By William S. Becker
It was sometime during the cusp between the 1970s and 1980s – I don’t remember the exact date – that I stood on a sidewalk in a small Wisconsin village watching a historic event unfold across the street. There were three of us, a jovial barrel-bellied farmer in striped overalls and Marie Herbst. Marie and her husband Ed owned the Wonder Bar, one of the town’s most popular taverns.
A bulldozer was crawling toward the Wonder Bar. The building was pretty much on its last legs, having survived years of flood disasters. The bulldozer did not have to work hard. It gave the building a push and the entire structure collapsed.
“We had some pretty good times in there,” the farmer said wistfully. As I recall, Marie shed a tear or two, and that was that. Another one of the village’s old buildings was demolished. We all hoped it was for a good cause.
I have written about the village several times in the past, but in view of the two ominous reports that climate scientists issued last fall, it seems important to mention it again in a new context. Soldiers Grove was located on the banks of a river that periodically sent walls of floodwater into the business district. The government offered to build a levee around the town, but the villagers decided it made more sense to rebuild the whole place on higher ground. Like the Wonder Bar, most of the town’s business buildings were much too old and waterlogged to make a multi-million-dollar levee worth the cost. So after more than a century on the banks of the temperamental Kickapoo River, the people decided to rebuild on higher ground and to turn the old downtown into a municipal park. So far as they knew, Soldiers Grove was the first town in the United States to move voluntarily from a floodplain.
It was an emotional decision, and it was not easy to carry out. It took eight years and lots of innovative financing to get it done. But the idea was to make sure that the new generation, and all of the generations after that, would not have to live in fear that the next rainfall would bring the next flood.
The idea that the benefits of relocation would accrue to future generations turned out literally to be the case. The village did not experience another big flood for 30 years. Then, in 2007 and 2008, there were back-to-back 500-year floods, unlike anything anybody in Soldiers Grove, past or present, had ever seen. If there had ever been any doubt over those 30 long years that moving the town was the right thing to do, the floods of 2007 and 2008 must have swept it way. The other small towns upriver and downriver were devastated, but the Soldiers Grove business district was untouched.
Due to his preoccupation with Central American refugees, President Donald Trump may not have noticed that there is a growing refugee crisis on this side of the border. Or, he may have shrugged it off because it is related to global climate change, which he doesn’t believe is real.
But it is real. Record floods are happening many other places around the United States. Rising seas are causing “sunny day” flooding along the Florida coast. Weather disasters are creating a new demographic in the United States: climate refugees. As one report put it, “America’s era of climate mass migration is here”
Families are being uprooted and, in a growing number of cases, entire communities are being forced to move to higher ground because of inland flooding or sea-level rise. Normal rainfalls become deluges because rising temperatures near the Earth’s surface cause more evaporation, loading the atmosphere for more intense rains. Sea-levels rise because warmer water expands. In addition, land-based glaciers are melting and adding to ocean levels.
In the National Climate Assessment (NAC) they issued last November, federal scientists warned that “Sea level rise might reshape the U.S. population distribution.” They were wrong only about the conditionality of that judgment. Sea level rise is already reshaping the population.
“The potential need for millions of people and billions of dollars of coastal infrastructure to be relocated in the future creates challenging legal, financial, and equity issues that have not yet been addressed,” the NAC said. The equity issues arise because the 30 million Americans living in floodplains are disproportionately low-income families and people of color.
There generally are two ways that people move to safer places. They can scatter to the winds like the 400,000 people who fled New Orleans and Gulf Coast because of Hurricane Katrina. They went to other parts of Louisiana, Texas, New York, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ohio, Maryland and California. Many never returned to the Gulf.
The second way is to keep a community together by relocating it to a safe place. That is significantly more difficult and expensive. Nevertheless, several communities have done it and several more are trying. Among the inland communities that have rebuilt on higher ground are Valmeyer, IL,, Pattonsburg, MO, and Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien, WI.
It is coastal areas that are getting most attention now, however, because of rising sea levels. Several cases of relocation involve Native American communities. Since 1955, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw band in Louisiana has lost 98% of its land on Isle de Jean Charles to sea level rise, erosion and oil and gas infrastructure. Its members decided 20 years ago to build a new town where they could sustain their traditions and culture as a sovereign Tribal community.
The tribe received some federal funding during the Obama presidency. But members of the band recently issued a bulletin asking people to pray for them. They said the State of Louisiana wanted an “assimilationist” approach, meaning it wanted Tribal members to fold into the wider community rather than treating them as “as rights holders with historical ties to their ancestral territory.” It brings back memories of the 1950s and 1960s when an act of Congress – the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 – pushed Native Americans from their reservations into cities, and entire tribes dissolved.
In August, 2016, the 600 Inupiat residents in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref voted to move inland because their island was shrinking. Warmer sea water and stronger storm surges were eroding permafrost and causing parts of the island to fall into the sea.
By 2017, at least 17 communities, most of them inhabited by Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, were said to be facing the likelihood of moving from coastal areas because of sea-level rise.
These examples are probably just the beginning. Nearly 50 million housing units are located on America’s shorelines. Homes and business worth at least $1.4 trillion are within an eighth-mile of the coasts. “Flooding from rising sea levels and storms is likely to destroy, or make unsuitable for use, billions of dollars of property” by mid-century, according to the new NAC.
University of Florida sociologist Mathew Hauer predicts that 13 million Americans will be displaced by the impacts of climate change this century, even from areas that had taken steps to adapt. That’s more people than the combined populations of New York City and Los Angeles.
“I find that unmitigated sea level rise is expected to reshape the US. population distribution, potentially stressing landlocked areas unprepared to accommodate this wave of coastal immigrants,” Hauer warns.
“Community groups cannot find and adopt these solutions alone. They need the support of the federal government, state governments, and nonprofits,” according to the Center for Progressive Reform. But current government resources are “insufficient to meet current demands, much less the demands that are on the horizon with millions of other U.S. residents facing the need to relocate.”
Maybe helping our own climate refugees is the best way to invest the $5.7 billion President Trump wants for a wall.
Photo by Wolfe House Movers