since 1998 on buyouts in 48 states. State and local governments organize the buyouts and typically provide 25 percent of the funds, with the rest coming from the federal government. In some cases, the federal share can be higher.

In almost two decades, about $108 million went to North Carolina, according to a Stateline analysis of FEMA data. About 7 percent of flooding-related buyout has gone to coastal buyouts — as opposed to buyouts of properties in river flood plains, with Florida and Mississippi leading the way for coastal buyouts.

A growing threat

Several factors add urgency to state efforts to combat flooding.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which insures 5 million properties nationwide, likely will be unable to repay the $23 billion it owes the U.S. Treasury Department because of heavy losses after Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

At the same time, coastal communities face a worsening threat. A September study from Columbia University’s Earth Institute concluded that a combination of rising sea levels and larger storms likely will magnify East Coast flooding hundreds of times in the coming decades.

Solutions like beach replacement and seawalls have been losing their appeal as communities find even routine storms will overrun man-made obstacles and wash away millions of dollars in replacement sand, said Berginnis, of the floodplain managers group.

Severe flooding of the Mississippi River in 1993, from Minnesota to Missouri, boosted interest in buyouts and sparked legislation that increased the federal share of buyouts from the previous maximum of 50 percent. Some 12,000 properties were bought out and entire communities were shifted away from the river.

But buyouts in Louisiana found less support after Katrina, and the state ended up spending more on elevating coastal houses than on removing them to create buffers.

Today, buyout programs are often large and statewide, but they can be small and local.

In Lusby, Maryland, along the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, coastal cliffs had eroded so badly by 2013 that Susan Davis’ home was in danger of collapse and a neighbor’s patio was dangling over the bay. County officials told her that they could raise the funds to match the federal dollars needed to buy her home because a mild winter had left a surplus in the storm budget. And they warned she might not get another chance.

Davis said she and her husband wished they could have stayed and fought the cliff erosion by adding rocks at sea level. But they took the buyout and moved to a house on a creek a few miles inland.

“The situation was horrible,” Davis said. “There’s no way we could win. The house would have been worthless because there’s no way to sell it.”

Buyout programs are most cost-effective, and get most local support, when governments develop new housing in safer areas that keeps bought-out residents nearby and minimizes tax losses, according to a study by Columbia Law School.

Hurdles on the coast

Buyout programs along the nation’s coasts are still small and face several obstacles, including high property prices.

Even North Carolina — which is often battered by Atlantic storms and, at $108 million since 1998, has spent more in FEMA grants than any other state — rarely buys coastal property. The bulk of the buyout money has gone to purchase riverfront homes, said Chris Crew, the state hazard mitigation officer. Less than 5 percent has been used to purchase property along the state’s 300 miles of coast.

Many beachfront properties are rentals owned by investors, and the state’s priority is to help with owner-occupied housing. Such houses also typically cost $600,000 or more, and FEMA is unlikely to agree to buy any home above $276,000, Crew said.

“There’s not a $276,000 house on the ocean in Kill Devil Hills,” he said, referring to a popular vacation spot in the state.

Because homeowners often depend on renting out their beachfront properties, coastal houses in the state tend to be raised above typical flood levels.

Generally, Crew said, it’s been more popular — and more cost-effective for North Carolina — to buy out houses along the state’s inland network of creeks and canals that sit just a few feet above sea level.

A boost in New York

New York’s post-Sandy buyout program got a boost when an entire neighborhood, Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, organized and negotiated buyouts last year. Residents found that even ordinary rainstorms were flooding the area, said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Nearby neighborhoods joined in, and Staten Island now accounts for 338 of the 525 offers made by the state.

New York officials offered several reasons for their success, including a focus on buyouts on Staten Island’s eastern shore and Long Island’s Suffolk County, where houses are relatively affordable. The HUD program prohibits home purchases above $700,000, and vacation rentals are usually too profitable to sell.

To combat complaints that the buyouts were hurting property tax rolls, New York added a separate program that uses federal funds to buy storm-damaged homes, tear them down, and resell the land for rebuilding with an agreement that the new homes be storm-resistant. At least 275 such offers have been made.

But the idea of taking homes off the tax rolls, even to create buffers to protect other homes, remains controversial.

When Mastic Beach, a bay-front community on Long Island, heard last year that storm-damaged homes near the shore might be bought out and returned to a natural state, reaction was mixed.

“We’re nervous, because we don’t want to see our tax rolls dwindle down to nothing,” then-Mayor Bill Biondi told reporters. “There’s no reason … to buy out people’s properties and turn them into wasteland,” he said during a meeting about a plan to demolish seven homes.

But this year, the new mayor, Maura Spery, came out in support of the buyouts and of having a buffer.

Spery, who expects the water to claim her house near Narrow Bay in coming decades, said there’s a growing sense the approach buys more time for homeowners like her, and spares her neighbors some of the costs of rescues and road repairs after storms.

“How much should taxpayers have to pay for me to have access to my house if it’s underwater?” she said.

Stateline is a service of The Pew Charitable Trusts

Pets and wildlife among the casualties of wildfires

Smokey Bear saved us the details of what happens to animals in wildfires.

But now we know, from the massive fires burning in Idaho, Alaska, Oregon, Montana, Washington and California. This fire season is one of the worst on record, with more than 11,600 square miles scorched — the most acreage in a decade.

The fires have taken a toll — human lives lost, property destroyed, people displaced and animals killed, abandoned or missing.

In Idaho, fires have displaced companion animals and livestock and charred habitat for wildlife — elk, moose, deer and many others. In the southwestern part of that state, fire destroyed populations of greater sage-grouse and burned to death at least 27 wild mustangs.

