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New York post-Sandy home buyout program: transformative adaptation?

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the United States of America, damaging or destroying an estimated 300,000 homes and claiming 60 lives in the coastal areas of the State of New York (Binder, 2013). While a single extreme event cannot be solely attributed to climate change, a recent study released by NOAA found that: “climate-change related increases in sea level have nearly doubled today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood recurrence as compared to 1950. Ongoing natural and human-induced forcing of sea level ensures that Sandy-level inundation events will occur more frequently in the future from storms with less intensity and lower storm surge than Sandy” (Peterson et al., 2013).

Sparked by the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the State of New York government has established a home buyout program. The state-sponsored home buyout option is available, on a voluntary basis, to those with homes located within the 500-year floodplain that were damaged beyond 50% of their value. This covers a large number of property owners, in the order of 10,000. In some cases, like Staten Island’s Fox Beach, it was the community that mobilized to approach the government about being included in such a buyout program. According to this Next City article, in Fox Beach, 185 homeowners are eligible for voluntary buyout, of which about half have already negotiated terms and signed on to sell at pre-storm “fair market value” plus ten percent. Approximately 330 homeowners in nearby Oakwood Beach and Ocean Breeze are also eligible.

According to this article in the NY Times, the State of New York Governor has proposed spending as much as $400 million on buyouts, using part of the $51 billion disaster relief package approved by the US central / federal government. Prices are being negotiated on the basis of flood-risk levels (homeowners in designated high-risk areas are offered an additional 10% over the pre-storm fair market value), where people chose to relocate (there is a 5% incentive to relocate within the same county), and whether the entire block agrees to sign on to the program (an additional 10% incentive is paid if all homeowners in a high-risk block sign on). However, there is an upper limit on what the state will pay for a property, linked to the median home value in a given neighbourhood.

The properties bought back by the state are to be turned into wetlands, dunes, parklands and other open spaces to act as coastal buffers, absorbing floodwaters in times of extreme weather. The NY State Governor has explicitly spoken out about an observed, and further projected, increase in these events under climate change. His administration has engaged a panel of experts to investigate and advise on the range of options suitable for increasing the areas climate resilience.

Many homeowners are keen to sell because of suffering repeated damages from large storms, facing increasing insurance premiums and a drop in the value of their properties on the open market. However, not everyone is signing up, especially those who have lived in these areas for many decades and/or have already invested substantially in establishing their waterfront homes and lifestyles. In addition to the duration of ownership and levels of investment, the timing between experiencing the damages, being given the option to be bought-out and the time the first buyout money materializes seems to be one important factor in the numbers of property owners that sign up (Binder, 2013).

While the buyout program and community responses to the program are being widely reported in the media, there is hopefully also in-depth research being conducted to critically reflect on and answer some of the interesting questions raised by such initiatives. Questions such as: How are the risk levels assessed and prices negotiated to determine who participates in the program? How voluntary is voluntary – are people facing pressure from the government and/or fellow residents to sign up? What makes some sign on and others not? Could this government-sponsored home buyout be used as an adaptation measure elsewhere? This is a particularly pertinent question for cities in lower and middle income countries – such Cape Town, Lagos, Mombasa, Chennai, Chittagong or Da Nang, for example – where risks of coastal storm damage are high but government budgets, contested land rights, corporate development pressures, and a lack of housing stock for relocation may be prohibitive. If anything there are worrying indications of some cities going in the opposite direction, i.e. rather than retreating to create more coastal buffers, more land is being reclaimed from the sea for urban development, such as the Eko Atlantic mega-development in Lagos, Nigeria (for critiques see this article in the Guardian and blog post on Urban Africa).

Finally, as the title of this article suggests, it is interesting to critically reflect on the question: is this transformational adaptation? Is the use of public finances to buy back private properties deemed to be at high risk from flood and storm damages in order to remove infrastructure and recreate open natural spaces that in turn reduce the risk to other nearby homes and public infrastructures an example of transformative adaptation?

In their 2012 article in PNAS entitled “Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient”, Kates, Travis and Wilbanks define incremental adaptations to climate change as being “extensions of actions and behaviors that already reduce the losses or enhance the benefits of natural variations in climate and extreme events” (p.1), i.e. actions that are already in use in the region that are gradually undertaken slightly more extensively, intensively and/or frequently in the face of a changing climate. They distinguish this from transformational adaptations that are either: much larger in scale or intensity; totally new to a region or resource system; and/or transform places and shift locations (Kates et al., 2012). In the US, flood-related buyout programs have been in existence since the mid-1990s, sparked by the 1993 Midwest Flood (Conrad et al., 1998), so one might argue that the post-Sandy program is simply an extension of this and thereby an incremental adaptation. However, as applied to thousands of homes and, in so doing, changing significant stretches of land from urban residential into open green spaces, one could easily argue that this is most definitely transformative of a place and shifting the location of entire neighborhoods and communities. If such a home buyout program were to be taken in any developing countries – possibly using international climate funds – then it would most certainly qualify as transformational adaptation.

Top image

Hurricane Sandy damage on Staten Island (photo credit: Thomas Altfather Good, 2012, Wikimedia commons)


Binder, S.B. (2013): Resilience and Postdisaster Relocation: A Study of New York’s Home Buyout Plan in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy. Report prepared for Quick Response Grant Program Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado at Boulder, available at:

Conrad, D.R., B. McNitt, M. Stout, (1998) Higher Ground: A Report on Voluntary Property Buyouts in the Nation’s Floodplains, A Common Ground Solution Serving People at Risk, Taxpayers and the Environment, National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C., available at:

Kates, R.W., Travis, W.R. and Wilbanks, T.J. (2012) Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient. PNAS Early Edition, available at:

Next City article by G.T. Beck (01/13/2014): This Staten Island Neighborhood Is About to Become a Wetland, available at:

New York State Governor’s Office, Press release (18/11/2013): Governor Cuomo Announces State to Extend Buyout Program for Staten Island Homeowners Affected by Superstorm Sandy, available at:

NY Times article by T. Kaplan (03/02/2013): Cuomo Seeking Home Buyouts in Flood Zones, available at:

Peterson, T. C., M. P. Hoerling, P. A. Stott and S. Herring (Eds.), (2013) Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 94 (9), S1–S74, available at:

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