On the topic of Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge: QUESTIONS IN MY MIND?

It was way back around 1993 – 1994, I don’t remember the exact date, that I attended a floodplain management training workshop while doing work for FEMA (FEMA) related to the impact of hurricane Andrew and two other major-disaster declarations.

After hours of hearing presentations, and participating in discussions about the 100 and 500 year flood plains,  BFE (base flood elevation) , NGVD (national geodetic vertical datum of 1929), FIRMs (flood insurance rate maps) and FISs (Flood insurance studies), and all about the various flood zones shown on the FIRMs, including one known as “flooding with velocity” zone, I took advantage of a Q&A segment to ask: “How can we assess current expected flooding conditions at a given location based on FIRMS showing flood depths based on NGVD, a point of reference set sixty-five years before, in 1929?”

I got an extended answer from one of the workshop instructors, who discussed how and why NGVD had been set, the fact that a new vertical datum known as NAVD was starting to be used for some mapping activities, and ended up by telling me that I could estimate mean sea level had already risen “6 to 8 inches”, and could add this to BFE information for a particular site or area. The instructor never explained what the source of his estimate of sea level rise was, but his advice left me thinking that: (a) The issues of coastal flooding and sea level rise were really ‘moving targets’ that had changed and will continue to change in the future, and (b) That, as a result of this expected change, all existing buildings and facilities along the coastal region were in reality more vulnerable and at higher risk from the impact of storm surge and waves, than what could be deducted from FIRM information!

A couple of years after the event I’ve described above, in 1996 I had an opportunity to put in practice the conclusions I had reached based on the knowledge acquired on that day, while conducting one of my first full-fledged vulnerability assessments for a major tertiary-care hospital located on a barrier island in Southeast Florida. It took me a while to research tide-gauge data, and historical data on the variability of tidal range, and also estimated levels of storm surge from National Hurricane Center (NHC) data, to establish a foundation to assess potential impacts and to identify hazard mitigation measures to reduce the potential for damage to this major health-care facility.

Two groundbreaking and critically  important byproducts resulted from the above study, as follows: (1) I developed and proposed the concept of Sheltering-in-placeas a viable and effective alternative to the mandatory evacuation of major hospital in the coastal region, and (2) Miami-Dade County, through its Office of Emergency Management established clear guidelines and requirements for other major hospitals to seek a ‘waiver from evacuation’ on the basis of actions supported by vulnerability assessment studies, and the implementation of specific hazard mitigation measures.

Fast-forward to 2014, twenty years after that training workshop and eighteen years after I introduced the ‘Sheltering-in-place concept, with the benefit of years of research  and actions related to sea level rise, storm surge, tropical cyclones, vulnerability assessment, characterization of impacts, hazard mitigation and other related topics, and the experience of having actively participated in the first National Assessment (NA) of climate change consequences in the USA, during which I wrote a white paper Climate Change and Extreme Events (WHITEPAPERDraft1 ) to set the stage for discussions at one of the regional workshops that were part of the NA process guided by the USGCRP (U.S. Global Change Research Program) and OSTP (the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy), which I managed for the hosting organization the International Hurricane Center at Florida International University, I find that I know quite a bit more about the topic but I also have so many more questions about sea level rise and storm surge = a most damaging combination!

To illustrate that exponential growth  in the number of questions I would like to help answer, I will now share a list of questions I put together and shared with seven invited panelists while preparing to chair the opening session at the SLR 2013 Summit hosted by the Florida Center for Environmental Studies (CES), at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in October 2013. Please consider this particular list of specific questions as just ‘a taste’ of what is a continuously growing and much longer list that I keep working on in my ‘spare time’ (?).

Partial List of Questions re: SLR + Storm Surge
* Can we sustain existing land use?
* Can we sustain existing land use along the coastal zone?
* Can we sustain the agricultural areas in south Florida? For how long? At what cost?
* Can we close gaps in building codes?
* Can we close gaps in educational system for building design professionals?
* How do you deal with existing stock of buildings and infrastructure?
* Is a building re-certification program needed? Is it feasible?
* What role will the finance and insurance industries play?
* Can we resolve the limestone issue and build protective works offshore?
* If limestone issue is beyond our limits, either because of technical capabilities or
cost effectiveness, can we at least dampen the energy of surge to reduce potential for
damage?
* Are sandy beaches sustainable? For how long? At what cost?
* If the only method for protecting the coastal built- environment is by armoring the
beach, how will that change the character of the region? What will it do to the
tourism industry? How will this affect the economy of the region and of the state?
* How do we resolve the conflict between human-made inlets and longshore sand
transport?
* In the event that protective offshore (Dutch style) works are built, how do we
ensure the continuity of longshore sand transport to maintain sandy beaches?
* Is the current water management infrastructure sustainable? For how long? At what
cost?
* If current water management system is not sustainable beyond a certain number of
years, what is the alternative? A modified system? What does it look like? How much
will it cost? How long will it take to design and built? When do we need to start
working toward its implementation?
* Are some regions of SE Florida clearly not sustainable or at least not so in a cost-effective
way? Which regions are these? How much time do current residents and
users realistically have before they have to relocate and abandon?
* Will we need to prepare for regional migration of displaced populations? Where will
they go? What will this do to prices of property and land?
* Will abandonment of certain regions and relocation of displaced populations open
new opportunities for growth and development elsewhere in Florida or in the country?
Where? How can we manage these changes?
* Can we engage nature to help? Can mangrove forests and wetlands be reintroduced
as dynamic live ecosystems to help protect the coastal region? Can we
create a new dune and sandy beach environment to help protect the coastal region?
* Can we preserve barrier islands that still exist as primarily natural ecosystems? Can
we keep urban development away from such islands?