How can communities adapt to climate hazards?

Protecting people and property is a long-term, hyper-local challenge, says a Carolina environmental public policy expert.

The Jackson, Mississippi, skyline with flooded Pearl River in foreground.
In August 2022, heavy rains flooded the Pearl River, which overcame the municipal water system in Jackson, Mississippi. (Shutterstock)

Recent floods kill 38 people in Kentucky. Wildfires destroy houses, businesses and lives in California. A flooded river leaves the 180,000 people of Jackson, Mississippi, with no water for drinking or flushing toilets. Heavy rains shut down I-95 in Rhode Island.

Such climate change-related weather events dominate the news. Because natural disasters and the places they strike differ, communities should take a long-term, local approach to decreasing damage, says Miyuki Hino, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ city and regional planning department.

Hino, also an adjunct professor in the College’s environment, ecology and energy program, researches the links between climate hazards and public policy as governments aim to implement effective and equitable adaptation to climate change. She answered some questions from The Well.

Miyuki Hino

Miyuki Hino

How do residents adapt in places prone to floods and wildfires?

There are lots of options, like elevating your house, using more fire-resistant building materials or buying insurance to protect your family in case you do flood. Another strategy that isn’t talked about as much is for residents to move away from flood-prone areas and let that land be restored to nature. North Carolina has done this quite a bit, where the government buys houses from people who want to sell and tears them down.

It’s a program that people may underappreciate, a way to mitigate flooding because it also benefits people nearby. Instead of a house, there might be a park or retention pond to hold water instead of letting it run on to other properties.

I’ve done U.S.-wide studies, and we have data on North Carolina specifically. From 1996 through 2017, there have been over 5,000 buyouts across the state. After hurricanes Fran (1996) and Floyd (1999), we saw the first set of buyouts and then handfuls of buyouts in the intervening years. We don’t have buyouts from Matthew and Florence in our data yet, partially because the buyouts take a long time to process. It’s like your house is flooded, then you wait, and then you submit all this paperwork, then you wait more and years later, you eventually are able to sell your house.

You advocate for efficient and equitable adaptations to climate change and severe weather events. What does that look like?

Options for managing flooding tend to differ by types of neighborhoods, communities and households. For example, wealthier households who own oceanfront property might be able to elevate their house on stilts with their savings. Farther inland along a creek there’s a property that’s been in the family for a long time. That household might not have the money to pay tens of thousands of dollars to elevate the house. In some places, building a big wall along the shoreline to block out water might make sense. But if what the community really values is the beach and being able to access the water, then that might not make sense in that context.

We also want to consider where government funding is going relative to where the need is. Historically, we’ve seen problematic trends in how the government distributes funding. A lot of the money has gone more toward wealthier and whiter communities. A lot of my work is trying to understand why that is and how to shift it to be more equitable.

Which communities are doing this well?

Many places are doing part of this well, but if you look around the U.S., no single place has it all figured out. For example, a growing number of U.S. cities have appointed a chief heat officer. This person is in charge of making sure that when a heat wave comes public health teams know how to respond and emergency services are ready. That’s elevated the importance of that preparation.

Some places have been proactive in planning and thinking about long-term zoning. Norfolk, Virginia, has thought about what it might look like in the decades to come. The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are known for thinking about floodplain buyouts in a proactive, innovative way. These are pockets of innovation and thinking in forward-looking, climate-informed ways.

How important is it for policymakers to focus on local situations and local voices?

Adaptation is all local. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, reducing one ton of CO2 emissions in North Carolina is the same as reducing it in Seattle or in Paris or wherever. It’s a global problem that requires a lot of effort by individuals, cities and countries.

To some extent, we can learn across contexts, but the right answer is adaptation in any given place will be different. We can’t say, “Whatever New York did, we’re going to pick that up and do it in Miami and in San Francisco, and it will work.” Talking about what a community might look like in 30, 50, 100 years is a local conversation that, ideally, happens with lots of community input. You might ask, “Is this the place to put a new subdivision? Is this a place that might become more and more flood prone in the future? Should we turn it into a park or a use that doesn’t put families at risk?”

Adaptation is a long-term challenge. Think about how building codes go into place. Once buildings exist, they’re there for a long time. They’re hard to change. Can we make them well-insulated so they don’t require as much energy to cool and to heat? Thinking about those types of changes now is important because it locks in choices that will be hard to undo in 10, 20, 30 years. What that planning looks like in any given place is different.

Strategic thinking about the community holistically with lots of input from residents who will experience those changes is context-specific and important.