Southeast Florida needs a course correction in climate adaptation!

On 31 May 2019, on the eve of the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane season, Climate Wire published an excellent and timely article by journalist Dan Cusick titled “Threat of costly storm surge rise along coasts”. In this article Mr. Cusick aims to quantify what I would call the value at risk, at least partially, by citing the value of property currently at risk from the impact of storm surge in the coastal regions.

Per this article, the reconstruction value (what it would cost to build them today) of homes at risk of storm surge in just four coastal metropolitan areas, New York, Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and New Orleans (a total of approximately 2.4 million houses) is roughly $800 billion.

This sounds like a high number, but keep in mind it only represents a fraction of the current total real value at risk. Once you add commercial, industrial, institutional, and recreational buildings it is easy to see how that amount would go up significantly. Not only that, but also at risk are the contents of those buildings, and the infrastructure that supports the urban environment, in addition to the services and human activity provided from and sheltered in them. By taking these factors into consideration we could estimate the reconstruction value of the buildings, plus the replacement value of contents, plus the value of function would probably exceed $10 trillion in these four urban regions alone (this being my own quick and informal back-of-the-napkin estimate) without considering potential indirect and consequential damage and cascading effects from actual impacts. More importantly, these estimates do not include the value of the lives that may be at risk, even if only in actuarial terms. Also, we must not forget the value of ecosystems and the natural environment and the services they provide to coastal communities.

When all of these components of value-at-risk are taken into account let us keep in mind we are speaking of tangible values, to which we can attach a monetary value. Then there are intangible values that are difficult to quantify in monetary terms, but which may be even more significant. I am referring to the value of a “way of life”, the “historical value of a community”, or even the “symbolic value of a place”. I would argue that these so-called values must be taken into account when considering the risk faced by a coastal community, and how much we are willing to invest in protecting such aggregated value at risk from expected storm surge and hurricane impacts.

In pondering all of this, we must not lose sight of the fact that as staggering as these estimates of value at risk may be, we have only addressed current values. What could we be looking at in terms of value-at-risk in the future, 25, 50, 100 years from now?

Enter global warming and sea level rise as hazards and exacerbating factors caused by climate change. Storm surge velocity of flow and wave height, those waves that ride above storm surge as wind energy transfers to the water, are depth-of-water dependent. The deeper the water near shore the faster storm surge will flow and the higher the waves will be, especially those last waves that break against buildings and structures along the coast. Relative to this, the faster the surge flows and the higher the waves breaking against coastal buildings and structures, the stronger the actual impacts and the potential for damage will be. In the face of scientific evidence that the sea will continue to rise, and will do so at an increasingly accelerating rate, we can only conclude that future expected impacts from storm surge, waves and hurricanes will be stronger, deeper penetrating inland, and exponentially more damaging. In response to such expected future impacts the value at risk along the coastal regions, not only in the four urban areas we have mentioned but in all vulnerable coastal communities, will continue to rise.

The value at risk as one measure of vulnerability sets a solid foundation to conduct benefit-cost analysis of proposed hazard mitigation measures. The method is direct and simple: potential damage is quantified as a percentage of the value at risk, benefits derived from implementing specific hazard mitigation measures are quantified in terms of damage avoided (reduction of potential damage). This allows for a direct comparison of benefits to the cost of the measure on the basis of present value, at an accepted discount rate over the expected service life of the project. Using the value at risk method allows you to attach dollar values to damage, benefits, and the cost of implementing defensive measures, plain and simple, avoiding the use of indices and other subjective criteria.

The dollar amounts used by Dan Cusick in his article, and those used here, are an effective way to create a proper context for what is at stake in terms of vulnerability of our coastal regions. While it is true, as Mr. Cusick so clearly points out, that such value at risk does not mean all of it would be a total loss from the impact of storm surge and waves, nor does it mean that all four coastal regions mentioned will suffer damage simultaneously, but it certainly highlight the fact there is a lot that can be damaged from the impact of storm surge, waves and hurricanes.

Being aware of such high value at risk provides us with the proper perspective to evaluate how much we may be willing to invest to reduce potential damage from expected impacts.

So, what and how is Southeast Florida doing to protect what is at risk and adapt to climate change impacts, especially coastal flooding, storm surge, and the exacerbating sea level rise?

Florida has a proud tradition of taking action and being proactive in seeking and implementing solutions to defend against natural hazards. More specifically, Southeast Florida following in this tradition has been a leader in exploring, developing and implementing programs that have become national models for policy and actions.

