Sea levels have risen about 9in since 1880, with one-third of that gain from the last 25 years alone. Every year, a flurry of reports are published warning of the risk to towns and cities along coastal areas.
It’s one thing to hear about a looming disaster; it’s another to see the cataclysm play out in real time. That’s what’s happening in Taholah, a village on Washington’s coast that acts as the capital for the Quinault Indian Nation, a tribe of around 3,600 members. In Taholah, climate change-caused sea level rise has brought to the community a fast receding shoreline, and with it a heightened threat of flooding: according to Quinault estimates, the ocean level could increase by 2.6ft by 2100, pushing storm surges higher and bringing waves closer to town.
On an overcast February morning, Larry Ralston, the 62-year-old treasurer of the Quinault Nation, drove his silver Ford SUV down a network of Taholah’s unmarked gravel roads, telling me about what this place used to look like, before climate change permanently reconfigured the landscape.
Parked on a rock face overlooking the Pacific, he nodded toward a moss-covered boulder towering out of the water. As a kid in the ‘60s, Ralston said, he was able to trek by foot to the rock. And now? He reckons the water is 30ft deep. Back then the ocean didn’t seem like a menace – at least not an existential one. That’s no longer the case: some 660 Taholah residents who border the ocean now find themselves living in an increasingly dangerous flood zone. The only solution is for everyone – and everything – in the village to move uphill.
“We can see firsthand what’s happening,” Ralston told me. “There’s no denying it.”
Taholah signals what’s to come for coastal communities across the country.
Already, about 15 million American homes are at risk of flooding, and the threat is only going to get worse. A report released in February by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projected that sea level along the US coastline would rise by 10 to 12in, on average, in the next 30 years – an uptick that would make damaging flooding occur 10 times more often than it does today.
“It’s important to understand in these communities that sea level rise is happening now,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer with NOAA’s National Ocean Service and the country’s top scientist studying sea level rise. “Its impacts are happening now, and those impacts will grow worse in the next 30 years. Minor-nuisance flooding will be replaced by flooding that’s more damaging to economies and to infrastructure.”
That future could very well touch off a mass migration of people away from coastline and flood zones. Research published in 2020 in the journal PLOS One estimated that sea level rise could cause over 13 million Americans to relocate inland by 2100 – an outcome with huge economic, social, and political consequences.
Yet, even with the deluge of warnings, there is no centralized lifeline available to coastal communities. There are a number of federal programs designed to give assistance to such areas through government bodies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but those pots of money are far from adequate to tackle a problem of this scale. Some local governments have chosen to offer – and in a few cases mandate – buyouts to homeowners in vulnerable areas, who wind up dispersing. Others would prefer to keep the neighborhood intact – in Taholah’s case, by moving the whole village.
In 2017, the Quinault Tribal Council adopted the Taholah Village Relocation Master Plan, which would move the lower enclave of the village about a half-mile uphill by 2030, where a new 200-acre development would offer flood-free land for over 300 housing units, a police station, a courthouse, a K-12 school and a museum, among other buildings. The initiative makes the Quinault among the first in the US – alongside communities in Louisiana and Alaska, among others – to voluntarily opt for a strategy of managed retreat away from impending climate threats.
To date, the council has been able to build a new administrative complex, a so-called generations building to house Head Start and senior programs, and approximately 150 homes – construction that is owed to a combination of US Department of Agriculture grants, HUD money, and the tribe’s own funds.
To pay for the rest, Ralston estimates they’ll need an additional $200m – a daunting sum, especially considering the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was signed into law by President Biden last year provided just $130m to support relocation efforts for the 574 federally recognized tribes across the US.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are roughly 5.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the US, many of whom are on the frontlines of climate change. A multi-year study published last year in the journal Science found that Indigenous nations in the US not only lost 99% of their historical land, but what relatively little they were eventually allotted are often more exposed to climate change hazards than their historical lands.
