Coming Storms: Climate Change and the Rising Threat to America’s Coastal Elders

Climate change is threatening America’s aging coastal population with rising sea levels and increasing hurricane intensity. A new report from Climate Central shows risks to older adults’ safety, health and financial security.

As the U.S. population ages, more elders are living in coastal communities than ever before—Census data shows the coastal population ages 65 and older from 1970 to 2010 went up by 89 percent.

Senior Facilities at Risk

Elders in care facilities are among the most vulnerable to death and health setbacks due to hurricanes, storm surges and other floods, according to researchers who study coastal disasters.

Climate Central screened for potential coastal flood risk to nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Florida, New Jersey, Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina. In 30 years, Florida is projected to be the hardest hit, with a 67 percent increase in the number of units potentially exposed to flooding. Assuming the facilities are at capacity according to their number of licensed beds, by 2050, at least 5,900 residents would be exposed in 91 facilities. Of the beds affected, 23 percent are projected to be in facilities subjected to frequent or chronic flood threats.

Projections show potential serious impact in New Jersey, as well, with more than 700 licensed beds in facilities exposed to frequent or chronic flood risk by 2050. These numbers represent a small fraction of the overall number of facilities and residents in these states, but point to the need for preparedness from coastal flooding by facilities and local emergency managers.

Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that evacuating elders from nursing homes and assisted living facilities can cause more harm than good. Research in 2011 using Medicaid and Medicare records showed that in four hurricanes, many more residents died after evacuation than after sheltering in place.

“Old people and these kinds of emergency situations don’t mix, particularly nursing home patients who are quite frail and have numerous comorbidities,” said Dr. David Dosa, a gerontologist and associate professor of medicine at Brown University. “It’s quite clear from climate change that we’re seeing more and more of these events.”

Emergency response plans should consider that rising waters may block transportation routes for evacuation and for staff travel. Even if a facility doesn’t flood, it may not be able to properly care for residents if water cuts off roads, said Michael Greenberg, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University who wrote a 2014 book titled, “Protecting Seniors Against Environmental Disasters,” which included insights from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

FEMA flood maps were almost 30 years out of date by the time Hurricane Sandy hit.

“During Sandy, a huge number of people got cut off,” Greenberg said. “People really became extremely isolated. People who needed dialysis couldn't get to dialysis.”

Before the widespread use of air conditioning, developers commonly located senior facilities close to the shore to avoid heat. But rising sea levels may mean some of those sites are no longer appropriate. Some facilities vulnerable to flooding have already closed. Those shut-downs come amid a multiyear national trend of nursing homes closures, which has been rapidly accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Greenberg noted that well-built, modern facilities generally can withstand storms and have staff and contingency plans to handle them. But older facilities, which often serve low-income residents, may be built to lower standards or on sites subject to flooding, and may have fewer staff and resources to cope with disasters.

The Hidden Climate Threat to Elders’ Finances

Climate change also threatens the real estate nest eggs of older adults living on America’s coasts, often in ways that are hidden or difficult for homeowners to assess.

Research shows that financial hazards extend well beyond homes flooding. Anticipated sea level rise has depressed property values and increased insurance and property taxes, said Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of real estate at the Tulane University School of Architecture. Retirees on fixed incomes may not foresee or be able to handle those increases.

Nationally, homes exposed to sea level rise risk are selling for an average of 7 percent less than equivalent houses, according to 2019 research by scientists at the University of Colorado and Penn State University.

Homeowners with mortgages typically are required to carry flood insurance if they live in a federally designated flood plain, but not those who own homes without debt.

Judging the risk of future flooding can be difficult, because flood plain maps are inaccurate and outdated, and flooding records for individual properties are kept confidential by federal officials, said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The National Flood Insurance Program will reveal past flood damage only after the current property owner requests it in writing.

Twenty-nine states require sellers to disclose whether the property is in a designated flood plain before completing a sale. But only 10 U.S. states require property sellers to disclose past flooding to buyers, and among East Coast states only Delaware has adequate disclosure rules, according to 2018 research by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

“Areas inundated in Hurricane Sandy were far more extensive than the areas identified by FEMA as at risk of flooding on their flood maps, and that's because the maps were almost 30 years out of date by the time Sandy hit,” Moore said. “And they don't incorporate any assumptions about future climate conditions.”

Many older adults whose homes were damaged in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy left the area, said Greenberg. Unable to afford repairs or improvements to prepare for another storm, they sold to developers who built for more affluent buyers, with expensive improvements such as an elevated first floor.

Some experts describe coastal real estate ownership as a game of musical chairs, as property changes hands until sea level rise imposes significant losses on a final owner. But Tulane’s Keenan said losses also accumulate gradually, as forces gather to increase the cost of owning a coastal home and reduce the buying power of potential purchasers.

Here is a toolkit of sites to help identify the flooding risk of coastal property:

  • Climate Central’s Coastal Risk Screening Tool provides maps of specific locations by decade and by water level, and a choice of varying sea level rise scenarios;
  • Climate Central’s Surging Seas Risk Finder shows detailed data on coastal communities’ flood risks;
  • First Street Foundation’s Flood Factor offers a flood-risk score for individual property addresses.

Allison Kopicki is a researcher and writer for Climate Central in Princeton, NJ. Charles Wohlforth is an author and journalist, former public official, policy activist and consultant. He lives in New Jersey.