Is Florida Planning Wisely for Rising Sea Level?

Flooding in Key West, Florida

Credit: FloydPhoto/Wikimedia Commons

Flooding in Miami and the Florida Keys was once an occasional, if very inconvenient headache. But in recent years, flooding has become a regular and increasingly frequent fact of life — one that challenges communities throughout the state.

This Thursday, May 2, 2013 file photo shows flooding on Duval Street in Key West, Fla. after roughly five inches of rainfall. In many sea level projections for the coming century, the Keys, Miami and much of southern Florida partially sink beneath potential waves. (AP Photo/The Key West Citizen, Rob O'Neal)

Studies have shown that the coastal areas of Florida have conceded about nine inches of land to the ocean over the past 100 years. However, that pace has accelerated, and it is predicted that the same coastline will lose 9 to 24 inches in the next 50 years. This is particularly alarming when one considers that many important features of the area's infrastructure sits a mere 2-5 feet above sea level!

A full 40% of the flood risk zones in the US can be found in the state of Florida. Flood maps that project risk during the coming decades indicate a frightening future for the state, with much of the coastline underwater in as few as 30 years. Some maps show an alarming new shape for the future State of Florida, with as much as a third of the state submerged — all the way up to Fort Lauderdale!

Recent large storms such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005 provided a wake-up call to citizens and developers. These storm events were a sneak preview of what certainly lies ahead for Florida. Each year there is a shrinkage of beaches and watersheds, and the oceanfront creeps closer. Global sea level rise means that the storm surges of today are much more destructive and powerful than ever before.

At the present time, there is no official, coordinated plan to save or protect Florida's coastline. When new developments are planned, no one knows if the construction will be protected by public works projects in the future, or if the land that is being built upon will be underwater in the coming years. Currently, new projects tend to be planned with flooding in mind, using elevation of the lot, natural flood barriers, or integrated flood panels. But the scope and reach of sea level rise may be beyond what is being planned for.

As an example, when planners began working on blueprints for a new fire station on Stock Island, which is located in the Florida Keys, they decided to build up the foundation a full nine feet in order to help protect it from inundation. This added greatly to the expense of the project, which is hovering around $4 million. But even these seemingly extreme precautionary measures may not be enough to hold back the sea 30 years from now.

As the City of New York implements its ambitious $20 billion plan to help reduce flood and storm threats, the State of Florida lags far behind. Without a coordinated and planned approach, it is likely that Florida will suffer greater losses than is strictly necessary. But even with the best of planning, the future of Florida looks very precarious.


$20 Billion Plan to Protect New York from Floods

New York plans to invest $20 billion in flood protection measures

As we have discussed in a previous post, vast new swaths of New York and New Jersey have been added to official flood zone maps. This means that these areas now require flood insurance for businesses and homeowners, and rates for this insurance are expected to rise precipitously in the coming years. But no amount of expensive flood insurance can prevent flood disasters- for that, planning and preventive measures must be implemented.

In early July, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an ambitious $20 billion plan to put into place flood protection devices and barriers that are designed to save the city from the next Hurricane Sandy. The plan is an extremely aggressive and forward-thinking proposal to shield the city from the effects of global warming.

The plan incorporates many different types of flood protection measures, including removable flood barriers, levees and floodgates, and the construction of flood barriers from natural materials such as sand dunes to deflect furious storms and winds from low-lying areas. Marshes would be added in specific areas to absorb and channel water in ways that are less destructive to surrounding communities.

Hospitals, fire stations, police departments, and clinics in at-risk areas would be flood-proofed under Bloomberg's plan. During the Hurricane Sandy emergency, many of these critical services were themselves inundated, and were unable to assist the community. Homes in severely threatened areas will also be flood-proofed.

Removable flood walls are a central part of the plan to protect Manhattan. These flood walls will consist of posts and flood panels that would be put into place in advance of a big storm. This approach has been used successfully in other parts of the world, including the Netherlands. The obvious disadvantage of this device is that it must be manually erected before the storm, unlike automatic flood panels that are being used in many other flood-prone properties.

Mayor Bloomberg, in a speech at the hard-hit Brooklyn Navy Yard, emphasizes that the proposed work will takes many years, and even decades to fully complete. But he envisions a city that will one day be able to withstand the extremely severe hurricanes that undoubtably loom in the future.

Bloomberg's plan is being funded by a variety of sources, including relief funding from Hurricane Sandy, federal grants, and a proposed surcharge on property insurance from all homeowners in the area. In addition to the protection of infrastructure and emergency services, grants will be available for individual property owners to flood-proof their homes and businesses.

This ambitious flood protection plan is being widely praised for its forward-thinking ideas and efforts to prevent future disasters. However, not everyone will be pleased with the coming changes, as some flood barriers will block ocean views and may not be aesthetically pleasing in some cases. But most residents who lived through the Sandy disaster will surely welcome the protection, even if it means sacrificing a pleasant vista.


Flood Insurance Rates to Skyrocket

FEMA Insurance Rates affected by Biggert-Waters Act of 2012

In our last post we explored ways to save on flood insurance, which is a major expense for anyone who owns property in a flood zone. But in the past few days news reports have indicated that the rates will soon skyrocket far beyond what anyone had imagined. It appears that Congress has now decided that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) must gradually begin to pay for itself, rather than continue in its current state of subsidization.

An example of how National Flood Insurance Program rates may increase when the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2012 is implemented. National Flood Insurance Program

This is very ominous news for anyone with property inside a designated flood zone. As a result of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of July 2012, insurance rates will increase in large jumps over the next four years until the program begins to break even.

The Biggert-Waters Act, although it will bring huge spikes in flood insurance rates, will also ensure that the insurance will be continuously available with no stoppages, at least through the year 2017. Until now, the NFIP has been funded in a haphazard way, with several gaps in funding that halted construction of tens of thousands of building projects.

The survival of the NFIP is now assured for the next four years, which is a relief to those living in flood zones. Without the NFIP coverage, these home and business owners would not be able to buy insurance from any private company — the properties would be completely unprotected. In many flood-prone areas across the US, flood insurance is federally mandated in order to use the property, so losing the NFIP coverage would be tantamount to losing the property altogether.

The Biggert-Waters Act also mandated the improved accuracy of flood zone maps, and these new maps are being released now. As a result, tens of thousands of property owners are finding that they will soon be required to carry flood insurance for the first time. Other properties that have been flooded and rebuilt in the past will be straddled with exorbitantly high insurance rates that reflect the risky location of the property. No longer will these flood-prone properties enjoy federally subsidized flood insurance, but will have to “pull their own weight” as a risky insurance gamble.

Although the Biggert-Waters Act provides recourse for challenging the new floodplain maps and for appealing the decision to include a property inside the flood zone, most of these property owners will find that expensive flood insurance will soon be an onerous expense that they must find a way to live with. In desperation, many will begin to make improvements to their infrastructure that will protect the property and help to lower astronomically high insurance rates.

Soon, flood protection measures that in the past were deemed too expensive or difficult will become simply prudent and cost-effective. Flood panels, earthen berms, run-off control projects, and other flood protection measures will increasingly be an integral part of every new construction, and owners of existing properties will by necessity begin the retrofit process to include these features.


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