A climate reckoning for US housing: Too many homes in harm's way, 'too many zeros' in the costs

A climate reckoning for US housing: Too many homes in harm's way, 'too many zeros' in the costs
  • As the effects of climate change grow more dire, danger is rising for Americans in floodplains, coastal marshlands, wildfire-prone areas and swaths of land struggling with drought.
  • When disasters strike U.S. communities, taxpayers often pick up the tab.
  • Some experts see a future where people slowly move away from higher-risk areas. Some think a more dire correction is coming.

More than a month has passed since Hurricane Ian struck the country, killing at least 119 and potentially causing more than $100 billion in damages. Many survivors are now facing a gut-wrenching question.

Should I stay or should I go?

In the aftermath of such natural disasters, residents and politicians alike often declare they will stay and rebuild. For Ian, that message is coming all the way from the top.

“The key here is building back better and stronger to withstand the next storm,” President Joe Biden said in September as he surveyed damage in Fort Myers, Florida, alongside Governor Ron DeSantis.

But inevitably, some residents will throw up their hands and walk away. Others plan to hedge, like Cindy Smith, a North Port, Florida resident who told a reporter she’d buy a mobile home after her home was flooded out by Ian. “That way I can flee,” she reasoned.

The question of what to do after disaster strikes is becoming increasingly perilous for the nation. For decades, many experts have warned that too many Americans are living in harm’s way: in floodplains and coastal marshlands, in mountainous terrain where the threat of wildfires looms, in desert landscapes vulnerable to drought.

Millions have continued to move to such areas anyway, and the costs to recover from major disasters now regularly reach into the billions of dollars, much of it paid for with taxpayer money. Once rebuilt, communities are often still vulnerable the next time water or fire reaches their doorsteps, costing billions more.

But with climate change bearing down, how much longer can the system hold?

In the aftermath of Ian, USA TODAY interviewed more than a dozen economic and environmental experts about how the changing climate is impacting where Americans live and what the future could bring. Some feel the status quo is likely to continue: the federal government effectively underwriting the costs of natural disasters, in part because cutting off relief funding remains politically unpalatable.

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