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Climate Change Is Bursting Retirement Bubbles Across America

Fires, floods and other climate-driven events are making paradise lost

By Craig Miller

Jay Gamel, 76,  still talks about his Northern California home in the present tense, as if nothing had happened. "The place is a paradise by any measure," says Gamel, who is semi-retired. "The mountains are beautiful, the surroundings are gorgeous. It's a postcard."

Remains of Jay Gamel's California home after the Glass Fire, Next Avenue, climate change, retirement bubbles
Remains of Jay Gamel's California home after the Glass Fire.   |  Credit: courtesy of Jay Gamel

For 26 years, Gamel had lived in — no, reveled in — his little redwood cabin in the Sonoma County town of Kenwood, where he edits a twice-monthly local newspaper. Gamel, who moved there from Chicago, thought he would never leave the little enclave known as Adobe Canyon, in the Mayacamas range, about 90 minutes north of San Francisco.

"That place is everything to me," he says. "It has been my life. It's the center of my being."

California Wildfires Scorch Retirement Dreams

Or it was, until last October, when hot, dry easterly winds known as Diablos drove a fierce wildfire across the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Known as the Glass Fire, the flames tore through more than 67,000 acres of wine country, destroying more than 300 homes, including Gamel's.

"It's a heartbreak," says Gamel, sighing heavily and audibly trying hard to keep it together. He doesn't mourn the loss of the house itself as much as his slice of paradise lost.

Regional climate impacts have become so commonplace that lists of "best retirement destinations" are beginning to take them into account.

"It's all burned up. My trees are gone, and the ones that aren't gone will have to go," says Gamel. "I know the land will heal, but long after I'm gone."

Even with aggressive efforts to reduce climate emissions, climate-driven events like the one Gamel is grappling with are unlikely to reverse direction anytime soon. And that's turning retirement upside down for many older Americans whose homes are, or will be, endangered.

New Thinking About Best Places to Retire

"The trends are all going the wrong way," says Adam Smith, an applied climatologist at the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Regional climate impacts have become so commonplace that lists of "best retirement destinations" are beginning to take them into account.

In a recent ProPublica article headlined "Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration" Florida State University sociologist Mathew Hauer predicts that 13 million Americans "will be forced to move away from submerged coastlines."

One of the more insidious climate impacts is high-tide flooding or "sunny-day" flooding, when rising sea levels cause coastal regions to become awash even without a storm-driven surge. It's happening with increasing frequency along the low-lying Atlantic and Gulf coasts, both magnets for retirees.

Smith notes that there have been more extreme rainfall events since 2010 than in the three previous decades combined. A recent study by Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization, projects that the number of affordable housing units threatened by chronic coastal flooding will likely triple in the next 30 years.

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The Cost of Charleston's Flooding for Retirees

One popular retirement spot that's seen more than its share of coastal flooding: Charleston, S.C. "And you wouldn't know it when you walk around the streets today," says resident Susan Lyons, 77, on a balmy day in late November. "It's seventy-eight degrees, the sun is out, it looks like a piece of Heaven."

That piece of Heaven is losing its halo for Lyons, though. A former newspaper reporter, she moved there from Long Island, N.Y. in 2004 to find her own retirement haven. Since 2015, Lyons' anxiety has been rising with the waters, as she has seen more frequent flooding from storm events and high tides in her neighborhood, ten blocks from Charleston Harbor.

Jay Gamel and his Adobe Canyon, Calif. "paradise", Next Avenue, retirement bubbles, climate change
Jay Gamel and his Adobe Canyon, Calif. "paradise"  |  Credit: courtesy of Jay Gamel

"I didn't really get it until all this began happening here back in 2015 and '16 — that we are really at great risk."

She gets it now, after two hurricanes and an extreme-precipitation event sometimes known as a "rain bomb" flooded her neighborhood three times in two years.

Lyons has twice had to replace the HVAC ductwork under her home, at a cost of $15,000 to $16,000 each time.

"My retirement security — sense of it — has been threatened by this," says Lyons, who notes that many of her neighbors are pulling out six-figure sums from their retirement savings to raise their homes out of harm's way.

