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Rethinking Managed Retreat

On the evening of October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy—as a hurricane and a post-tropical cyclone—took the lives of at least 117 people in the United States and 69 more in Canada and the Caribbean over the course of two weeks. More than 23,000 people were displaced from their homes, and 8.5 million customers were without power. The storm caused extreme flooding to major roadways, blocked transportation routes and left its mark on coastal beaches with extensive debris from everything in its path.

Having witnessed such devastation in our post-Sandy work and also in post-disaster communities throughout the Midwest and the Gulf Coast, I’ve seen first-hand the heartache and devastation that natural disasters can bring to families and communities living in these vulnerable areas. There are few things in life that are harder than walking away from your home simply based on a set of predictions. Natural devastation is never definitive. But it’s inevitable. With safety in the forefront, there are ways to avoid another catastrophe like Sandy.

Too often tied to negative connotation, “managed retreat” is a topic that has produced controversial headlines and continues to raise eyebrows. Managed retreat is the idea of encouraging people to seek safer ground further inland, as the shoreline becomes a natural target for tropical storms. It’s a term that gets tip toed around as it’s been portrayed as admitting that the government can’t protect its citizens. By its very name, “retreat” suggests defeat—and coercion rather than choice.

But I encourage you to keep an open mind.

We are at a moment in time—as a culture, and as an American society—where we must think differently about the future of our cities and coasts. I think we can rebrand the notion of retreat into something far more participatory, and far more optimistic. Rather than thinking of it as a failure, what if it is instead an opportunity? Folks in harm’s way can move to a place where a safer, better future is possible. We can diversify and rethink coastal economies. We can create new exciting forms of development and place-making on higher and drier ground.

Of course, managed retreat is not a decision to be taken lightly—and in many areas, there are other approaches that will be effective. It’s a matter of risk and cost/benefit. Managed retreat makes sense when both the vulnerability of the property and the cost of traditional protection are high. On the barrier islands of the Jersey Shore, for example, there is not enough density to justify extensive investment in flood protection—and the risk for flood is significant.

As history tends to repeat itself, there’s no stopping a tropical storm from forming, or diverting its path. By encouraging this movement to safer locations further inland, we’re keeping the safety of the people that make up these unique, vibrant communities a priority.

When this movement occurs, many worry that the culture of the community gets lost in transition. However, the shift to safer ground enables us to build solutions and structures to keep the community’s unique aura intact. Five years after I worked with Cedar Rapids on their flood recovery plan—which included the acquisition of nearly 1,500 homes in the lowest-lying, most flood-prone areas of the city—that community is just now seeing the benefit of movement inland. On the Jersey Shore, we imagined ways of rethinking the iconic elements of that unique coastal culture to provide safety while preserving cultural identity.

For our most vulnerable areas, it’s time we rethink managed retreat. Rather than viewing this approach as an evacuation, think of it as a revitalization of communities that are worth preserving.

Image above: Barrier Islands along the Jersey Shore

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