The Quinault Nation settled permanently on their 189,621-acre reservation – much of it conifer forest and unsuitable to farming – in the 19th century, after a long and at times contentious negotiation with the Washington government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Though the allotted land was still a far cry from what was lost, the ocean provided a natural icebox for sockeye salmon (known as “blueback” among the Quinault peoples), a unique fish that is central to the Quinault identity, and is under threat due in part to ocean acidification and warmer waters.
“There’s a parity between the Quinault people and the blueback,” Ralston said as his SUV ambled past a large illustrated cutout of the salmon affixed to a lamppost. “We try to save our blueback, so we can save ourselves.”
‘I wanted this community’
Two weeks later and 2,400-some miles away from Taholah, I was in the Allen Field subdivision of Houston, Texas, talking with Dolores Mendoza, a 35-year-old mother of three. She is trying to figure out how to convince people in the neighborhood – many of whom are relatives – that the county’s effort to remove them from their homes shouldn’t be ignored.
Taholah and Harris county are a study in contrasts: the former, a cash-strapped program that, if successful, would keep a neighborhood intact; and the latter a messy but better funded effort that will ultimately move people out of high risk zones but tear a community apart.
I met Mendoza, who works as a credit controller at an inspection agency, on a chilly afternoon at her former home, a three-bedroom house that’s just a stone’s throw from the Greens Bayou watershed. Harris county bought the place in December, paying Mendoza a total of $300,000 for the property ($70,000 for the house and $230,000 to relocate). The sale was a coup for her, given that she paid $62,000 to buy the 1,200sq ft house in 2010. She’s since moved to Kingwood, a wealthier neighborhood about 15 miles away.
That’s not to say Mendoza was keen on leaving. She grew up in Allen Field, and, by her count, still has family living in 13 different nearby houses. “I wanted this community,” she said. “It’s not pretty to look at, but my family’s here.” It’s only a matter of time before that’s no longer the case.
As we walked through the beige-colored house, which had been ransacked and vandalized in the two months since its sale, Mendoza recalled how the place used to look when she and her three kids lived there. “This was mine,” she said, gesturing toward a room that was empty except for the shards of glass littered on the floor. “I had my bed here. My makeup vanity here. My TV over here.”
Harris county is a sprawling region of 4.7 million people, about half of whom live in Houston. Much like Taholah, it is caught in climate change’s crosshairs. Hurricanes are becoming more common in the area, bringing with them enough rainwater to flood the state’s bayou systems. Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017 and took the lives of at least 88 in Texas, was the third “500-year flood” within the last three years. Worse yet, the Texas coast has sunk about 2ft within the last century, due in part to excessive groundwater pumping, making the state more vulnerable to flooding.
But Harris county also bears a different distinction: It is the national leader in federally funded home buyouts, responsible for some 2,500 acquisitions, on top of 1,000 homes purchased by the Harris County Flood Control District with local funds. Since the 1980s, Fema has supported over 43,000 property buyouts in the US. That is well short of the 3.63 million people in the country who are likely to encounter flooding every year.
Until the last few years, buyouts in Harris county were all voluntary and favored affluent and white recipients, mirroring a national trend. In 2020, still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, the county secured funding through Fema and state agencies to introduce a new mandatory buyout program for around 400 mostly residential properties spread throughout eight areas.
It’s estimated the mandatory program will affect about 2,000 people, about 13% of the local populace. In Allen Field, many of the homes that fall under the mandatory buyout guidelines are on Darjean Street, where Mendoza’s family still lives.
Eligible homeowners in Allen Field – 86% of whom are nonwhite, according to census data – say the buyout process has been confusing and inefficient.
Some residents were baffled when they first received a legalese-laden mailer explaining that they would have to sell their home to the government. Many in the area aren’t fluent in English, making the flyers even more confusing. “There’s a lot of red tape that makes it very difficult for families to figure out how to navigate the process,” said Shirley Ronquillo, a local community activist who has helped residents navigate buyout programs.