"They're going up all over town," says Lyons. "I am not doing that. That is a huge investment, first of all, in time as well as money." 

Lyon's biggest concern about the flooding: "It's getting worse. It used to be there'd be some water in the street. Now the beltway around the Peninsula is flooded so that you can't use it."

Instances of sunny-day flooding in Charleston have quintupled since 2010. Lyons says they effectively cut off her and her neighbors from vital medical services. 

"There's a medical center about ten blocks north of here and the access is completely blocked off whenever we get a serious rain," she says. "So, if you're having a heart attack, you have to take a boat." 

Street flooding in Charleston, S.C., climate change, retirement bubbles
Street flooding in Charleston, S.C.  |  Credit: courtesy of Mark Bloom

These catastrophic events sometimes leave victims dependent on outside help.

After the Glass Fire, Gamel took temporary refuge with family in Austin, Texas, with no idea how "temporary" it would be. When his California neighbors launched a relief effort for him on GoFundMe, more than 500 donors stepped up, raising more than $25,000.

"I'm gonna cry if I think about it," Gamel says. He feels both devastated and grateful.

After a close brush with the 2017 Wine Country wildfires, Gamel quadrupled his insurance coverage. That helped this time around, but he knows he can't remain at loose ends forever. The fires won't be going away. (California recently banned home insurers from dropping policies in areas with wildfires, for one year.)

The 2020 fire season claimed more than 4 million acres in California alone, capping a string of ever-worsening years.

Map of billion dollar weather and climate disasters in the U.S. in 2020, climate change, next avenue, retirement bubbles, 2020
Map of billion dollar weather and climate disasters in the U.S. in 2020  |  Credit: NOAA

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the changing climate is a significant factor in the increasingly catastrophic wildfires of recent years. Seven of California's 10 largest wildfires have come in the last four years. In 2017, the town of Paradise, Calif., a popular destination for middle-income retirees, was virtually wiped off the map.

Grassroots Efforts Aim to Wake Up Government Leaders

State and local government officials are starting to feel the heat from some residents concerned about climate change's effects where they live.

Starting with a small email list, Lyons started a grassroots group, since dubbed Groundswell Charleston, to bring her concerns to city officials. It was slow going at first. "The powers that be here were just ignoring it," she recalls. "It was absolutely not discussed."

"I think most of us were just blindsided by the dramatic effect that climate change is now having."

The torpid response from local officials is not unusual, according to A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware's Biden School of Public Policy.

"This is incredibly difficult because it doesn't fall under 'disasters,'" says Siders, of chronic coastal flooding. "It's not a big, one-time event, it's this slow-onset creep."

That often puts federal disaster relief out of reach, leaving cities to fund solutions from their already-stretched tax bases.

"I think most of us, even thinking people, if I can call myself that, were just blindsided by the dramatic effect that climate change is now having," says Lyons. "It seemed to be decades off. And when you're in your sixties and seventies, you think, 'Well, you know…'"

Lyons says she had neighbors who've already left Charleston, concerned that falling property values could eventually jeopardize their long-term retirement plans.

As for her: "I'm determined to stay," she says. "Maybe I'm crazy, but I just love where I live. But it does eat into your bank account."

Jay Gamel is less certain about his own future and about whether he'll return to California permanently.

"I find myself now really faced with an open door, an open road in front of me and I don't know where it's gonna go," he admits.

 It's a familiar feeling to Gamel, the same one that led him to California in the 1970s — exciting then, but daunting as he approaches his ninth decade.

"I am truly up in the air," he says. "I have no idea what I'm gonna do. I have to figure out a life now."

Photograph of Craig Miller
Craig Miller’s career in broadcasting and journalism spans more than 40 years, though since 2008, his focus has been on tracking climate science and policy. Miller launched and edited the award-winning Climate Watch multimedia initiative for KQED in San Francisco, where he remained a science editor until August of 2019. Prior to KQED, he spent two decades as a television reporter and documentary producer at major-market stations, as well as CNN and MSNBC. When he’s not working, his favorite spot is in his kayak on a scenic river or mountain lake. Read More
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