After the Flood, the Decision to Rebuild or Leave Permanently

As I write this, residents from flooded neighborhoods in eastern North Carolina are sitting in crowded high school gyms, staying at area motels, and bunked with family and friends. While Hurricane Matthew threw high winds and storm surge at coastal communities, devastating flooding came to inland communities. Rivers bulged over their banks, entering homes and covering roads in a growing mass of moving water.

When the floodwaters recede, each household will face a difficult decision: tear down the soaked drywall and rebuild the home, perhaps higher than before, or sell the property and move on. After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, some entire communities faced this decision.

Hurricane Matthew flooded many low-lying communities. Photo credit: Ryan Johnson/Creative Commons

For the past few months, I have been researching two African-American communities where different decisions —  to stay or to go — were made by or for an entire community. In Kinston, the town pursued a buyout program in which 97% of residents in a floodprone African-American neighborhood known as Lincoln City sold their property to the city and moved. In Princeville, the nation’s first town chartered by blacks, the town decided to rebuild a levy instead of accept buyouts.

Last week in Kinston, an evacuation map highlighted the buildings with evacuation orders in red. It also shows a tightly knit tangle of streets in the evacuation zone where there are no homes. This area is Lincoln City, a former neighborhood of 2,000 residents, where floodwaters after Matthew rose several feet deep. Seventeen years ago, almost all the homeowners in this neighborhood were bought out with funds from the State and FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). After Floyd, the State of North Carolina committed to move as many people as possible out of flood zones, offering to pay HMGP’s local match requirement on behalf of towns and counties. In Kinston, these property acquisitions removed over 700 households in Lincoln City, protecting them from repeat catastrophic loss. (However, buyout participants are not prohibited from moving into a floodplain elsewhere.)

It is clear that buyouts permanently reduce hazard exposure, but I was interested in how participants viewed the long-term impact of buyouts on their own economic well-being. For Lincoln City families that owned properties, buyouts were an individual opportunity. Most did not hold flood insurance, and the buyout provided pre-flood equity on their homes. Some moved to higher income areas of Kinston, others moved to more rural parts of the county, and a few left for places with more jobs. “It’s the best deal that ever happened to them in their lives probably,” one community leader told me, a theme reiterated by others in my interviews.

They didn’t have nowhere to go, didn’t have anything to start with…

Still, I learned that buyouts also had an intangible cost for the community. The social network that had provided rides to work and shared parenting responsibilities disintegrated. Lincoln City had been a point of working-class stability for the eastern part of Kinston, where many live in poverty. One resident explained to me that poorer families who had rented in Lincoln City had nowhere to go but into a high-poverty neighborhood. “That’s why that side of Kinston is still a rough side of Kinston. They didn’t have nowhere to go, didn’t have anything to start with.” A survey from the 2000s documented that some participants felt that the buyouts were not voluntary. None of the residents that I interviewed mentioned the risk of future flooding in Lincoln City. Even officials stressed that the chance of Floyd-level flooding occurring in their lifetime was just that — a chance. But I’m sure that Hurricane Matthew has changed many people’s perspectives on the value of buyouts for risk reduction.

When floodwaters recede, some households may choose to leave, whether or not they are offered compensation for their homes. Photo credit: Ryan Johnson / Creative Commons

In the tiny town of Princeville, in Edgecombe County, residents also evacuated last week. After devastating flooding from Hurricane Floyd, Princeville, like Kinston, was given the option to pursue a buyout program. The town also had an alternative to rebuild in place under the protection of a new dyke. In a close city council vote, the town decided to rebuild. Sadly, while the new dyke held last week, the floodwater found a back way into Princeville, and the town is once again underwater.

Princeville was founded by freed slaves in 1865. “We got too much history to turn our backs,” one resident told me. In Princeville, interviewees emphasized honoring their history of self-determination and resilience against racial violence and floodwater alike. To one community leader, it seemed unfair that Princeville, of all floodprone places, should disappear because of its vulnerability.  “Think of New Orleans, think of the beaches. We’re just like them.” Even Princeville residents and local leaders who had advocated in favor of buyouts also did not view flood risk reduction as a primary motive. For them, buyouts offered economic opportunity.

Buyout programs typically work in low-income communities like Princeville and Lincoln City for a few reasons. For one, there are upper limits to the amount the government will spend to buy your property. But it’s probably more impactful that the relative value or benefit of moving is higher in a poor neighborhood than it is in other places, like higher-income coastal flood zones. No coastal homeowners took a buyout after Floyd. Aside from home values and neighborhood conditions, African-Americans are more likely to live in flood zones, in no small part because of housing discrimination throughout the twentieth century into today. In fact, Princeville was built on floodprone swampy land because it was not wanted by whites.

None of this is a problem if buyouts are all benefit without side effects. For most individual participants, this might be true. But because there is some collective loss in historical value, social capital, or neighborhood stability, it’s more complicated.

There are no easy answers for floodprone communities of any racial or economic background. Future buyout programs can learn from the experiences of places like Lincoln City to support nearby neighborhoods in maintaining community social functions like carpooling and shared childcare.


There are no easy answers for floodprone communities of any economic or racial background. Photo credit: Ryan Johnson / Creative Commons

The prickly parts of buyout decision-making are more fundamental, though. The worth of risk reduction or economic opportunity or a historic location is deeply subjective. The practices used to make decisions about buyouts, like cost-benefit analysis or majority-rules democracy, are not always equipped to guide value-driven decisions that depend on collective action. Over the next several weeks, local governments will decide how to proceed with recovery, and the state will decide how to support them. For now, families are simply waiting to get back into their homes and salvage what they can.


About the author: Amanda Martin, AICP, is a PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill. Originally from Boston, she has worked in policy and planning in Washington, D.C., northern Nevada, New Orleans, and Rhode Island. Amanda’s doctoral research explores how regions or neighborhoods that receive major private or public investment can share that prosperity with low-income communities and communities of color. Her dissertation will answer this question in the context of coastal communities’ recovery from major storms. Amanda holds degrees from Harvard and MIT, and you can follow her tweets on these topics @bornonland



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