KAUNAKAKAI, Molokai — When Bridget Mowat moved to Molokai from Maui in 1976, a sandy beach offered a protective barrier between her home and the ocean.

In the ensuing years, the beach has drastically shrunk. The sea is now threatening to swallow Mowat’s home in Kapa‘akea on Molokai’s south shore, a structure built on Hawaiian Home Lands where her in-laws once lived. She said her family secured the lease to the homestead in the late 1930s, and five generations currently live on the six-acre property that was once used to raise cattle.

“The sand is going out. The land is being taken away. We have coconut trees in the water,” said Mowat, or Aunty Bridget as most people call her.

She wants to move inland before rising sea levels, waves and king tides destroy her home. But she needs financial assistance and government help to afford somewhere else to live. Mowat, a member of the Molokai Planning Commission and active community member, is losing hope that her threatened home will ever be bought out.

“I’ll be long gone before that happens,” she said.

A federal report released in February of this year predicted that sea level in Hawaii is expected to rise by as much as a foot by 2050. Hawaii researchers have found that chronic flooding threatens 6,500 structures, 25,800 acres of land, 38 miles of major roads, 550 cultural sites and at least $19 billion in assets statewide.

Like other Native Hawaiian homesteaders, Mowat has attended numerous meetings about sea level rise and coastal erosion. She has talked with countless planners and consultants, provided photographs and documentation, and done whatever she can in hopes of escaping the ocean’s threats.

“It’s survey after survey, meeting after meeting,” she said. “But they haven’t helped us in any way.”

Mowat is not alone in wondering what to do in the face of mounting threats from climate change.

Molokai, like other islands in the archipelago, is experiencing increased flooding from powerful storms, surf eating away at coastal roads, reefs dying from stormwater runoff, ocean acidification and vulnerable infrastructure — things like fuel storage tanks, cesspools, wastewater treatment plants and landfills — threatened by inundation.

Bridget Mowat stands outside her home on a Hawaiian homestead on Molokai.
Bridget Mowat stands outside her home on a Hawaiian homestead on Molokai. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

There’s no meaningful state or national policy or dedicated funding source to relocate coastal residents whose homes are located in harm’s way. And yet threats from a warming planet continue to mount.

According to research published in January by the journal Nature Climate Change, the risk of flooding in the U.S. is expected to rise by 26% percent by 2050 while its annual toll will jump to $42 billion from $32 billion during that timeframe. Extreme weather and climate disasters in the U.S. from 1980 to 2022 have cost the nation more than $2.2 trillion, including $6.4 billion in losses in Hawaii, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

The National Climate Assessment found that lower income, underserved and otherwise marginalized citizens have less capacity to deal with more intense weather and climate impacts, like sea level rise. Yet they are often the most at-risk, according to the congressionally mandated report, most recently released in 2018.

Many barriers prevent Americans, particularly those experiencing poverty, from accessing what federal funding is available for relocation from coastal hazards, a strategy called managed retreat.

“Some of it is just the economics of the way real estate purchases for residential property work in these high-value states.” — Adam Weintraub, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency

There’s complicated and laborious paperwork to fill out. Disadvantaged communities often lack planners, grant writers, or others with administrative know-how and skills needed to navigate byzantine bureaucracy. Other communities don’t meet the criteria to be considered qualified, and others lack the cost-share funds that federal programs often require.

Many simply don’t know where to start.

Regardless of the obstacles, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is the country’s main source for disaster mitigation funding. Its post-flood buyout program has increasingly become the nation’s roadmap for moving people out of harm’s way.

Far from perfect, the three-decade-old buyout program faced heavy criticism after research found it tends to favor wealthy communities over lower-income ones. A 2019 study led by the University of Miami looked at 40,000 voluntary FEMA buyouts from 1989 to 2017. It concluded that buyouts happened more often in higher-income, urban areas rather than more financially strapped and vulnerable communities.

But buyouts are increasingly being used for climate-related relocation. The study found that about one-third of counties, cities and boroughs across the country have used post-flooding buyouts.

Hawaii is an outlier. Out of 50 states, Hawaii was the lone one not to have participated in the FEMA buyout program, the agency’s data shows.

Priced Out Of Protection?

The head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s mitigation office says it’s up to people at the local level to seek federal funding for relocation.

“It’s every neighborhood’s choice if they want to pursue federal grants through the county,” said Theresa Woznick, who led the mitigation section of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency until recently.

