New Jersey’s Blue Acres program to reduce properties at risk of repeated flooding recently reached a milestone, buying its 700th home to be destroyed and turned into public space for recreation or conservation.
Make that a mile-pebble. The amount of flood risk averted by the program is a rounding error for the total value of properties in harm’s way in New Jersey.
That’s OK. Blue Acres and all other flood buyout programs will never be more than a small part of mitigating the effects of flooding in a warming world. Blue Acres provides good benefits to people in need and the public, and is well-designed and run by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which makes it a state government success.
Flood buyout could be done less equitably, and it is — by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA has bought properties with more than 43,600 buildings since 1989 in about a third of all counties and municipalities nationwide. That’s also a tiny share of those at risk.
A study of the FEMA buyout program, published this month in the journal Science Advances, found its grants for such flood relief tend to go to wealthier and more populated areas. Even though the country’s low-income rural areas may be more likely to flood frequently, the people there don’t have the resources to apply for and administer FEMA’s buyout program — and maybe never even heard of it.
The researchers found that communities typically needed planners and sufficient funds to pay 25% of the cost of buying the repeatedly flooded properties to have a shot at the grants from FEMA. The average buyout takes 5.7 years to complete, adding to the challenge for poorer communities.
New Jersey’s Blue Acres, on the other hand, chooses houses in flood-prone areas and makes offers directly to their owners using state and federal funds. Municipalities don’t need to take the initiative or pay. Homeowners only need to decide if the offer from Blue Acres is adequate and in their best interests, and accept it or reject it.
As a result, the 700 properties acquired by Blue Acres are spread throughout the state, including in poorer or more rural municipalities such as Pleasantville in Atlantic Cou nty and Downe and Lawrence townships in Cumberland County.
In fact, Blue Acres is skewed in the opposite direction of the FEMA buyout program, away from wealthier homeowners. It hasn’t purchased any of the more valuable primary homes or second homes along the ocean, where owners tend to be more affluent.
One reason for that is the value of properties near the ocean makes an attractive offer from Blue Acres highly unlikely. Properties in Ocean City, for example, have appreciated $3.8 billion in a decade despite growing concern about global warming and rising seas.
Barrier island property owners also may be waiting to see what will be done to mitigate increasing back-bay floods. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the DEP are in the middle of a three-year, $3 million study of such options. Projects and policies to counter flooding could significantly affect island property values.
Mitigation and adjustment to flooding inevitably will play a bigger role in resolving U.S. flood risk than buyouts. With more than $64 trillion worth of development at risk on the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico Coast alone, widespread purchase and removal of buildings is financially impossible.
But buyouts of flood-prone homes still make sense when they are cost-effective — with a sufficiently low price of acquisition or sufficiently high value in future flood damage avoided.
Blue Acres can’t be the answer, but managing flood risk is such a tough problem that the program’s help is significant and very welcome.