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Image: Miami tidal flooding, October 13, 2016.
The city of Miami-Dade has now joined its close neighbor, Miami Beach, in declaring a climate change state of emergency. In recent years, a dramatic increase in the frequency and duration of ‘sunny day floods’ has meant that flooding can appear suddenly, without warning, and in the absence of storms or king tides. On any given day, it is possible for residents to encounter flooded areas that can cause hazards for transportation, damage buildings and homes, or even completely block motorways. Because of this new and gathering threat, activists have pressured local government to officially declare a state of emergency in order to make funds available to combat the threat.
The city of Miami has set aside a fund of $192 million to fight the effects of climate change, but this amount is not nearly enough to implement the drastic solutions that will be necessary to protect this highly vulnerable city. As dire as the situation may be in Miami, the city of Miami Beach is facing an even greater threat, because Miami Beach is built upon an artificial foundation comprised mostly of sand. Together, the cities of Miami and Miami Beach will need hundreds of millions of dollars in order to survive through the end of this century. For this reason, both municipalities are requesting matching funds from State and Federal coffers in order to supplement the funds that have already been earmarked for this challenge. The future looks uncertain for the entire Florida peninsula unless massive flood mitigation projects can be implemented in a timely manner.
Luckily, new technologies have become available that can greatly help with the fight against climate change. In particular, drones have proven their usefulness in many ways. Drones have been deployed regularly to monitor king tides and to detect the frequent ‘sunny day floods’ that pop up in various parts of the city. Drones can be extremely useful when counting wildlife populations-without disturbing the animals, detecting areas of erosion or tidal incursion along the coastline- without putting human observers at risk, and for surveying remote and inhospitable areas- without expensive manpower and equipment. Underwater drones can collect sediment samples, survey conditions on the sea floor, and record measurements of currents and wave action. This single advancement has made an enormous contribution to the fight against climate-related devastation.
In addition to the use of drones, the city of Miami employs many other defenses in its fight against the sea. One solution is to design and implement urban reservoirs throughout the city. These reservoirs are intended to capture and absorb water during flood, rather than to allow the water to impede into areas of human habitation or into valuable business zones. Another recent development is the use of special one-way anti-tidal valves that prevent sea water from entering urban zones while still allowing fresh floodwater to drain out through the valves.
One hopeful development is political rather than technological. The current mayor of Miami-Dade, Francis Suarez, believes that the threat posed by climate change has evolved into a non-partisan issue that is shared by all, regardless of political affiliation. Mayor Suarez, a Republican, says, "I think why people are unifying on the partisan landscape is we're focusing on the issues that we see, we see the flooding, we see the wildfires in California, we see the mega hurricanes like Dorian which put the Bahamas under 20 feet of water and killed thousands of people, so we're dealing with the climatic events that we see, we can't ignore them," As studies indicate that every dollar spent on prevention saves at least seven dollars of post-flooding clean-up, it makes sense that people from every political viewpoint should unite in this battle to save Miami from the results of climate change.
PHOTO: New Orleans, LA, March 8, 2006 – The level of flooding from Hurricane Katrina is evident by the yellow water line across the awning and pillars of this house in Gentilly. The homeowner had coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and was eligible for the Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) benefit since he lived in a high risk area and was elevating his home above the base flood elevation in compliance with the community's floodplain ordinance. Robert Kaufmann/FEMA
Property owners who need flood insurance have just been handed a one-year reprieve that comes with good news and bad news. The good news is that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) will remain unchanged for one more year, giving those who need this insurance protection a chance to enjoy a little more time with relatively affordable premiums. This is not to say that flood insurance is currently inexpensive; it most certainly is not cheap! But for many, the new rates that will kick in a year from now will make the current premiums seem very economical by comparison.
The projected changes to the NFIP have been years in the making. The program is seriously in debt to the Treasury due to years of massive storms that have ‘broken the bank'. Perhaps the best known disaster, the one that started the slide into insolvency, was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The insurance payouts from that storm left huge deficits in the NFIP that have never been recouped. Following closely on Katrina were many other outsized storms that hit the insurance program harder and harder, like waves battering the shore during a hurricane.
