What it takes to relocate a city facing sea level rise

The Quinault Indian Nation, about 150 miles west of Seattle, has experienced severe flooding in the past few years due to sea level rise. And it’s only going to get worse, as sea levels off the coast of Washington are expected to rise between 2 feet and 3 feet by the end of the century, according to the Washington Coastal Resilience Project, funded largely by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

“I’ve never seen a flood like this in my life,” said Lia Frenchman, whose street has flooded twice in the past few years. “So when there’s a flood, unfortunately there’s a big hole in the road at the end of my street and the water will stay for up to a week at a time. So I’m either trapped or I can’t come home.”

Now, the Quinault Nation has a plan to move the entire town of Taholah, where the French live, a mile up on tribal land. A smaller town north of Taholah, Queets, also plans to move.

Quinault is one of three Native American communities to receive a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior for climate-related resettlement efforts.

“We’ve never really done this as a country in response to climate change by relocating entire communities. So we have a lot to learn on our own about how to coordinate this work across a number of federal agencies,” the aide said. Secretary of Indian Affairs Brian Newland in the Department of the Interior.

But this $25 million is the tip of the iceberg. Ryan Hendricks, who is overseeing the construction of Quinault’s upper village, estimates that it will cost about $450 million to build all the necessary infrastructure in the new town, and he hopes all community members will live in the end. But it can’t force people to move, and many questions remain about how tribal members will pay for the new homes.

“I’m assuming if I want to move, I’m going to be responsible for a whole new down payment and a whole new house,” Frenchman said. “And I really don’t know how to do it.”

The need is measured in billions of dollars

Communities across the United States face a myriad of climate-related threats, from increased extreme weather events to rising sea levels. One study found that by 2050, about 650,000 lots will fall below the wave line, and more than $108 billion will evaporate from the U.S. real estate market.

Marginalized communities, such as Native American tribes, are often hit particularly hard as climate change threatens tribal identity and lands that are central to livelihoods. Such is the case with Quinault, whose culture revolves around the Quinault River and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

“The need in Indian country is in the billions as we see many tribal communities facing issues like flooding, coastal erosion, wildfires, drought,” Newland said. So far, the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Act has provided more than $460 million in funding to tribes to respond to the threat of climate change.

The Quinault Nation has been discussing the possibility of relocation for nearly a decade, since the ocean first breached the community’s seawall in 2014, causing extensive water damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped repair and reinforce the seawall, but massive flooding in 2021 and early 2022 inundated the village again.

In January 2022, waves from unusually high tides caused severe flooding near homes on First Avenue in Taholah, Washington.

Larry Workman

French lives on First Avenue, the street closest to the ocean. When these floods happen every year, it’s kind of like, okay, this street is really over. First Avenue is literally in the ocean at this point.”

Kaylah Mail lives right across the river in the house where her grandparents once lived. “I feel like the river is getting higher than it used to, like it’s coming right up the coast, and it’s kind of eroding the coast here.”

In 2017, Quinault adopted a master plan for resettlement. This involves moving a mile to a neighboring hill, 120 feet above sea level, well outside the tsunami and flood danger zone, but still close enough to the river that fishing and canoeing can continue to play an integral role in tribal life. .

Now the first phase of construction in the upper village is almost finished. Land for new homes has been cleared and construction crews were busy when we visited in June.

“Right now we’re seeing them install the last of the sewer line and the water line. Most of our third phase power is installed. All of our fiber optic is installed,” Hendricks said. He hopes that within ten years around 75% of new homes will be built and all public services will be relocated.

Current construction was paid for with existing Quinault Nation funds — including $8 million from the 2021 Covid stimulus package and $500,000 from the Indian Health Service. Now the tribe is examining how best to allocate $25 million in grants from the Department of the Interior, as well as about $5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

The Quinault Nation was also recently awarded an additional $50 million seismic safety grant from the state, which will help them rebuild a K-12 school in the upper village.

“The only thing I’ll miss is the view of the river,” Mail said. “But besides, you know I’ve been up the hill for work, and the school will be there very soon. So I hope my little one will be able to go to the new school whenever it’s built.”

“I will not give people houses for free”

Even if construction continues apace in the Upper Village, there’s still an open question about how members of the Quinault community will pay for the move.

I have a good job. But I don’t know that I have a good enough job that I can afford, you know, this new house,” she said. “But at the same time, as a parent, it’s my job to make sure the kids are as safe as possible. I think our street is not so safe anymore.”

Lia Frenchman lives on First Avenue, which is the street closest to the ocean and has experienced severe flooding in recent years. French is hoping to move uptown but doesn’t know how to afford a new home.

Kate Brigham

The home ownership model in Taholah is different from most of the United States because people like Lia and Kaylah own their physical homes, but not the land they lease from the Quinault government. This unusual situation affects what types of purchase and relocation financing homeowners may qualify for.

“I still have the option of a home loan, but it’s still pretty scary when you think about it,” Frenchman said. “I don’t know if I want to take on such a huge expense when my house is already paid for.”

And we know we’re not going to give people houses for free,” said Guy Capoeman, president of the Quinault Indian Nation. “There has to be some kind of game on how that happens. the current house is appraised, and then they’ll just pay the rest of the rest, or what.’

Capoeman said the tribe is looking into how the purchase and buyback of homes in the lower village might work, as well as what funding sources — federal, state and private — might be available to help.

In addition to its funding for the Quinault Indian Nation, the Department of the Interior awarded two additional $25 million relocation grants to Newtok Village and Napakiak Native Village in Alaska. Together, these three grants are intended to serve as demonstration projects for future climate resilience efforts, providing the federal government with a blueprint for best practices.

Quinault hopes their story will not only provide important learnings to the federal government, but also help demonstrate the dangers the world faces from climate change, as well as the importance of the earth itself.

“So you know we have a very old tie with this place,” Kapoman said. “Quinault won’t be leaving anytime soon. We may climb the hill, but we won’t be leaving our land anytime soon.”

Watch the video to learn more about the relocation efforts of the Quinault Indian Nation.

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