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Considering 'managed retreat' as a response to sea level rise

Delaware Public Media

The question of how low-lying coastal communities will adapt to the rising seas and more extreme weather caused by climate change is increasingly making it into the public consciousness.   That’s especially true in Delaware, which is particularly vulnerable because its land is sinking at the same time as waters are rising.

One strategy that’s often listed as a possibility, but rarely discussed in depth, is simply getting out of the way.

Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt talked with a new University of Delaware faculty member about this concept, known as “managed retreat," and whether it could help areas of the First State

A.R. Siders studies a climate change adaptation strategy known as “managed retreat,” which moves people and assets away from risks, such as increased flooding, in a preplanned, coordinated way.  She joined the University of Delaware’s Center for Disaster Research as an assistant professor this summer. 

Siders says a long-term strategy of managed retreat will probably be the “right answer” for some communities in Delaware, where state environmental regulators predict between .5 and 1.5 meters of sea level rise over the next century. Siders says the state is currently fighting erosion by filling beaches with more sand.

“I’m not suggesting Delaware needs to retreat today, or even this decade. Things like beach nourishment, what they do very well, is they buy time. They buy us time to develop managed retreat as a strategy and to work out the kinks.”

Siders argues managed retreat can be a good alternative to paying the costs of staying put.  “Every time these disasters hit, we have billions of dollars going into recovery. We spend billions on sea walls, we spend millions on elevating homes,” she said. “So one of the arguments is, instead of spending all this money trying to hold the ocean back, maybe we should take a step back.”

Managed retreat can take the form of individual buyouts or relocation of an entire community, with funding coming from FEMA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or local municipalities. Siders says legal strategies can also be used.

“When people sell their homes or want to not develop in an area, can they take those development rights and use them to make more dense housing somewhere else?” she said. “Can we do life estates? That means that you get to live in your home for the rest of your life but you don’t sell it to someone else, so that no new family comes in and is put at risk, and we stop this cycle.”

Siders says municipalities may also be able to achieve the effects of managed retreat by purposefully locating assets— like a new magnet school or business headquarters— away from the coast.

“Retreat can’t just be about moving away from the water,” she said. “It has to be about moving toward something attractive.”

Siders says local community input is essential to good managed retreat, but that state coordination is also important. 

“If residents from one town decide to move inland, where are they going to? If they move to another town in Delaware, that town might need to prepare. They might need more seats in their schools. They might need more beds in their hospital. They might need better transportation,” she said. “So the state can play a really important role in coordinating some of that movement of people from one place to another.” 

Siders says the best candidates for managed retreat are communities that are engaged and creative. 

“Places that seem to do retreat best are the ones that can see it as an opportunity,” she said. “The goal is not to just relocate. The goal is to build a thriving community that will continue to thrive for the next century—something you can hand down to your grandkids ... Retreat is just one way to get there."


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.