What happens when climate change comes knocking at your front door? : The Indicator from Planet Money What happens when small town politics collide with the climate crisis? And how do hazard maps—maps that show which homes in your neighborhood are at risk of getting destroyed or damaged by a natural disaster—come into play? On today's episode, how some people—from Indiana to Oregon to Alaska—are facing some very real concerns about insurance and the ability to sell their houses.

Hazard maps: The curse of knowledge

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1197964461/1249753809" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong, and here with me is Nate Hegyi, back again for more Indicator hijinks.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hey, hey. Great to be back.

WONG: You are host of NHPR's environmental podcast Outside/In, and you do a lot of stories about climate change.

HEGYI: Yes. And lately, I have been really interested in hazard maps.

WONG: These are maps that show which homes in your neighborhood are at risk of getting destroyed or damaged by a natural disaster. So we're talking about flooding, wildfires, landslides, that sort of thing.

HEGYI: Exactly. And so lately, a lot of cities and states have been updating these maps because of climate change. And no surprise, hazard zones are getting bigger. But when that happens, without fail, locals from Indiana to Oregon to Juneau, Alaska, have reacted in pretty much the same way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do we really have to adopt these maps?

WONG: Today on THE INDICATOR, what happens when small-town politics collides with the climate crisis, and how it's forcing locals to face some very real concerns about insurance and the ability to sell their house.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: One of these places that recently updated its hazard maps was Alaska's capital city, Juneau.

HEGYI: Beautiful place. But it's also in the middle of a rainforest. So when it really pours...

TOM MATTICE: We really see some extreme events.

HEGYI: That's Tom Mattice. He's the emergency programs manager in Juneau. He says Juneau gets a lot of landslides.

MATTICE: Every time we get precipitation and every time the wind blows, little pieces of earth go downhill with gravity. And sometimes, that's grains of sand, and sometimes that's the mountainside.

WONG: Juneau has had hazard maps for landslides and avalanches since the 1980s. They came with building restrictions in high-risk zones.

MATTICE: If it's on the map in such a way that it could experience significant loss of life and property, we probably shouldn't build a lot of things there. And we limited those properties to single-family dwellings. You can't build a condo, you can't build an apartment. You can't put an accessory dwelling on your property if you already have a property.

WONG: Because of climate change, southeast Alaska is going to get warmer and wetter, which means that landslides are increasing in frequency.

HEGYI: So a few years ago, Juneau decided to update those old hazard maps.

MATTICE: We knew that the old maps were done to the perfection of their science in their day.

WONG: But here's the thing. The science 30 or 40 years ago is nowhere near as sophisticated as the science today. And these new maps show the landslide hazard zone was bigger than previously thought. In fact, it showed that more than 200 condos, gift shops, and homes downtown were in high-risk zones.

HEGYI: Eve Soutiere owns one of these homes. It's a place that she loves.

EVE SOUTIERE: We call it Teva Adamah. It's a Hebrew for the Red Ark. My husband kind of named it. And an ark is a place of sanctuary.

HEGYI: And does it feel like a sanctuary to you?

SOUTIERE: It does. It does. It's kind of like living in a tree house 'cause we're clinging to the side of the mountain, and we're in the trees. And it's just - it was the perfect house for us.

HEGYI: Eve knew that her red ark had a slight risk for landslides. After all, the boundary of the old hazard zone ended at her property line, almost right at her back door.

SOUTIERE: When it was listed when we kind of looked at it, they said that it was in a mild or low-risk area.

HEGYI: And what was your reaction when you first saw that you went from very little to severe?

SOUTIERE: Kind of like, what are they smoking? Like, how? How is that even possible?

WONG: To understand one reason why these maps were so unpopular, you have to understand a thing or two about landslides. It is a broad category of disaster. It can include everything from a bunch of loose rocks tumbling down a hill and damaging the outside of a house to the entire hillside liquefying and wiping out whole neighborhoods.