Luke Meyers, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator, says expensive real estate likely plays a role in Hawaii’s lack of participation in FEMA buyout programs. Courtesy: State of Hawaii

Woznick said her office doesn’t tell communities whether to apply for FEMA funding. That must start on the local level and then proceed to the county. Each county has a floodplain manager that individuals or neighborhood leaders can reach out to for guidance, she said.

As far as why Hawaii has not had any FEMA buyouts, agency administrator Luke Meyers said Hawaii’s expensive real estate is a factor.

“With the cost of property here, you would have to see some pretty severe flooding on a chronic basis to get to some of those thresholds for some of the FEMA flood mitigation programs,” Meyers said.

If someone lives in a neighborhood with a history of flooding and pursues a buyout, even if that process is successful, they still must find another place to live, and that can be problematic in Hawaii, a state with a severe housing shortage.

“Some of it is just the economics of the way real estate purchases for residential property work in these high-value states. The instrument is there but it might not make sense for a lot of people who have the problem to pursue because they then have to find a place to live,” said agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub.

But FEMA buyouts have occurred in other parts of the United States with high-end real estate.

“People don’t know to ask for this if they don’t know it exists.” — Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Maui County Council

FEMA records indicate the agency bought out several properties in high-cost Santa Barbara County in California for $14.5 million since 1989, according to federal data analyzed by Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners. The median sales price of a home in Santa Barbara County in June topped $1 million, which is on par with Hawaii.

Similarly, Morris County, New Jersey, has had 48 buyouts through 2017 and Somerset County, New Jersey, has had 56. The median single-family home price in both counties was $700,000 in June.

So why not in Hawaii?

Bridget Mowat's homestead on the south shore of Molokai.
Native Hawaiian homesteads on the south shore of Molokai are already facing the effects of climate change. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Some coastal property owners in Hawaii may have the financial means to deal with flooding issues on their own. They also might have insurance plans that will cover hazard mitigation measures, forgoing the need for a government buyout, Weintraub said.

He noted that when the federal government buys out property, the land transfers permanently into federal ownership, usually for open space. In the case of land set aside for Native Hawaiians, significant opposition might arise to any scheme that would see those lands turned over to the federal government.

“The cultural attitudes toward land in Hawaii, including the history of displacing people from land, contributes to resistance among some in the community to any government buy-out or relocation program,” Weintruab said.

But many communities may not even know that FEMA buyouts are an option and that’s part of the problem, said Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, vice chair of the Maui County Council.

Maui County Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez says DHHL should be all over this issue. 

In a place like Molokai, with its high percentage of Native Hawaiians, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands should be taking a more active role, she said.

“DHHL should be all over this for Molokai specifically because we have several homestead communities that are being affected by sea level rise right now. And those lands are leaseholds so they should be facilitating this kind of work now,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

“People don’t know to ask for this if they don’t know it exists — this option and program. They need to know about it in order to organize, talk about it and request that the area be bought out,” she said.

DHHL should be providing this as an option to homesteaders — many of whom are older kupuna — along the coast who are already losing property, Rawlins-Fernandez said.

“It should be worked out now while they are still alive,” she said.

Hawaii’s Roadblocks

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is taking some steps to help beneficiaries like Mowat.

Its planning office is preparing a South Molokai shoreline erosion management plan, a process that started in 2015. A draft is expected to be finalized soon after the department holds consultations with homesteaders this summer, according to a presentation to the Hawaiian Homes Commission earlier this year by planner Nancy McPherson.

The plan will lay out a series of responses and remedies for shoreline erosion, and policy options for reducing hazards and discouraging new construction in places that are likely to be flooded. Some of the options include vegetation treatments, breakwaters, revetments and bulkheads.

The Hawaii sea level rise viewer, developed by the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System, shows the south shore of Molokai where Bridget Mowat and other Native Hawaiian homesteaders live under water with 3 feet of sea level rise.
The Hawaii sea level rise viewer, developed by the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System, shows the south shore of Molokai where Bridget Mowat and Native Hawaiian homesteaders live under water with 3 feet of sea level rise. Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission/2021

The department received a grant from the National Coastal Resilience Fund to implement some of the plan’s recommendations. The fund is a program of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

At the state level, Hawaii is trying to get FEMA to adapt some of its rules so that Hawaii can access more federal funding for hazard mitigation.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency raised concerns about the way FEMA defines a community as “small and disadvantaged,” criteria that can rank a town higher on FEMA’s scoring model and open the door to greater amounts of funding, Weintraub said.

