GROUND ZERO: Is regional protection an option?

This last 22 April 2014 Senator Bill Nelson (D – Florida) held an official meeting of a U.S. Senate subcommittee in Miami Beach, to highlight the vulnerability of what he called ‘ground zero’ to expected impacts of sea level rise, storm surge and other climate related hazards. This meeting, held at the Miami Beach City Hall, attracted a standing-room only audience representing a true cross-section of this vibrant, multicultural community that is Miami-Dade County and South Florida. Senator Nelson called for immediate and effective actions to defend this vulnerable community from the growing risk that it faces, and then proceeded to ask the expert witnesses who had testified at the hearing about the kinds of research and/or initiatives that should be undertaken  now in order to make progress toward actual and effective long-term solutions to the problem. Well done Senator Nelson!

Collaterally with this event another climate champion Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) visited South Florida to also highlight the vulnerability of the region to the combined impacts of  storm surge and sea level rise. On Friday 25 April 2014, Senator Whitehouse was guest speaker at a Science Panel and  Climate Action Rally hosted by the CLEO Institute,  a leading education, advocacy and outreach institution in South Florida. Some 200 local residents, including teachers, scientists, university professors, business and elected leaders, and representatives from numerous civic, cultural, and environmental groups attended this momentous event. Well done Senator Whitehouse! Well done CLEO Institute!

Back in June 2013 author  Jeff Goodell called Miami, referring to the entire southeastern Florida region, the “new American Atlantis” meaning that it is destined to be submerged under water at some future time, in an article in Rolling Stone. While the article appeared well researched, quoting several well-known and respected players in the local sea level rise arena, I found it alarmist and unbalanced in presenting the problem from just one pessimistic doomsday point of view without including ideas for solutions and contrasting opinions from other local experts that I know were also interviewed for this article. On the other hand, I believe  author Goodell exercised his journalistic license to sound an alarm in a region where so many seem oblivious to the growing risk, being more interested in the business-as-usual status quo and on immediate gratification than in some apparently distant problem for the region.  In this regard we all have to thank Jeff Goodell and Rolling Stone for placing the spotlight squarely on ground zero, where it must remain until real actions are taken to confront the problem. Well done Mr. Goodell and Rolling Stone!

Also in 2013 the Board of County Commissioners of Miami-Dade County formed a  seven-member ‘Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force’ chaired by Harvey Ruvin, a long-time champion of  climate change mitigation and adaptation, which after meeting and working for a years will be releasing its ‘Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force Report and Recommendations’ [ sea-level-rise-final-report ], an excellent and pragmatic report, which basically calls for action with a focus on adaptation through effective and real nuts-and-bolts – brick-and-mortar engineered solutions, supported by ‘equal-to-the-task’ insurance solutions, financial resources,  and the professional planning and executing capacity to achieve real results in protecting ground zero. Well done!

To a casual observer all of the above may represent good news, we have two well respected elected political leaders calling attention to the problem, a local advocacy and outreach group engages local residents, a well-known journal focuses on the risk and the place, and a local government is making recommendation for actions to protect the place. I would argue that while these are all steps in the right direction, initial steps toward action if you will, these actions  leave out critically important issues and may even act as a deterrent for possible adaptation initiatives because of arguments made in presenting such issues.

Senator Nelson highlighted the risk  at ground zero when he stated that even if there were the will and the resources to build offshore defenses to  keep the sea and surge away, these measures are not possible in South Florida because of the porous limestone substrate of the ocean floor. Jeff Goodell used the same argument in his Rolling Stone article. Neither Senator Nelson nor Mr. Goodell presented or referred to any research or feasibility studies confirming the porosity of limestone is an unsolvable problem in the context of building protective works for the region.

My argument is not about the porosity of limestone. The porous nature of limestone is a physical characteristic of the material, which is known to anyone studying or utilizing it for various  purposes. My argument is about the absence of scientific research or engineering studies to find if the porosity issue is an unsolvable problem or not, and with using this porosity-of-limestone issue as a stereotype to cut-off reasoned consideration and discussion of possible alternatives for regional protective works.

I would argue that all of us in the fields of applied research, science, engineering, planning, finance and insurance, and policy makers owe it to ourselves as professionals, and to all residents of this vulnerable region, to act without prejudice or preconceptions and commit to exhausting all research avenues, and engineering studies, to determine if there are technically sound and cost-effective solutions to this problem. If in the end we find that there are no technical or cost-effective solutions to the problem, then we will have succeeded in closing this issue from any discussion of regional protection. However, if we on the other hand find that there indeed are technically sound and cost effective solutions to solve the porosity of limestone issue, then we will have opened a whole new avenue for possible adaptation measures on a regional basis. Either way both of these potential outcomes are positive results.

In this context, consider that our region is full of real examples where human ingenuity has dealt with and solved the porosity of limestone problem through a combination of technical and engineering means. Slurry walls have been built-in the lake district, in the western fringes of Miami-Dade County to prevent byproducts of stone mining operations from contaminating the Everglades. These slurry walls go through limestone  and are able to keep the contaminating waters on one side of the barrier. Two tunnels have been built linking Watson Island to Dodge Island (The Port of Miami) going right through the limestone substrate mentioned before. Every time a new high-rise building goes up in the coastal region, builders use a variety of means and methods to keep the water out of the job site so that construction can take place, and they do so quite effectively.