One example of such proactive leadership is the “South Florida Building Code” (SFBC). First adopted in 1949 by the Board of County Commissioners of Dade County and continuously enhanced through subsequent revisions, including major changes in the 1994 edition reflecting lessons learned from the disaster caused by Hurricane Andrew (’92). The adoption of product approval requirements and testing protocols, including requiring impact-resistant materials or protective barriers on all exterior openings and glazed areas, plus other improved construction methods resulted in a much stronger building envelope for the protection of lives and property. The SFBC provided important impetus for the adoption of the state-wide “Florida Building Code” in 2001, of which it became an integral component as the “High Velocity Hurricane Zone” (HVHZ) provisions, colloquially known as the “Miami-Dade County Code”. Design professionals in counties outside the HVHZ and in other hurricane-vulnerable states have been known to use design criteria based on HVHZ provisions, the strongest hurricane building code in the nation, that surpass local requirements especially for critical facilities.

Another good example of the innovative and proactive approach practiced in Southeast Florida is a pilot project (in which I had the privilege of participating from its inception to today as a member of the Steering Committee) developed and implemented in Miami-Dade County in 1998, to involve the entire community (county and its municipalities plus the private sector) in the practice of hazard mitigation by actively participating in a planning group known as the “Local Mitigation Strategy” (LMS) focusing on the reduction of potential damage from expected hazard impacts at the local level. This immensely successful program became the foundation and national model for major changes to the Stafford Act adopted as the “Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000” (P.L. 106-390), which mandates Mitigation Planning at the state and local levels as a pre-requisite for mitigation grant awards. By 2019 all states, counties, and most municipalities, and Tribal Governments in the country practiced Mitigation Planning and had their own active LMS working groups. Over the past twenty years Miami-Dade County LMS has vetted and endorsed more than 500 completed hazard mitigation projects worth more than $600 million, making the county more resilient and capable of sustaining expected impacts over time. Most of these projects have hardened structures and enhanced the capability of hospitals, universities and other critical facilities to protect mainly against hurricanes, while others also address protection against coastal flooding, storm surge and the inexorably exacerbating factor of sea level rise.

There is a third notable initiative that has come out of South Florida, it is the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a.k.a. the Four County Compact, founded in January of 2010 that brought Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties together in a joint effort against the adverse consequences of climate change, which has become a model for others to follow both in the United States and abroad. The Four County Compact has been successful on several fronts: a) It has gotten four County governments that were often competitive with one an other and in some cases at opposite ends of the political spectrum, to not only talk to one another and recognize the big picture, but to support common objectives through legislative action in their respective jurisdictions, b) It has drafted a Regional Climate Action Plan that has now been adopted by each of the four County Commissions as a foundation for their respective comprehensive plans for adaptation and mitigation in the face of climate change, c) The Compact has developed a baseline of science with respect to the main expected regional impacts and contributing factors involved in climate change, for individual counties to use in identifying and implementing their own solutions. This scientific baseline is periodically updates and shared to keep up with new findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other efforts, d) But what is perhaps the most notable contribution made by the Four County Compact is that it has placed the issue of climate change front and center in the political and legislative dialog in each of these four counties, making elected officials and political leaders comfortable with focusing on the topic at a time when decision-makers and politicians at other levels, especially at the federal level, continue to deny the topic and the science that supports it. Despite these critical achievements, after ten years in action the Four County Compact has not yet achieved the same kind of results owned by the LMS in the actual implementation of solutions in terms of brick-and-mortar or other tangible projects.

So, what can we conclude from the above? Is Southeast Florida doing enough in terms of adaptation to climate change or do we need to do more? What else do we need to do for adaptation? Who else needs to become actively involved in support of adaptation? How much time do we have to take action and implement solutions?

Certainly these are critical questions, deserving all our attention in a quest for answers. A good departure point is to look at what we have, identify gaps and needs for additional action, and integrate findings from these efforts into an updated/enhanced framework focusing on timelines for action.

Let us start by taking a more critical look at the three intiatives discussed above:

* Florida Building Code – High Velocity Hurricane Zone (HVHZ),

* Local Mitigation Strategy (LMS),

* Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.

Florida Building Code – High Velocity Hurricane Zone (HVHZ): experience has shown that our strong building code, supported by the required product approval based on established testing protocols, has played a significant role in enhancing the resilience of our communities in comfronting impacts from a range of natural hazards. True as this statement is, the fact remains that our current code only establishes the minimum requirements to build legally in the region subject to its jurisdiction. It is also a fact that, even when we meet the HVHZ requirements we are not designing for the full range of expected impacts, but only for a limited range of potential impacts artificially set by a building code commission or by standards set by others (i.e. ASCE) and integrated into the code. We must recognize that our strong HVHZ code has a bias toward wind protection (witness the several wind maps included in it), but needs to do more in terms of prescribing for protection from water, especially in terms of storm surge and wave impact. Other noticeable gaps in our code have to do with the shape of a building, the profile it presents to the fluids of wind and water during a hazard event and its role on performance and functionality. Keep in mind the ‘shape factor’ already included in the code for calculating certain loads, does not address the issue of ‘building shape’ mentioned here. Likewise, the code does not do enough to prescribe for the effect of ‘vicinity character‘ on a hurricane wind-field and the flow of water during a hazard event, despite the use of ‘exposure coefficients’. This vicinity character element is critically important in highly developed and fully built-up urban areas, especially those with a concentration of high-rise buildings. But perhaps the most important need of our HVHZ code, in my opinion, is requiring design criteria to be established on the basis of expected impacts during the projected service life of a building rather than on historical data.