What's left of the NFIP is a ragged remnant that can not withstand much more- and this at a time when it is a certainty that much more is coming. As climate change and sea level rise produce more and stronger hurricanes, storm surges, and tidal flooding, the NFIP is not only broke, but deeply in debt. There is no disagreement about the currently dire state of the NFIP, but there is also no discussion of scrapping the program entirely. This is because the elimination of the NFIP would produce a huge and very negative impact on the nation's economy. Nevertheless, it is generally understood that the program stands in need of a major overhaul if it is to remain viable.
The NFIP is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and is an important safeguard for millions of people in flood-prone areas. Created by Congress in the year 1968, the NFIP was intended to offer financial protection for property owners, many of whom cannot access flood insurance from private insurers. Now that the program is teetering on the brink of complete collapse, FEMA has been working on plans to reform the program in order to improve its sustainability. These plans have been controversial, to say the least.
In the past, premiums and flood risk ratings have been based on data from the 1970's, which means that this outdated risk assessment has not kept up with significant changes to climate, flood zones, and other risk factors. Now FEMA is attempting to draw up new and updated criteria for determining flood risk, one that is based on years of experience, and is meant to be much more accurate for today's conditions. The new data-driven plan is called Risk Rating 2.0, and it is the implementation of this plan that has now been pushed back by one year.
The main problem with immediate implementation of the new plan appears to be that this happens to be an election year. While some property owners will find that their premiums will remain stable or even decrease, many, many more people will find that their rates will increase. In fact, the new risk assessments will mean financial strain for the vast majority of policy holders, and financial disaster for more than a few. When the new Risk Rating 2.0 plan was unveiled, there was widespread shock and dismay as the financial implications for policy holders became clear. It seems that FEMA had been working on Risk Rating 2.0 without releasing any information about what it might contain, and now that policy holders have had a chance to learn about what is in store they have reacted with outrage and dismay. Calls to congressional representatives in coastal districts have been flooding in, and worried pols have opted to kick the can down the road until after the elections. For now, the NFIP will continue as usual with the old premium rates, but for next year … there are ominous dark clouds gathering on the horizon.
PHOTO: Sunny day high tide nuisance flooding in Brickell, downtown Miami Florida. The morning high tide on October 17, 2016. Roughly 4.0 ft MLLW, +3 ft above MSL, 2 ft NAVD 88, about 1.75 feet MHHW for Miami, Virginia Key tide gauge. This location rounds to 0 meters/0 feet AMSL.
“Sunny Day Flooding”, also known as tidal flooding, is a phenomenon that occurs when low-lying areas are temporarily flooded during periods of unusually high tides, such as during a full moon. This may happen when the sky is clear and sunny, with not a single cloud on the horizon. During a sunny day flood event, streets can be covered by water in an unexpected way, because residents are not prepared for floods in the absence of rain or storms. Nevertheless, this flooding does occur during dry weather, and the frequency of these floods is increasing in an alarming way.
This summer, the federal government issued a warning to those who live in and around low-lying zones. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has identified dozens of communities that will suffer an increase in sunny day floods, from Miami to San Diego. The increase that is expected during the coming year is attributed to an abnormally active El Niño weather pattern, combined with sea level rise that is happening across the globe. Rapidly melting ice caps and glaciers from Antarctica to Greenland continue to feature prominently in news coverage, and videos of huge chunks of polar ice calving into the sea remind us all that we can expect major changes, and soon!
One of those changes is sure to be a flood-filled future. This year, with the hyperactive El Niño weather pattern in play, all types of floods are predicted to be a problem. But the “sunny day flood” brings a special kind of threat, mostly due to the general lack of preparation of those affected. Sea level rise, coupled with sinking coastlines along the eastern seaboard, has greatly increased the number of affected communities. During these “sunny day floods”, roads are often covered by water; and in many cases vital thoroughfares are closed until the water recedes. Flooded roads are subsequently plagued by potholes, erosion of shoulders, and instability of the roadbed, which can lead to washouts.
In addition to road damage, affected communities also suffer many other negative consequences from frequent flooding. Basements and underground parking structures for homes and businesses fill with water again and again, followed by days or weeks of backbreaking clean-up. Storm water systems can become overwhelmed and damaged, and septic systems can overflow, polluting property and waterways. Many homes in rural areas rely on septic systems for disposing of toilet wastewater, so one can only imagine how inconvenient it must be when these systems become temporarily unusable due to flooding.
