ST. HELENA ISLAND, S.C. — Ricky Wright points to the bank of a creek to show one way his hometown has been affected by climate change. Many banks have eroded or collapsed, and now some favorite fishing spots that were once on solid ground are reachable only by boat.
Wright is part of the Gullah Geechee, a group of Black Americans who descended from slaves and live off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The community that has endured for centuries is now imperiled by a combination of rising seas devouring their land, higher temperatures changing how they farm and fish, and destructive storms threatening their way of life.
“I would say (it’s) depressing to lose places like that, especially if you grew up there,” said the 65-year-old fisherman, who noted other changes, like the great white shark migrating to waters off St. Helena Island. “It’s scary.”
The risks to the Gullah Geechee and other communities have intensified enough to raise a startling question: Should some populated places simply be abandoned to nature? One strategy gaining traction is so-called managed retreat, which is the planned relocation of vulnerable people.
“This is a huge issue. By my reckoning, there will be 30 million people who are displaced by midcentury, and there will be mass migrations in the United States,” said Stephen F. Eisenman, director of strategy for the Anthropocene Alliance, a climate and environmental justice group. The biggest question is whether the retreats are planned and methodical or unplanned and chaotic.
The issue also raises concerns about economic fairness in this landscape that is home to Hilton Head Island, a popular destination for well-heeled tourists visiting its many resorts.
While the Gullah Geechee are told to think about moving, the hotels stay open and industry gets new permits, said Harriet Festing, co-founder of the alliance. “So there’s a lot of distrust of government intention and the messages that are coming to them.”
Forms of managed retreat have existed in the U.S. since at least 1989, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency began buying properties in flood-prone areas. Parts of Louisiana, Wisconsin and Illinois have used planned relocation to try to save communities from flooding and rising seas.
With help from government buyouts, some communities simply move to nearby areas that are less prone to disaster. Others migrate to different parts of the country or different countries altogether.
But buyouts aren’t the only component. Other strategies include restoring habitats, replacing concrete-laden areas with green space and using zoning laws to limit development in troubled places.
Parts of Florida, California and New York could someday need to use the same strategy.
“Imagine New York City over the next hundred years shifting its density north. It could happen,” said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.
One reason why the idea is met with resistance is because of its name. “Managed retreat” is too technical for some and too defeatist for others. Proponents are starting to adopt other language, including planned relocation and climate migration.
But regardless of what it’s called, more and more communities have considered some version of the idea, especially, Siders said, in the aftermath of major disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.
The concept “pushes us to do better adaptation,” she said. “But it’s also a challenge because it scares people. They get scared that they’re going to be forced out of their home.”
In a study published in Science Advances in 2019, Siders and other researchers found that FEMA’s buyout program was more likely to help wealthier, more densely populated counties. But even within those communities, FEMA buyouts were concentrated in less affluent, less densely populated areas with lower English proficiency and more racial diversity.
Environmental activist Hilton Kelley has been trying for years to get federal assistance to relocate himself and members of his community from Port Arthur, Texas. Port Arthur is closer to the Gulf Coast than much of Houston, and both communities have been ravaged by hurricanes over the last 20 years. But Houston has received more attention and more money for relocation because of its vastly larger population, he said.
“This town has been devastated,” he said. “But we’ve never gotten our fair shake when it comes to giving support to vulnerable populations, particularly the low-lying communities of color.”
Many people in Port Arthur are ready to relocate if help were available and they could take the lead in planning the move, Kelley said. But that’s not the case in other cities.
Tiny DeSoto, Missouri, has been hit with destructive flash floods four times in the last eight years. After a particularly bad flood in 2016, Susan Sherrow Lilley started organizing her neighbors to accept buyouts, but they only seemed interested in the immediate aftermath of a flood.
“It hasn’t flooded in five years, and people are very comfortable now thinking that it’s not going to again. But it will,” she said.
Lilley and other concerned residents have organized 22 homes and one business to apply for FEMA money, but that’s only about a third of the structures that were recommended for buyouts by the Army Corps of Engineers.
She said they need buyouts for everyone because even when people move to higher ground, their abandoned homes often get bought, fixed up and put back on the market.
“And then the people go through a flood, and it’s just this vicious cycle over and over again,” she said.
A recent World Bank report predicts that 200 million people around the globe will be forced to move because of climate change by 2050. Other countries have already begun planning massive relocations, including Jakarta and the Marshall Islands.
The process is “extremely complex, and there is a high risk that it leaves communities even worse off than they were before,” said Ezekiel Simperingham, global migration lead for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and Red Crescent Societies.
Among the Gullah Geechee, big storms have become familiar. At least seven named storms have struck the region of the Southeast U.S. where they live, including Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017 and Dorian in 2019.
Thomas Mitchell, a crabber who lives on St. Helena Island, comes from a family that catches fish, shrimp and oysters. But oysters have been hard to come by because they need cold weather to survive, and the warm seasons have become longer.
“The oysters don’t come until it’s cold, and it doesn’t get cold” anymore, he said.
But the idea of abandoning their historical home is a nonstarter for many of the Gullah Geechee.
“The only way I’m going to relocate is when I meet my demise,” Wright said.
Marquetta Goodwine, a community leader on the island known as “Queen Quet,” said the Gullah Geechee are inextricably linked to the land.
“I’m not running. I don’t come from the stock of people who run,” she said. “I come from the stock of people who fight, people who hold on, people who stand for what they believe in. And we are rooted in this soil.”
As he waited for a fish to tug on his bait at the creek, Wright echoed those sentiments.
“When we (were) kids, our parents taught us ... if you ever have to run anywhere, don’t run away from home. Make sure you run and come home,” he said. “And so that’s instilled in me, and this is home.”