Citizenship Rights and Voluntary Decision Making in Post-Disaster U.S. Floodplain Buyout Mitigation Programs

March 2012 (VOL. 30, NO. 1)

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Since the 1990s, the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has promoted voluntary “buyout” programs to relocate property owners out of floodplains. In this paper we evaluate perceived voluntariness of these initiatives. We use local mitigation official interviews and property owner surveys conducted in four post-disaster buyout program sites. We show that there is considerable variability in property-owner’s experience of buyout programs and their sense of voluntariness, despite high buyout acceptance rates. We find that the paradox facing program managers is that buyout participants perceive the process to be less voluntary compared to those who did not accept the offer. Because local mitigation officials simultaneously act in the interest of the government while working with flooded property owners, voluntariness is not guaranteed. Low social capital of flood victims tends to lead to situations where buyouts are successfully expedited during post-crisis, temporal “windows of opportunity” and local perceptions of voluntariness are compromised.