As he’s traveled the country to visit victims of storms, wildfires, and floods, President Joe Biden has returned to a similar theme: Climate change is “everybody’s crisis,” as he declared last year after surveying flooded-out New York homes in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
Biden doesn’t say it explicitly, but that “everybody” includes himself. The President’s vacation home near Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, is in the middle of a flood zone, and an analysis by a climate research group shows that the house is facing “extreme” flooding risk that is expected to get more severe over time.
That means the nation’s homeowner-in-chief is among the millions of Americans who are facing climate-linked danger to their properties – and he has a big personal financial stake in the fight against the climate crisis.
Biden’s multi-million-dollar vacation home, which he has visited nearly a dozen times during his presidency, is in a quiet community tucked between a canal, the wetlands of a state park, and the Atlantic Ocean. Delaware has the lowest average elevation of any state, leaving neighborhoods like his in danger of being swamped during storms.
Biden and his wife Jill bought the home in 2017 after he left the vice presidency, and the structure is elevated to avoid major damage from all but the most catastrophic floods.
Elevation can be a powerful tool to protect against flood damage. Some climate advocates, while applauding Biden’s legislative accomplishments, argue that his administration should do more to help other residents of flood zones raise their homes – in a similar manner to the President’s summer retreat.
And they note that areas like Biden’s wealthy neighborhood, where streets are dotted with elevated homes, are far better protected from the impacts of climate change than poorer communities hit by disastrous flooding, from rural Kentucky to Jackson, Mississippi.
“When rain falls, it falls on those in power and those without power as well,” said Daniel Gilford, a researcher at the nonprofit Climate Central. “Climate change comes for all of us, but only some are wealthy enough to protect themselves.”
Rising waters, rising risks
Biden’s home is in North Shores, an unincorporated community about a mile north of Rehoboth Beach’s tourist-filled boardwalk. The area was first developed in the 1950s and 60s on marshland that was filled in, government records and historic aerial photos show.
Early newspaper articles promoted the development’s “rustic simplicity” and “maximum privacy.” But the low-lying area also faced flooding and damage during multiple storms over the years, at times leaving streets inundated with up to six feet of water.
Biden’s six-bed, five-and-a-half-bath house was built near the development’s north end in 2007, according to real estate listings. In June 2017, soon after signing a multi-million-dollar book deal, the Bidens bought the home for $2.74 million, property records show. Thanks to a pandemic-era jump in home prices, it’s now worth nearly $3.8 million, according to an estimate from the real estate website Redfin.
The home overlooks the salt marshes of Cape Henlopen State Park – a former military site that Biden helped return to Delaware when he was a US senator, and where he’s often spotted biking on weekends. The Rehoboth-Lewes Canal borders one side of the neighborhood, and North Shores’ private beach is about a half-mile walk away.
The proximity to water from multiple directions comes with a downside. The home has an extreme risk of flooding – 10 on a scale of 10 – according to the climate research group First Street Foundation, which has used environmental science and computer modeling to estimate flood risk for every property in the US.
There’s a 98% chance of flood water reaching Biden’s house within the next five years, First Street found. Less than 5% of properties nationwide have as high a flood risk.
The home is in FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Area – the zone that would be inundated during a 100-year flood. A rarer 500-year flood would be likely to inundate the property with just over 10 feet of water, according to First Street’s national model. As climate change advances, the same flood would be expected to reach a depth of 11.4 feet in 30 years.
And as Biden himself has noted, “what used to be once-in-a-century storms are now happening every few years.”
Defended by building up
In an apparent response to that risk, Biden’s home was designed with flooding in mind. The living area is elevated about 10 feet off the ground, according to county records, with a broad exterior staircase leading to the double front doors and the ground floor used as a garage.
Many of the first couple’s neighbors live at similar heights, with some huge homes suspended on stilts. New and significantly renovated homes are required by the county to be raised to a height known as the base flood elevation – five feet for much of the neighborhood.
Steven Hollman, who owns a home around the block from Biden’s and serves as the president of the North Shores Board of Governors, said the community has taken efforts to mitigate the risk from floods. That includes maintaining and replenishing their private beach’s sand dunes “at not insignificant expense,” he said.
