Flooding drives millions to move as climate-driven migration patterns emerge

Dec 18, 2023, 3:00 AM

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Flooding is driving millions of people to move out of their homes, limiting growth in some prospering communities and accelerating the decline of others, according to a new study that details how climate change and flooding are transforming where Americans live.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, the threat of flooding convinced more than 7 million people to avoid risky areas or abandon places that were risky, according to a paper Monday in the journal Nature Communications and research by the risk analysis organization First Street Foundation.

Climate change is making bad hurricanes more intense and increasing the amount of rain that storms dump on the Midwest. And in the coming decades, researchers say millions more people will decide it is too much to live with and leave.

First Street found that climate change is creating winners and losers at the neighborhood and block level.

Zoom out to consider the whole country and Americans appear to be ignoring the threat of climate change when they decide where to live. Florida, vulnerable to rising seas and strong storms, is growing fast, for example. But that misses an important way people behave locally. Most moves are short distance; people stay near family, friends and jobs.

Jeremy Porter, head of research at First Street, said “there’s more to the story” than population gains in Sun Belt states.

“People want to live in Miami. If you live in Miami already, you’re not going to say, ’Oh, this property is a 9 (out of 10 for flood risk), let me move to Denver,’” Porter said. “They are going to say, ‘This property is a 9, but I want to live in Miami, so I’m going to look for a 6 or a 7 or a 5 in Miami.’ You are going to think about relative risk.”

That’s what First Street projects over the next three decades: blocks in Miami with a high chance of getting hit by a bad storm are more likely to see their population drop even though a lot of the city is expected to absorb more people.

Behind these findings is very detailed data about flood risk, population trends and the reasons people move, allowing researchers to isolate the impact of flooding even though local economic conditions and other factors motivate families to pick up and live somewhere else. They analyzed population changes in very small areas, down to the census block.

Some blocks have grown fast and would have grown even faster if flooding wasn’t a problem, according to First Street. Expanding but flood-prone places could have grown nearly 25% more — attracting about 4.1 million more people — if that risk were lower. Researchers also identified areas where flood risk is driving or worsening population decline, which they called “climate abandonment areas.” About 3.2 million people left these neighborhoods because of flood risk over a two-decade span.

When First Street projected out to 2053, many of the new climate abandonment areas were in Michigan, Indiana and other parts of the Midwest. Flood risk is just one factor driving this change and it doesn’t mean communities are emptying out, said Philip Mulder, a professor focused on risk and insurance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“People can live in smarter places within those communities. That’s just as true for Detroit as it is for Miami,” he said.

When people know a home is prone to flooding, they are less likely to buy it. Some states, however, don’t require that flood history be disclosed, according to Joel Scata, a senior attorney on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate adaptation team.

“Access to good information is really important in the real estate market,” Scata said.

Even for people who get assistance to move, the choice can be excruciating. Socastee, a community near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, flooded not only when hurricanes hit, but sometimes just when it rained hard and water would reach doorways and saturate yards. First Street’s data says Horry County won’t grow quite as fast over the next three decades because of flood risk.

One resident who endured repeated flooding said it “makes you sick” with worry whenever it storms and rips away your sense of security.

Terri Straka decided to move from the area but had a hard time convincing her parents to do the same. Eventually, she brought them to a house for sale and said it could be their dream home. They reluctantly agreed to move.

“Them being able to visualize what a future might look like is absolutely critical to people being able to move. They have to imagine a place and it needs to be a real place that they can afford,” said Harriet Festing, executive director of Anthropocene Alliance that supports communities like Socastee hit by disaster and climate change.

Older people move less often and it takes money to move, so if people don’t get enough assistance and don’t have the means, they are more likely to stay in risky areas. When people do start to move, it can create momentum for others to depart, leaving behind fewer residents to support a shrinking local economy, according to Matt Hauer, a demographic expert and study author at Florida State University.

But there are also winners. Louisville, Kentucky, Detroit and Chicago as well as several other big cities have a lot of space with little flood risk, which will be attractive in the future, First Street found.

The University of Wisconsin’s Mulder said of cities like Chicago: “They shouldn’t discount their relative benefits that will come from being a safer place in a warming world.”


Fassett reported from San Francisco.


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

United States News

Associated Press

Bernice Johnson Reagon, whose powerful voice helped propel the Civil Rights Movement, has died

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Bernice Johnson Reagon, a musician and scholar who used her rich, powerful contralto voice in the service of the American Civil Rights Movement and human rights struggles around the world, died on July 16, according to her daughter’s social media post. She was 81. Reagon was probably best known as the […]

45 minutes ago

ADD MORE LOCATIONS FILE - An envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident is ...

Associated Press

US census takers to conduct test runs in the South and West 4 years before 2030 count

Six places in the South and West will host practice runs four years prior to the 2030 U.S. census, a nationwide head count that helps determine political power and the distribution of federal funds. Residents of western Texas; tribal lands in Arizona; Colorado Springs, Colorado; western North Carolina; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Huntsville, Alabama, will […]

50 minutes ago

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives to speak from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington,...

Associated Press

FACT FOCUS: A look at false claims around Kamala Harris and her campaign for the White House

The announcement that Vice President Kamala Harris will seek the Democratic nomination for president is inspiring a wave of false claims about her eligibility and her background. Some first emerged years ago, while others only surfaced after President Joe Biden’s decision to end his bid for a second term. Here’s a look at the facts. […]

51 minutes ago

Vice President Kamala Harris walks back into the White House after speaking from the South Lawn of ...

Associated Press

Kamala Harris smashes fundraising record with stunning $81 million haul over 24 hours

NEW YORK (AP) — Kamala Harris is smashing fundraising records as the Democratic Party’s donors — big and small — open their wallets for the vice president in the immediate aftermath of President Joe Biden’s stunning decision to step aside. In total, Harris’ team raised more than $81 million in the 24-hour period since Biden’s […]

53 minutes ago

FILE - Emergency personnel arrive to evacuate people at a mass shelter, Sept. 2, 2021, in Independe...

Associated Press

No prison for a nursing home owner who sent 800 residents to ride out a hurricane in squalor

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana businessman who sent more than 800 elderly residents from his seven nursing homes to ride out Hurricane Ida in a crowded, ill-equipped warehouse pleaded no contest to 15 criminal counts Monday and was sentenced to three years of probation. Bob Dean Jr. also must pay more than $358,000 in […]

59 minutes ago

Associated Press

New Orleans civil rights icon Tessie Prevost dead at 69

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Funeral services will be held Saturday for one of four Black girls who helped integrate New Orleans public schools in 1960. Tessie Prevost Williams, known as one of the “New Orleans Four,” died July 6 following a series of medical complications. She was 69. On Nov. 14, 1960, Prevost Williams, along […]

1 hour ago

Sponsored Articles


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Beat the heat, ensure your AC unit is summer-ready

With temperatures starting to rise across the Valley, now is a great time to be sure your AC unit is ready to withstand the sweltering summer heat.



Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

Flooding drives millions to move as climate-driven migration patterns emerge