In Washington state, in the area of Tonasket, an estimated 14,000 farm animals — cows, horses and pigs — have faced fire threats. A single family lost a herd of two dozen cattle.

In late August, The Humane Society of the United States donated $5,000 to Washington state’s Wenatchee Valley Humane Society to shelter displaced animals. Another $5,000 from the Humane Society went to the Oregon Hay Bank in Grant County, Oregon, where distressed horse owners face a shortage of hay for their animals because of the fires.

In Montana, national animal rescue teams are working with local shelters to find abandoned or lost dogs, cats and rabbits, provide shelter and reunite animals with their owners.

In California, fire destroyed one wildlife sanctuary that housed birds of prey, large cats, mule deer and a black bear.

As the fires raged in the western United States, the 10-year anniversary of a disaster in the South arrived. Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. The damage was estimated at $108 billion. Nearly 2,000 people died. Many others have yet to return home. And hundreds of thousands of dogs, cats and animals were displaced or killed.

Katrina changed how emergency responders and animal welfare groups handle rescues and also how pet owners, vets and emergency teams prepare for a disaster.

When Katrina hit, many people who needed rescue refused to go without their pets, but first-responders refused or were not equipped to take animals. Meanwhile, at many shelters, people with pets were turned away.

Now, under the PETS Act enacted after Katrina, every Federal Emergency Management disaster plan must address the evacuation, rescue and sheltering of animals.

“So very many animals lost their lives in the flooding,” said animal welfare advocate Kristiana Paul of Tampa, Florida. Paul rescued three labs from New Orleans after the storm. “And some people lost their lives because they had nowhere to go with their pet. We still will lose animals in disasters, but the crisis of Katrina shouldn’t ever happen again.”

Out West, animal welfare advocates say the reform that followed Katrina saved innumerable lives. “It was after Katrina that people really thought about micro-chipping their pets and made plans for where they could shelter with their animals,” said animal welfare advocate Mike Beatie of Portland, Oregon. Beatie has been assisting with rescue and foster efforts in the state. “Things would be much worse here if we hadn’t dealt with what happened in Katrina.”

U.S. appeals court to hear climate change suit filed after Hurricane Katrina

A federal appeals court in Mississippi agreed to review a three-judge panel’s ruling that a group of coastal landowners can sue energy and chemical companies on allegations that linked greenhouse gas emissions to Hurricane Katrina.

The lawsuit alleges that greenhouse gas emissions contributed to global warming, caused sea levels to rise and added to the intensity of Hurricane Katrina.

Filed by landowners in Gulfport, Miss., in September 2005, the lawsuit had been dismissed in 2007 and reinstated in 2009.

The companies appealed the reinstatement.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on May 1 in New Orleans.

In their petition for a review by the full 5th Circuit, the companies argued that global warming was not attributable only to them but resulted from the emissions of greenhouse gases from millions of sources dating back to the Industrial Revolution.

The three-judge panel said the landowners had shown they had suffered an injury that could be traced back to the energy and chemical companies. The landowners had sought compensatory and punitive damages against 32 companies and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

From New Orleans to Trinidad


Animal lover or not, when you watch this Hurricane Katrina aftermath documentary from Film Movement, make sure to have tissues nearby. In the days following the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, many pet owners had to leave behind beloved dogs, cats and other animals. Motels, emergency shelters and even the Superdome posted signs that animals were not allowed. A number of animal advocates arrived specifically to evacuate animals.

“Mine” presents two emotionally charged sides to a complex story. Separated pets and owners, including electrical contractor Victor and his dog Max, 7th Ward resident Jessie and his dog J.J., Linda and her dog Precious, and several others found themselves in a situation they never could have imagined: Their rescued pets were adopted by good Samaritans who quickly became attached to them and didn’t want to give them up, resulting in heated custody battles.

Director Geralyn Pezanoski objectively presents both sides of the stories. Like Tia Lessin’s “Trouble The Water” and the other Katrina documentaries that have emerged, “Mine” is a collection of stories about this senseless tragedy that deserves to be seen by everyone.



Transgender documentaries are the new black. Films such as “Prodigal Sons,” “She’s A Boy I Knew,” “Riot Acts” and “Against A Trans Narrative” are just a few that are currently in circulation. In this expanding documentary sub-genre, “Trinidad” (trinidadthemovie.com) is a welcome addition. With a population of only 9,000, the former frontier town of Trinidad, Colo., has come to be known as the spiritual center for transsexuals – the sex change capitol of the world, if you will.

Dr. Stanley Biber, who arrived there in 1954 to open the United Mine Workers clinic, got a special dispensation from the Vatican to perform an early sex change operation in the Catholic hospital where he worked. Dr. Marci Bowers, an M-to-F transsexual herself, gave up her work as an OB/GYN in Seattle and moved to Trinidad to work closely with Biber. Bowers coined the term “Genital Reassignment Surgery,” stating that the gender was already present in the patients.

In addition to learning about Bowers’ experiences both under and in command of the knife, we become acquainted with Sabrina, Laura and other patients and trans people in Trinidad. Sabrina and Laura each share their stories and perspectives. While in Trinidad, the women plan to open Morning Glow, a recovery center for post-op transsexuals, but their lack of experience leads them to stumble through their plans and encounter numerous setbacks.

The other residents of Trinidad also share their feelings about the trans population in their town, which range from supportive to indifferent to downright hostile. Sabrina and Laura’s respective children also offer enlightening viewpoints.

Viewers with weak constitutions should be aware that there is graphic surgery in the film. DVD bonus features include Bowers’ presentation at an International Foundation for Gender Equality conference and the film’s trailer.