ECU planners and geographers research property buyouts and public perceptions

Compound coastal water events (CCWEs) are defined as events that are not themselves extreme but when combined lead to an extreme event or impact in a region. CCWEs are an issue of particular importance in eastern North Carolina and for researchers at East Carolina University.

Dr. Anuradha Mukherji, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, has spent many years leading a team of researchers to better understand repeat flooding events. Now they are focusing on the perceptions of property buyouts in eastern North Carolina.

Over the past few years, Dr. Anuradha Mukherji, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, has led a multidisciplinary team of faculty and students through two grant-funded projects from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that pertain to CCWEs; a Coastal and Ocean Climate Applications (NOAA-COCA) grant from 2019 and a 2022 Regional Integrated Sciences Assessments (RISA) and Adaptation Sciences (AdSci) program grant.

The team includes Dr. Jamie Kruse, Harriot College Distinguished Professor of economics; Dr. Ausmita Ghosh, assistant professor of economics; Dr. Meghan Millea, professor of economics; Dr. Scott Curtis, professor of physics at The Citadel; Dr. Jennifer Helgeson, research economist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and ECU student researchers Nelson Adeniji and Bella Sardina. Mukherji’s research interests, which include disaster planning, climate change adaptation and community resilience, drew her to this work.

“Coastal estuarine environments are susceptible to a combination of multiple water hazards that contribute to societal, economic and health risks,” Mukherji said. “Coastal regions such as eastern North Carolina (ENC) are increasingly buffeted by CCWEs, and such events have increased in volume over the past several decades.”

Recently, the team examined one lesser-studied aspect of CCWEs — property buyouts — and the perceptions of public officials on the buyout process in eastern North Carolina due to CCWEs, their impact, benefits and challenges.

The team conducted focus group interviews with public officials on these topics. The group included emergency managers, planners, elected officials, and other public officials in areas of public works and health. They had 24 participants who represented three Regional Planning Councils (Mid-East Commission, Albemarle Commission and Upper Coastal Plain) and three Emergency Management Divisions (Eastern-1, Eastern-2 and Central-7).

The research has led to multiple publications, including an article co-authored by Adeniji while he was completing his graduate degree in geography. Now, he is a student in the integrated coastal sciences doctoral program.

“The impact of climate change, such as compound events, is a challenge in eastern North Carolina,” Adeniji said. He said challenges after these events include navigating the mitigation process and restoring a community’s way of life.

“My role in this research involves exploring the experiences of Tarboro residents who participated in the buyout program,” said Sardina, a senior majoring in community and regional planning who participated in the research. She will earn her undergraduate degree this May and will continue her education through the department’s Master of Science degree in planning and development. “Through qualitative analysis using NVivo coding software, I aim to understand their perspectives and have found fascinating insights into the resistance some individuals exhibit towards buyout programs, stemming from community ties and the generational significance of their homes.”


Nelson Adeniji’s research as part of Mukherji’s team led to his co-authoring a paper with her about the perceptions of officials during the buyout process.

Flood damage probabilities tend to be high in areas of low elevation, including rural coastal eastern North Carolina. Therefore, the team’s research is important, not only to Mukherji but also to the public and to the communities of North Carolina and beyond.

“As a researcher living in ENC, I believe it is important to bring greater awareness, not just among an academic audience but also among policymakers and practitioners, to the unique challenges in rural coastal communities facing climate change impacts,” Mukherji said.

“Research on buyout programs and their implementation in rural communities in the United States is considerably thin compared to that of buyouts in urban areas, even though studies suggest that managed retreat (buyouts are a form of managed retreat) is likely to occur in more rural areas. Also, little is known about the experiences of local public officials implementing buyout programs in rural coastal regions such as eastern North Carolina,” she said.

In addition, Mukherji said rural and urban areas experience climate hazards differently. She said prior research shows that rural areas are more isolated with lower access to health infrastructure and tend to have older, less affluent and less educated populations, limited financial and human resources, and weaker relationships with state and federal agencies than urban areas. She also said that research has not looked at mid- to long-term economic and health impacts, such as financial difficulties and mental and physical health issues.


Through their focus groups, Mukherji and her team pinpointed some key findings. First, property attachment, social ties in the community and financial considerations drive the decisions to accept or reject buyout offers for residential property owners in rural ENC. Second, Black households attached to their land and property, stemming from historical injustices, are less likely to join buyout programs and therefore be more vulnerable to future CCWEs, leading to inequitable resilience within rural communities. Finally, the buyout programs are lengthy and lack adequate communication. Local officials in rural ENC are interested in and recommend a simplified and streamlined buyout program. This could include the presence of a designated unit at the state level to be a clearinghouse for various funding opportunities and dedicated staff at the state or county levels to help communities through the process of applying for appropriate funding.

Participants also asked for alternative mitigation options for small rural communities where the loss of the tax base, disruption of community cohesion, attachment to generational properties, and the perceived health and economic impacts on participating households remain significant concerns. Mukherji’s team recommends funding streams that target locally driven pre-disaster mitigation projects such as living shorelines, infrastructure maintenance, repair and relocation, and affordable housing options for households moving out of the 100-year floodplain.

“Flood events can lead to a population downturn in rural communities as households struggle to find affordable housing and tend to leave the area. This, in turn, decreases the tax base, reducing a jurisdiction’s fiscal capacity to address flooding and a loss of identity, history and community,” Mukherji said. “A holistic lens is needed to extend the parameters of what is considered flood hazard mitigation. We recommend that decision-makers focus on equity and inclusion to craft holistic hazard mitigation policies and programs that meet the unique needs and struggles of rural coastal communities. The affordable housing issue for low-income households who want to stay in the area, albeit outside the floodplain, illustrates the complex and multifaceted mitigation needs of rural coastal communities.”


Sardina said her participation in this research was a valuable experience.

Bella Sardina, a community and regional planning major, is part of Mukherji’s team and is gaining valuable experience for her future career.

“This research has been immensely beneficial to my education, allowing me to explore the intricate connections between environmental factors and housing within the realm of planning. The findings have not only broadened my understanding but have also equipped me with valuable insights that will shape my future endeavors,” she said. “In the future, I hope to contribute to addressing the complex issue of unaffordable housing as a planner specializing in housing and neighborhood development.”

Mukherji said, “I am glad our research can shine attention on this important issue facing rural coastal communities as they increasingly face climate change-related challenges and impacts.”

“The U.S. federal government spends a lot of money on buyouts, but we don’t know much about the efficacy of these programs and whether they are meeting the needs of local communities, especially in rural areas,” she said. “Since the 1990s, 43,000 residential properties have been bought out in three territories and 49 states, except for Hawaii. Flood events in North Carolina have led to more than 1,600 residential property buyouts, of which 1,537 were in the eastern region of the state. Further research can provide valuable insights into what is and is not working.”

Now, the team is conducting follow-up research, specifically focused on rural, flood-prone, underserved low-income communities in the Carolinas. This extension of their work on buyouts will look at the intended and unintended consequences of buyout programs as an adaptative response to CCWEs and aims to capture the benefits and costs associated while addressing financial and equity challenges.

“This study, which is still in its infancy, aims to understand the mitigation choices available to the impacted population and how these choices affect their recovery,” Adeniji said. “It will shed light on the dynamics of decision-making after an event and also aid in planning for future events.”

This map shows the counties represented in focus group research conducted in 2020 on the issue of compound coastal water hazards.