HEGYI: Also, the timeline is unpredictable. Landslide zones, they can go decades before finally giving way. So it's tempting to think that you can just roll the dice. Eve still believes that her home isn't likely to be destroyed by a landslide, but she also isn't naive about it. She compares it to flying a plane, which, by the way, is something she actually does. She's a pilot.

SOUTIERE: I think we all assume a certain amount of risk. Every time I pre-flight, I assume that risk. Every time I take off, I assume that risk. I know what the risk is. And for me, it's worth it. This place, to me, is my sanctuary. And you'd asked me before, why? And I think it's because of love. You'll do a lot for love.

WONG: Usually, love-struck homeowners have a standard backup plan - insurance. So in this instance, you would think it would be landslide insurance, right?

SOUTIERE: We kind of looked at landslide insurance with everybody else in this neighborhood once the maps came into play. And it's impossible.

WONG: This is where it gets weird. As we've talked about on the show before, insurance companies have been pulling out of states like California and Florida because climate change is making wildfires and flooding more severe.

HEGYI: And at first glance, you might think the same thing is happening in Alaska. But it's not. Instead, companies stopped offering coverage almost a decade ago because people just simply didn't want it.

LLOYD DIXON: There really did not seem to be a lot of demand for them.

WONG: Lloyd Dixon is a senior economist with the RAND Corporation who focuses on natural disasters and insurance. He says this is a pretty normal human tendency. The same thing happens with earthquake insurance in California.

DIXON: There's been research that, you know, says that people tend to, you know, underestimate low-probability risks, that, you know, if you don't see it very often, you tend to just sort of out of mind, out of sight, not going to happen to me. And people just ignore it.

HEGYI: And without a big enough pool, it just isn't economically feasible to offer landslide insurance. And that lack of insurance can start a domino effect. A local mortgage lender told me that lending on a home there is a riskier bet. They don't want to be on the hook for a house that could get flattened by mud.

WONG: What all this means is that the only people who could potentially afford to buy homes in these areas will be wealthy, people who can pay cash or offer some kind of big collateral in order to secure a loan, which is really a problem because Juneau is in the midst of a severe housing crisis.

HEGYI: That's what really freaked out locals like Mary Ellen Duffy.

MARY ELLEN DUFFY: My Westridge condo is my home, my retirement and my life investment.

HEGYI: Mary is a lifelong resident of Juneau living on a fixed income, and she was thinking this might be the right time to sell. Now she's worried.

DUFFY: The banks might not lend, making resale questionable.

WONG: Not only do the maps make it harder to secure a mortgage so people like Mary could sell her place, but by officially adopting them, city officials would throttle development in severe landslide zones because of those existing building restrictions.

HEGYI: So, they ultimately decided to just shelve the maps. They still exist on the city's website, but the policy of city planners is to basically ignore them. But even though they repealed the maps, the cat is still out of the bag. Lenders can still look at those maps, and the danger doesn't just, like, magically disappear.

WONG: And this is something that's happening all across the country. In Oregon, state officials withdrew a new wildfire map after residents worried about losing their insurance. In Indiana, a new state flood map faced fierce opposition after locals worried about what it meant for their property values.

HEGYI: And a lot of folks that I talked to, they said the problem here is that governments are rolling out these new hazard maps without a plan for what happens next. The idea is that there could be government-funded home buyouts or engineering projects to protect people - landslide warning systems.

WONG: But Tom Mattice, the emergency programs manager in Juneau, says all of that comes with a cost to local taxpayers.

MATTICE: Mitigation's the right thing to do, but the question is at what cost to who because you kind of have to rob Peter to pay Paul, right?

WONG: And in a place like Alaska that values rugged individualism and personal choice, that is a hard sell.

This show was produced by Angel Carreras, with engineering by Robert Rodriguez. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Kate Concannon is our editor, and THE INDICATOR's a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.