Nor is it clear to many what their lives will look like when they move to a new neighborhood, which could be many miles away. According to a 2019 study published in the journal Social Problems, buyouts cause more significant erosion to the social fabric of communities with lower-value homes and Black and brown residents, in large part because they’re forced to move farther away to find affordable housing. (The community services department spokesperson said the program assigns to anyone in the buyout program a relocation specialist to “provide referrals to community resources and organizations to provide further assistance to residents.”)
There’s also an issue of protraction. “It still takes Harris county over two years to close on the average property,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. Some people, tired of waiting for the government, sell their homes to exploitative speculators, often for far less than they’d make in a buyout program.
‘Why are they being asked to leave?’
While Taholah is a better organized effort, it’s also, paradoxically, a less wellfunded one.
“Unfortunately, the limited federal resources available are even less accessible to tribal communities,” said Washington representative Derek Kilmer, who worked to secure $500,000 for the Quinaults’ relocation efforts in the fiscal year 2022. Kilmer also sponsored the Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act, which would provide further support to Indigenous communities on coastal issues.
Any additional funding would likely come through the Housing, Commerce, or Interior Departments, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency – all of which are in the process of creating or revamping relocation programs. But getting money to a community as small as Taholah, where the median household income is about $32,000, can be a challenge. “Fema repeatedly told us that these competitive funds are based on numbers, not on need,” said Ralston, the Quinault treasurer. “Hurricane Katrina affected a quarter million people. Hurricane Taholah only affects 850 people. So, where are you going to put your money?”
The Quinault Nation applied for two additional grants through Fema in 2020, totaling about $126,000,000. A Fema spokesperson wrote in an email that both applications were selected for review. “We anticipate the planning grant to be awarded soon.”
Taholah’s lower village features rows of houses – many of them modest and worn – alongside a gym, a seafood wholesaler, a community center, a gas station-cum-deli, and a few other businesses. Many homes have boats scattered unceremoniously on their yards. There’s a 10-ft seawall separating the town from the Pacific, though it’s been breached repeatedly in the last few years, despite repeated improvements by the Army Corps of Engineers. “We used to get flooding in the lower village every three to five years,” Ralston said. Now it’s every year.”
Ralston told me about his plans to commemorate the place they’ll leave behind. He imagines a park, well-maintained and accessible to the public, with fruit trees and picnic benches. “Just to memorialize the families that used to live here” he said before letting out a quiet sigh. “Obviously that may not happen for a while. It’s just a vision.”
In Allen Field, Mendoza says that the memory of Harvey – and the lack of government support in the wake of the hurricane – left a bad taste. Harvey hit low-income and non-white areas like Mendoza’s hardest, thanks to crumbling infrastructure and insufficient flood control measures.
Ronquillo, the community activist, offered a more scathing critique: “You have a government entity coming in and saying, ‘you have to leave.’ Why are they being asked to leave? Because there was years of negligence, lack of support in our communities of color,” she said.
“Harvey was terrifying,” Mendoza said. “I was here by myself with my kids. I didn’t even know how we were going to get out.” Help never came from the government; it was her brother-in-law, riding in on a hotwired boat, who rescued Mendoza and her children.
Mendoza waited for a year and half until the county could make good on its offer. She said she was told by the county not to spend money on repairs since she was going to be offloading the asset anyway. “They don’t want us to repair our houses, so we have leaking roofs, broken pipes, electrical problems.” (The community services department spokesperson said the county “encourages the homeowner to make repairs in the cases where by not making the repair a person’s health and safety are endangered.”)
After leaving her house, Mendoza and I walked for a few minutes along the banks of Greens Bayou, where she reflected on her new life. The new house is great, she says. As is the kids’ school. But she still feels like a stranger. “I’ve seen my grandma twice since I moved,” she said. “Usually I’d see her every day, checking the mail when I’d go pick up the kids for school. Now we don’t have that community. I don’t know my neighbors.”
At that moment a pair of adolescent boys ran by us, each one gripping a large ice cream shake. Mendoza knows the boys well; they’re close with her family. “It’s cold,” she said to them with a laugh. “Y’all should have your jackets on.”