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Migration into flood-prone areas has skyrocketed but Hampton Roads bucks national trend, new analysis shows

A drone view of Norfolk. (Photo by Neil Grochmal)
A drone view of Norfolk. (Photo by Neil Grochmal)

Despite the mounting impacts of climate change, more people are moving into the country’s most flood-prone areas than out of them.

Migration into high-risk regions, like southwest Florida – which was devastated by Hurricane Ian last year — has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, according to new analysis from Redfin, a national real estate brokerage.

But the opposite is true in Hampton Roads: More people are moving out of the region than in.

It’s the only major coastal area Redfin analyzed on the East Coast where that’s happening. New Orleans and Miami also saw population losses, while the rest of coastal Florida was a top destination.  

Redfin focused on counties or cities that rank in the top 10% for flood risk nationwide, calculated by the share of residential properties at high risk using data from the nonprofit First Street Foundation. It then combined that with census migration data for 2021 and 2022. 

Analysts found that in those years, the most flood-prone localities saw a total of 384,000 more people move in than out in 2021 and 2022 — a 103% increase from the prior two years.

They observed the same trend in areas most at risk from heat and fire as well.

“The takeaway is that people are increasingly moving into harm's way when it comes to natural disasters, and it's probably going to get worse as climate change intensifies,” said Daryl Fairweather, Redfin’s chief economist. 

“And everybody should care about that, because the government is probably going to have to spend money to mitigate against climate change, whether that's investing in infrastructure, subsidizing insurance or bailing out people who lost their homes.”

Fairweather said homebuyers especially should consider climate change when they're deciding where to live.

It’s not that people don’t care about climate risks now, Fairweather said, but it’s not necessarily top of mind.

People’s top concern is affordability, she said, and that sometimes drives them out of more resilient areas, like Seattle and San Francisco.

“People are leaving some places for other places they think are more affordable, but that might not hold true in the long run as the costs of climate change are borne out,” she said.

Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, is not surprised that Hampton Roads goes against the trend. 

For one, affordability is not as much of a draw. Housing in Hampton Roads is less affordable than Northern Virginia and other comparable metro areas, according to analysis by WHRO.

But overall, the region’s population has been slowing for decades. It lags behind other areas, including within Virginia, Lombard said.

In the 2010s, Northern Virginia saw growth of nearly 15%, and Richmond just over 10%, while Hampton Roads had only about 5% population growth, according to the Cooper Center.

Lombard said Hampton Roads is unusual for the state in that it developed as a large urban area back in the early 1900s. 

The industrial economy more closely resembles the Midwest or Northeast than the Southeast, he said – and of course its military presence is also unique. 

The economy is also closely tied to ups and downs in defense spending. 

Other Southeastern metro areas are more geared toward tourism and recreation, Lombard said, which attracts people to live there for the lifestyle.

But Hampton Roads’ industrial and military jobs are well-paying.

“So there hasn't been that urgency to shift the economy away,” Lombard said. “And you might not want to do that if you have good jobs. But as a result, it has this sort of economy that is more reflective of the country several decades ago.”

The military brings lots of young people to the area, he said, but the region doesn’t offer enough other opportunities to retain them.

“Hampton Roads’ military installations provide the region with a significant demographic advantage that it has not fully capitalized on in recent decades,” Lombard wrote in a summary of the trends earlier this year.

The concept of climate migration — people choosing to move away from areas where climate change is causing impacts – has gotten a lot of attention in recent years.

Lombard said he’s talked with higher-elevation localities in Virginia that have expected more people moving there for that reason.

But the data just doesn’t show it’s happening locally.

To the extent that climate does impact Hampton Roads migration, he said, it’s probably more as a draw to the temperate climate, not a deterrent.

He said if insurance companies stop offering insurance in certain areas – as is true in some parts of Florida and spots in California affected by wildfires – that could be what starts tipping the scales.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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