Storm surge and rising seas threaten homes across coastal communities. But a community’s response to those risks is influenced by multiple factors, including geography, property values, socioeconomic status and racial diversity.

Those are the core findings of a new study from the University of Delaware and Harvard University examining how and where different adaptation strategies are deployed along the North Carolina coast, one of the nation’s most exposed shorelines to climate risks.

Among other things, researchers found that three primary adaptation strategies—coastal armoring, beach nourishment and home buyouts—are not evenly deployed along the shore, raising important questions about equity between high- and low-income areas.

Predominantly white communities with more expensive homes are more likely to build sea walls and pump sand onto their beaches, while lower-income, racially diverse communities are often targeted for buyouts when funds are available.

Adaptation strategies are also influenced by a community’s level of risk, coastal zone regulations, funding resources and participation by government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers.

“You get different patterns in different locations, and they’re all very much informed by risk and decisions around risk,” said A.R. Siders, assistant professor of public policy and a faculty member of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

Siders and colleague Jesse Keenan, a lecturer in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, found that while high home values correlate strongly with both beach nourishment and coastal armoring projects, there was little correlation between those two strategies and lower-income areas.

That doesn’t mean coastal armoring does not occur in low-income and minority communities, Siders said. But it suggests high property values and socioeconomic status do inform decisions about whether homes should be protected from storms and rising seas or be removed from flood-prone areas.

Mitigation decisions are also influenced by economic factors like cost-benefit ratios and funding availability. Federally subsidized home buyout programs, for example, may target lower-value properties because the government can purchase more homes with less money, Siders said.

But wealthy communities also see large taxpayer investment in adaptation projects that protect property values and don’t require owners to sell or abandon their homes.

Siders stressed that the findings do not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between adaptation choices and a community’s economic or racial makeup. But it does raise questions about the relationships between mitigation and a community’s real or perceived value.

It also suggests that the primary tools used to determine risk in coastal zones, primarily FEMA flood maps, may not be adequate to make informed and equitable decisions about mitigation solutions.

“As adaptation actions become more common and are engaged at larger scales, it is more critical than ever that economic and regulatory path dependencies be identified and evaluated so that programs are adjudicated not just by what is efficient and effective but also by what is fundamentally fair,” the paper states.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news