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Jan. 16, 2021, 10:31 a.m. EST

How climate change is ruining retirement across America

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Craig Miller

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

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 semiretired. “The mountains are beautiful, the surroundings are gorgeous. It’s a postcard.”

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.”

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.

“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.

Read: I’d like to buy a home in a warm spot near the beach for $350,000 — where should I 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.

Read: My husband wants to be by the ocean, but I lived through Katrina and love lakes — where can we (semi) retire and rent for $2,000 a month?

Smith notes that there have been more extreme rainfall events since 2010 than in the three previous decades combined. A recent study by  Climate Centra l, 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.

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, 10 blocks from Charleston Harbor.

“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.” 

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