Is it possible that we could learn from these real smaller-scale examples of addressing the porosity-of-limestone issue, extrapolate this knowledge, and these engineering and technical solutions, and replicate these solutions in the much larger scale required for any regional protection solution?

What if we were to research the use of mechanical means to compress the limestone substrate to a point  where its porosity is reduced considerably and its load bearing capacity is increased? What if is addition, we were to use a hydrophilic, absorbent, expansive environmentally safe or inert chemical to inject the compressed limestone to further seal the pores? Such compressive measures and chemical injection methods are already used in construction and civil engineering works. Would it not be prudent and beneficial to explore the feasibility of applying these techniques to attack a different problem for the benefit of vulnerable communities?

In my view, when considering our vulnerability to natural hazards, conceptually there are three generic approaches for reducing the potential for damage and protecting a community or region. We can: (1) Keep the hazard away, (2) Interact with the hazard, or (3) Get away from the hazard. Granted, not all of these approaches are possible for all types of natural hazards, but in the case of the combined sea level rise/storm surge hazard we can certainly design and assess the effectiveness of   solutions within each of the three approaches.

At present our region is basically interacting with the hazard, and not really doing a good job  at it. There are some communities (i.e. Miami Beach,  Fort Lauderdale) actively designing or implementing mitigation measures to reduce the potential for damage while continuing to interact with King tides and sea level rise exacerbated storm surge, others are planning how to confront the problem, but by and large most communities appear oblivious to the risk given the way they continue to allow massive urban development along the shoreline. It is high time we seriously consider other approaches.

I submit regional protection by way of offshore  engineering works that preserve the environmental health of our waters and benthic communities , the north to south flow of sand supply for our sandy beaches, as well as commercial and recreational navigation allowing our major ports to continue to function and grow in a post-Panamax competitive environment, while also keeping the combined storm surge/sea level rise away for a considerable amount of time into the future, is an option we must seriously consider. This must be one of several adaptation measures in our menu of alternatives, to leave it out or to refuse to evaluate or discuss it, when the stakes are so high, would be irresponsible.

There will be a myriad questions to answer and issues to resolve in assessing the feasibility of such regional protection alternative. I am sure the regulatory framework may be not only cumbersome, but perhaps currently unprepared to deal with a project of this scope and magnitude. The financial aspects appear daunting given what will be the elevated cost of designing and building such project. But the benefits in terms of reduction of potential damage over time may be several times greater than the cost of implementation.  The timeline from concept to completion will be a lengthy one if we judge by the 30 years it took the UK to complete their first Thames surge barrier, or the 20 years it took Venice to complete its just deployed MOSE  regional protection project. The challenge will be enormous, but so will the rewards.

What this means is we must get started now! We do not have the luxury of time to waste.We need to move decisively on several fronts, from assembling the needed multidisciplinary expertise, defining research protocols, researching regulatory and legal issues, to securing the financial and technical resources to undertake this endeavor. In this regard I am highly encouraged by the recommendations recently made by the Miami-Dade County Sea Level Rise Task Force such as the following:

 The first and most critical recommendation by the Miami_Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force

The first and most critical recommendation by the Miami_Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force

This is a challenge in front of us. To confront it some will need to stop hiding behind stereotypes, such as the limestone porosity, and start proving whether it is solvable or not. Some will need to stop issuing doomsday predictions without offering solutions to the problem. Some will need to step out of their comfort zone, whether this is in the halls of academia, or the business sector, or in the chambers of legislative policy-making. This is the time to show what we are made out of, the time to let our actions define who we are and what we intend to do to make our region a resilient and sustainable community for the current and future generations of South Floridians.

Theories and utopian ideas will not do because we do not have the luxury of a clean slate. The region is fully built-up or dedicated to a wide range of human activities. What we need is to stay the course and follow a methodological and concerted approach to consider, assess, dissect, test for effectiveness, and compare, all possible alternatives to reduce the potential for damage to our region from the combined impacts of storm surge and sea level rise. Only by proceeding in this fashion will we be able to identify, categorize, and rank the individual alternatives or combinations of alternatives that will be effective in mitigating expected impacts

Only by proceeding in this manner will we learn which may be most effective: to implement one type of solution to be followed by another as the effectiveness of the first diminishes, or to implement a range of solutions, some collaterally and some in sequence. Only in this way will we be able to decide that we may need all three classes of hazard mitigation measures as opposed to just a preferred one.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of this analysis may be, let us exhaust our efforts to test whether regional protection may be an effective and feasible option for South Florida.

Toward this objective I and, Inc. offer our considerable expertise in the fields of vulnerability assessment, risk assessment, hazards assessment, hazard mitigation,  adaptation of the built environment, and our knowledge of storm surge and sea level rise impacts on the built-environment and infrastructure, towards the effort outlined above. I invite my many talented colleagues in the research and design sectors to join me, and others, in rising to the challenge.

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