Under federal law, no Hawaii communities qualify as small and disadvantaged. The law defines a community as small and disadvantaged if it has 3,000 or fewer individuals and if residents have an average per capita income that doesn’t exceed 80% of the national per capita income.

“Unlike all other states, Hawaii has counties but no incorporated cities, so even lightly populated islands, like Molokai, still have more than 3,000 residents,” FEMA said in response to a Civil Beat inquiry.

 

Hawaii has also run into roadblocks when it comes to accessing a relatively new FEMA program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC.

It’s a nationally competitive program started in 2020 that supports hazard mitigation. That year, $450 million was available nationally. In fiscal year 2021, that number had ballooned to $919 million, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

When Hawaii applied for $117 million in funding in 2020, it received just $600,000, Weintraub said. By contrast, New Jersey received authorization for $58.5 million, according to a HI-EMA briefing paper prepared for U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele.

A major reason why Hawaii didn’t receive any funding is because it has outdated building codes that don’t conform to national standards. About one-third of an applicant’s potential success is based on having up-to-date local building codes and getting a good grade in a national program called the Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule.

Hawaii is one of five states that doesn’t participate in the program.

Tires were places along the shoreline on Molokai in an effort to slow down the coastal erosion that's threatening Hawaiian homesteads.
Tires were places along a shoreline on Molokai in an effort to slow down the coastal erosion that’s threatening homes. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Existing timelines prevent Hawaii from adopting current codes, which are released on a three-year schedule. The state has two years to adopt new codes after making amendments. Counties then have two years to adopt them with county-level changes. Collectively, the state and counties take four years to amend and adopt the codes, a cycle that prevents Hawaii from ever achieving current building code standards, which is critical to winning funding from FEMA’s BRIC program.

One reason why it takes Hawaii so long to adopt up-to-date building codes is because the state and county building code councils are run by volunteers. Despite lobbying, the Legislature has not appropriated funding for salaried staff, according to HI-EMA.

There’s also been a lack of public education and outreach on the value of modern building codes, the agency says. Modern building codes open the door to potential FEMA funding and they save an estimated $13 for every dollar invested, according to the National Institute for Building Standards.

Adopting current building codes should be a no-brainer as Hawaii confronts impacts from climate change and sea-level rise, the agency says.

But that will take buy-in from builders. Modern building codes that take climate resilience into account could add costs to new construction. In the midst of a severe housing shortage and sky-high real estate prices in Hawaii, that could be a tough sell.

“We do acknowledge that when you have to take mitigation activities or build structures to a higher standard there may be more cost. So any resources that can be put toward these building code groups would be very beneficial,” Meyers said.

‘Before It’s Too Late’

Bureaucratic hurdles like building codes, mountainous paperwork to apply, and not ranking as small and disadvantaged are barriers that make it hard for average Hawaii residents to get the federal help they need to become resilient to climate change.

But with predictions that coastal areas of Hawaii will be under several feet of water by the end of the century, if not sooner, some in places like Molokai are feeling a sense of urgency.

Louis "Squeaky" Greenleaf stands at the edge of his property on his Hawaiian homestead on Molokai.
Louis “Squeaky” Greenleaf stands at the edge of his property on his Hawaiian homestead on Molokai. He remembers years ago when the beach stretched past the far post sticking out of the water. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Louis “Squeaky” Greenleaf, who lives down the street from Mowat, says if he didn’t patch his seawall each year his home would be underwater. He was born and raised in the traditional green home, built in 1951, and recalls a now non-existent beach that used to extend in front of the property. During king tides, like those last month, the surf now hits his seawall and splashes against the house.

The nonprofit Sustainable Molokai is developing a master plan for climate change and sea level rise adaptation and resilience, funded by a $500,000 grant from the Maui County Council. The goal is to prioritize places on the island and critical infrastructure that must be shored up, elevated or moved inland. The nonprofit is starting with Molokai and then hopes to extend the planning for Maui and Lanai.

It’s not just her home or her neighbors’ homes that Mowat is worried about. There’s a landfill and a wastewater treatment plant, among other public facilities, that are in danger of being washed away as the ocean swallows the shoreline — not to mention most places run on cesspools that can gush waste into the sea.

“All of that old stuff is in there, in the ground,” Mowat said. “We got a lot of problems. These things got to be moved before it’s too late.”

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