Clearly much work remains in continuing to enhance and strengthen our vaunted building code. This will require a comprehensive collaborative effort involving various sectors.

Local Mitigation Strategy (LMS): twenty-two years of practice, supported by a whole community learn-by-doing multi-hazard approach and callibration of solutions in the field, have allowed this initiative to develop methodology for using the assessment of vulnerability to identify effective hazard mitigation solutions, and for vetting proposed projects that are cost-effective. An advantage the LMS has is that it is backed by Federal Law (since 2000) and related funding streams, and its implementation is supported by codified regulations (44 CFR), which allow regulators and practicioners to focus on the practical aspects of proposed solutions. Another advantage is the rich and growing inventory of completed projects throughout the country that serves as a repository of examples and ideas for others, and which in many cases is also proof that specific implemented solutions are effective, after having been subjected to subsequent hazard impacts of the kind they were designed to protect from.

In the case of Southeast Florida and more specifically that of Miami-Dade County the program started by focusing mainly on hurricane and flooding protection, but more recently as the climate sector has become better organized and more proactive with the regional climate change compact, more projects have incorporated sea level rise and other climate related aspects in recent years. We will probably see more projects like this now that the State Hazard Mitigation Plan is based on risk analysis that recognizes sea level rise as a hazard to protect from.

An important and strong component of the LMS is the requirement to involve the community in identifying and implementing hazard mitigation projects. Counties throughout Florida have used various approaches to engage their municipalities in support of their LMSs. Among these, it is worth making a reference to the highly effective approach used in Miami-Dade County where the LMS Working Group was originally organized as an open forum where the municipalities and participating institutions and agencies all have equal voices to discuss the vulnerability of the community, assess the risks faced from expected impacts, and propose specific hazard mitigation solutions, but with one important caveat: in order to take advantage of these opportunities LMS Working Group participants are required to attend a majority of the meetings of the group otherwise they lose the right to submit projects for consideration for future funding. As a result of this organizational structure and participation requirements Miami-Dade County LMS Working Group participants know it is in their best interest to actively engage in LMS activities generating, in the process, a ground-up effort that has proven quite successful in securing funding and implementing hazard mitigation solutions for the benefit of the entire county.

Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact (Four County Compact) : founded ten years ago as a solution to the lack of action to address climate change at the Federal and state levels, this unique initiative was successful in getting four contiguous counties, which often viewed each other as competitors from opposing sectors of the political spectrum, to agree on the until then unheard-of concept of joining forces, working together, and acting as a region using a science-based approach to take climate change mitigation and adaptation actions for their common good.

The Four County Compact sent a loud and clear message: the real potential for adverse consequences from climate change is a condition shared by the entire planet Earth and all of humankind. Climate change vulnerable Southeast Florida has decided to take collaborative action as a region for its own protection now, rather than wait until the politically motivated inaction at various levels of government is resolved.

So, this is how it all started, with a common-sense objective, a bold message, no federal support, no dedicated funding stream, a lot of enthusiasm among a few local leaders and support from some volunteers and stakeholders in the academic and private sector. The initial focus was on getting the conversation going about the concept of collaboration between the four county governments. Slowly but surely the initiative took hold, ad-hoc task forces and working groups were organized in the four counties, some grants provided funding to continue the conversation and to start setting clear objectives, goals and timelines.