The dunes are “our first safeguard,” Hollman said. “If we have a breach of the dunes because of a cataclysmic weather event, then that’s going to affect the entire community.”
Still, as climate change advances and sea levels rise, flooding that seeps up from the low-elevation marsh that borders Biden’s property will likely become more common, according to University of Delaware professor John Callahan, who studies flood risk in the state. Eventually, it could mean high-tide flooding, with water regularly reaching streets even on days without major storms.
“A lot of flooding in neighborhoods like this is not from the ocean but from behind – the streams, marshes, and canals that all fill up and flood,” Callahan said.
The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment about the home’s flood risk, or whether the Bidens have flood insurance. While the first couple aren’t required to have flood insurance because they don’t have a mortgage on the home, Hollman said flood insurance in North Shores is “very common” even for homeowners without mortgages.
Biden’s neighborhood is an example of how development near the coast can lead to more people facing flood danger decades later – a trend that’s still happening today. The surrounding Sussex County has seen a boom in housing construction, and had more homes built in areas at high risk of flooding than almost any other coastal county in the US, according to a 2019 report from Climate Central.
That kind of development is “gambling on people’s future resilience,” said Danielle Swallow, a coastal hazards specialist with the environmental organization Delaware Sea Grant. “It’s passing the risk on to homebuyers and future generations.”
From Rehoboth to Mar-a-Lago
Owning a home at risk from climate change doesn’t necessarily make a president more likely to address the crisis. But Biden has advanced measures to help protect flood-prone areas – although experts say his administration could go further.
Chad Berginnis, the executive director of The Association of State Floodplain Managers, said the administration’s accomplishments included allocating more funding to build flood mitigation infrastructure projects, update rainfall frequency information, and expand flood maps. He called the progress on those issues “very encouraging.”
Still, Berginnis said more should be done to help individual homeowners in flood zones raise or relocate their homes – key adaptation measures that have successfully protected communities.
“Going property by property is a slower slog, but it’s an effective solution, especially for many smaller communities that can’t afford or maintain” larger projects like seawalls, Berginnis said.
While the infrastructure bill Biden signed last year increases funding for home elevations and other flood mitigation projects, experts say it doesn’t meet the growing need.
And the bulk of grant funding for home elevations has gone to wealthy and White neighborhoods, in part because federal programs take into account the higher property values in those areas, an investigation by Politico earlier this year found. FEMA has said it is working to address the disparity and help disadvantaged communities. (No homes in Biden’s Rehoboth Beach-area zip code have received federal elevation grants, according to FEMA data.)
“Elevating homes can be pricey, and it’s easier to make the money work when properties have higher value,” said Kristin Smith, a researcher with the nonprofit Headwaters Economics. That can end up excluding “some of the people who need help the most,” especially in low-income areas, she said.
Research has found that poor and minority neighborhoods have been disproportionately affected by some climate change-linked flooding, and are likely to see the greatest increases in risk over time. Less privileged communities are also more likely to struggle to recover from flooding – especially compared to places like North Shores, where most houses are vacation homes, not primary residences.
More broadly, Biden’s recent climate legislation is the farthest-reaching bill of its kind in US history, and includes hundreds of billions of dollars to reduce the carbon emissions that lead to sea level rise. However, the spending package didn’t fund programs like subsidized flood insurance that had been included in previous versions of the proposal.
Biden isn’t the only executive branch leader who has a home facing climate danger: Vice President Kamala Harris has spoken publicly about how her house in Los Angeles has been threatened by wildfire.
And former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida has a similar level of flood risk as Biden’s vacation home, according to First Street.
Trump spurned the scientific consensus on climate change, and unraveled or weakened dozens of environmental regulations during his time in the White House. Notably, Trump axed an Obama-era executive order that toughened building standards for federally funded construction projects in flood zones – and Biden brought it back.
That contrast between two presidents who both like to vacation in areas threatened by rising seas shows the wide variations in how Americans respond to climate risk, Berginnis said.
“Presidents are people, and human nature is a funny thing,” he said. “They are going to come to their own approaches and conclusions.”