Low-lying areas are particularly vulnerable, of course, and nowhere in the US is more threatened than Florida. With much of the state at or below 10' above sea level, every inch lost to sea level rise or subsidence (sinking) of the coastline translates to real hardship for the people living in these areas. After the floods have receded, many homeowners find the rebuilding process to be all but impossible. Flood insurance, for those lucky enough to have it, becomes prohibitively expensive after a series of floods. Insurance companies or community code may suddenly require that a building be raised on stilts, or that repairs shall not be possible at all. Some zones may be declared no longer supported for rehabilitation, and repair of buildings in these areas would become illegal. When that happens, the buildings must by law be left to slowly fall apart by attrition and neglect, even as the property owner may still have to pay a mortgage for the uninhabitable home.
This year may be particularly hard for home and business owners in these low-lying communities. While coastal zones have typically suffered about five days a year of “sunny day flooding”, this record will most likely be smashed during the 2019-20 flood season. But even this is nothing compared to the predictions for 2050, by which time “sunny day floods” are projected to become a very common nuisance. Within the next thirty years, it is thought that many unlucky communities will suffer sunny day floods up to 100 days out of each year!
PHOTO: The living shoreline of cordgrass and oyster reef was built by NOAA to protect Pivers Island in Beaumont, North Carolina. NOAA Fisheries
Oysters and other shellfish are highly popular menu items, particularly in coastal towns where fresh seafood is readily available. These seaside communities are also the very places most likely to suffer flooding — and now an ingenious plan has been concocted to utilize the mountains of used shells generated by the eateries. There is now a plan to use the shells to reduce flooding!
Scientists have long known that oyster beds can help anchor vulnerable coastline and prevent erosion. However valuable these beds may be as far as environmental protection, they have not been adequately protected from overfishing and other depredations. In addition to the threat from over-harvesting, large swaths of oyster populations have been severely damaged by the increasingly intense storms that have decimated the coastline in recent decades; even established oyster reefs can be damaged if the storm is fierce enough. Acidification of the oceans due to man-made pollution also takes a toll. And lastly, oyster populations have been scraped off the sea floor by dredging and pier construction projects.
Now, thanks to recently developed techniques, there are plans in place around the country to rebuild the huge oyster communities of yesteryear, using discarded oyster shells to help get the new shellfish started. The new plans use the natural habits of the oysters to benefit both shellfish and humans! Oysters typically cement themselves to a fixed, hard object as part of their survival strategy. Lacking means of locomotion, they must affix themselves to a permanent location that offers good water circulation. Oysters are filter feeders and are believed to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Plankton, decomposing plant and animal material, and other organic particles are filtered by the oysters and utilized to glean nutrients. Oysters are extremely efficient as filters of other undesirable compounds and matter as well, such as nitrogen and algae, and are able to greatly improve the health and clarity of the water bodies that host them. This is yet another beneficial side product of the flood-busting scheme.
As the oysters cement themselves to the sea floor or other underwater features, their irregular shells provide habitat for many other aquatic creatures. Over time, with good husbandry and ideal conditions, huge reefs of oysters can build up, and these reefs can act as natural sea walls. The obvious advantage of these living flood barriers is that they are built and maintained by the natural organisms themselves! Once the oyster reefs are “planted” in the desirable location, the oyster reef is built over time by the oysters, and is always getting bigger and stronger with no further expenditure of dollars or human labor.
So attractive is this relatively cheap and extremely effective natural flood barrier, that federal grants have recently become available to initiate “artificial” oyster reefs in strategic locations from Manhattan to Louisiana. Enter the contributions from the seafood industry: here is where those mountains of used shells are put to good use. Oyster fry must find shelter in order to survive, and the corrugated shape of natural oyster shells are the best bet for them to find protection while they mature. So now, instead of discarding huge mounds of shells into landfills, an after-market has been created to make use of the shells in the most environmentally positive way. The used oyster shells are placed in the correct locations to form natural sea walls, and fry are introduced. Soon the dead shells provide the right conditions for new living reefs to form, and the mature oysters begin to clean the water even as they help protect from floods. A true win-win scenario!
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