Ten years later results are evident: a) A science-based baseline of data for sea level rise projections has been established, periodically revised, and made available to the four counties to incorporate in their decision-making regarding comprehensive planning and specific adaptation projects; b) Regional Climate Action Plans have been drafted containing a range of recommendations from the Four County Compact and adopted by resolution of the County Commissions in each of the four counties; c) Counties have commissioned and funded scientific/engineering studies to determine minimum design/construction standards for seawalls and other protective measures ; d) The counties and numerous municipalities have stablished resilience offices and hired Directors of Resilience and Sustainability, and supporting staff dedicated to their respective climate actions with a focus of converting recommendations from the Four County Compact into the implementation of actual adaptation solutions; e) The State of Florida has incorporated and filled the new position of Chief Resilience Officer in its budget and organizational chart; f) The general public, residents from the fours counties, have been engaged by way of various educational and outreach efforts with the objective of making these communities take ownership of their own vulnerability and protective actions regarding climate change; g) The conversation about climate adaptation and mitigation continues with more intensity, more sense of purpose, and with greater enthusiasm across all sectors of society; h) Some counties and municipalities, and a few agencies, have already implemented brick-and-mortar projects to protect against hazards exacerbated by sea level rise or other aspects of climate change, even though these solutions are viewed mainly as temporary protective measures implemented to buy time while other future more comprehensive and effective solutions are identified, designed and implemented as longer term solutions; i) The State Legislature has adopted laws allowing for the designation of Adaptation Action Areas to provide needed legal regulatory framework for counties and municipalities to authorize certain actions in support of climate adaptation, at the behest of communities inspired by the Four County Compact.

Yes indeed, much has been accomplished over the past few years especially by convincing local governments to adopt the topic of global climate change as their own, against all odds and considerable adverse pressure from politically motivated sectors who deny the reality of the topic, the role of human interference, and the magnitude of our vulnerability, while ignoring the science and attacking the scientists that work to provide a solid foundation for assessing the problem and identifying possible solutions. This effort has allowed local government to bridge their differences recognizing that our shared vulnerability requires a united collaborative approach in the search for solutions.

The effectiveness of government involvement is evident in the authorization of dedicated budgetary and human resources to work fulltime on matters related to global climate change at the local level. A foundation has been set for further progress.

Perhaps the simplest and yet the most effective singular achievement has been to get the conversation started keeping it active all this time, involving all sectors of society, maintaining alive the key messages of global climate change and the need for mitigation and adaptation

This is however no time for self-congratulations in the face of such positive results, because significant gaps remain that require our continued efforts to guide our communities toward resilience supported by strong and effective adaptation. This is the time to be our own strictest critics as we review what those gaps are and what remains to be done.

Following is a list of some key areas (remaining gaps) where we may need to reorient our thinking, reestablish objectives, take corrective actions, and redouble our efforts toward a comprehensive more effective adaptation plan:

  • Continued development and construction allowed in vulnerable urban areas are often in conflict with the objectives of adaptation and climate action plans;
  • Building design criteria continue to be governed in most cases by building code requirements not by expected impacts from hazards exacerbated by climate during the projected service life of a facility. This approach does not meet the measure of adaptation;
  • Some suggest there is a choice, an either/or situation, relative to mitigation and adaptation by stating “the more we practice mitigation the less we need adaptation”. This is in error and ignores the widely different time scales required by mitigation and adaptation to produce results, based on the atmospheric lifetime and global warming potential of greenhouse gases;
  • Adaptation proposals consisting solely of soft natural measures are being recommended. In most cases such proposed solutions ignore the reality of a fully-developed urban built-environment, such as exists in coastal Miami-Dade county, and the inherent conflict this represents;
  • Strict opposing positions are being taken by sectors who favor either hard engineered adaptation solutions, and those that prefer soft nature-based measures. This is unfortunate because there is no “one-size-fits-all” adaptation solution and most probably both kinds of adaptation measures will be needed;
  • Recommendations from lengthy costly studies on how to protect coastal communities against the impacts of sea level rise offer minimum requirement and timelines for seawall heights, but in general offer nothing to combat underground seepage, or to sustain increasing dynamic loads from waves and storm surge exacerbated by sea level rise. A more comprehensive holistic approach is clearly needed;
  • There is no evidence of a comprehensive dedicated applied research effort in the engineering and technology fields focusing on adaptation solutions. This is particularly surprising given the range of issues that could benefit from research including the permeability of the limestone substrate off shore Southeast Florida, which is often cited as an impediment for the deployment of regional defenses against sea level rise.
  • Perhaps the most obvious gap is that all this wonderful multiyear effort, a true national example, has not yet translated into actual adaptation projects. Except for isolated individual building projects where the design team has established criteria to adapt the facility to specific expected impacts, our region has much to tell but little to show.

The above list should suffice to illustrate the fact that much that is critical remains to be done in terms of adaptation to global climate change. The foundation has been built, the framework is in place, we now need to review our goals, objectives and strategies to emphasize the showing rather than the telling. A course correction is essential in our road toward resilience through adaptation!

This entry was posted in Adaptation, Climate Change, Featured, Flooding, Global Warming, Hazards, Hurricanes, Regional Protection, Resilience, Science, Sea Level Rise, Storm Surge, Tropical Cyclones, Vulnerability Assessment. Bookmark the permalink.

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