While Mr. Trump was president, that idea continued to gain momentum after a series of devastating hurricanes. Agencies that help communities rebuild after disasters began pushing harder for what they called “large-scale migration or relocation,” through buying and demolishing vulnerable homes. The Army Corps of Engineers even began telling local communities that, to get some kinds of federal aid, they must be willing to evict reluctant homeowners from hard-to-protect houses.
But taking that logic one step further, and restricting new federal infrastructure spending for those areas, was too challenging, Ms. Hill said.
The question came up again during the Trump administration but was quickly rejected, according to a former administration official who worked on resilience issues and requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized by their current employer to speak to the media.
Mr. Biden’s infrastructure proposal suggests that political pressure remains.
The proposal doesn’t include the word retreat, but it does call for “relocation assistance to support community-led transitions for the most vulnerable tribal communities.” The plan doesn’t say why relocation assistance would specifically apply to Native American communities. In an interview, an administration official, who agreed to discuss the proposal on the condition that he not be identified by name, said the infrastructure package included money to improve data about future climate risks. That would allow governments to better understand the threats facing new projects, the person said, and incorporate that information into decisions about how and where to build.
Jainey Bavishi, who worked on managed-retreat policy as a senior official in the Obama administration, said the question was challenging because it goes beyond engineering and finance.
Deciding where to pull back is also about race and equity, she said, since many vulnerable areas are also minority communities that have suffered a lack of government investment in the past. Retreat also impacts other policy problems, like the availability of affordable housing and the impact on families’ financial health.
“Talking about where people can live, and where people cannot, is ultimately what this is about,” said Ms. Bavishi, who is now director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency in New York City. “And those are really, really difficult conversations to have.”