Tag Archives: Fort Lauderdale

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 Nelson! 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 Mitigat.com, 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.

A taste of things to come?

No sooner had the 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season been declared “officially” opened, than a meandering tropical wave over the northwestern Caribbean started to get stronger and more organized, affecting the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Belize, vast portions of Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula with stormy weather and heavy rains, as it moved slowly northward toward the Gulf of Mexico. By June 3, satellite images were already showing some storms bands starting to coalesce around a center of low pressure while the system continued to move northward at a rather deliberate pace of about 5 – 6 kph.

The storm entered the Gulf of Mexico continuing its northward track paralleling the west coast of Florida some 200 -250 kilometers offshore, and already generating copious rain over most of the peninsula. Flooding started to occur and tornado warnings were issued for several areas in Florida. By Wednesday, June 5, hurricane hunter airplane observations had detected a center of circulation and sustained surface wind speed of 64 kph. (40 mph), we had a  tropical cyclone in the Gulf, the first named-storm  of the 2013 Atlantic Hurricane season: tropical storm ANDREA!

Tropical storm ANDREA as it moved off the gulf coast of Florida on June 5, 2013.
Tropical storm ANDREA as it moved off the gulf coast of Florida on June 5, 2013.

Tropical storm ANDREA strengthened during the night and continued to do so on Thursday, June 6, reaching maximum sustained winds of 96 kph (60 mph), started to track faster while beginning a gradual turn first to the NNE and then NE toward the big bend region of the Florida coastline. As rain and wind intensified, and storm bands pounded most of Florida the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a state-wide tornado watch reaching from the tip of South Florida to the Georgia border.

Tornado watch issued by the NWS on June 5, 2013 as tropical storm ANDREA, the first named storm of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, moved over the Gulf toward landfall in the Big Bend area of the Florida coastline.
Tornado watch issued by the NWS on June 5, 2013 as tropical storm ANDREA, the first named storm of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, moved over the Gulf toward landfall in the Big Bend area of the Florida coastline.

In my home-base in Southeast Florida rain and thunderstorms became more frequent and continued during the night and into Friday, June 7, in the morning. The NWS issued a flash flood warning through 9:30 a.m. for extreme northeast Miami-Dade County and neighboring coastal region in Broward County. By this time tropical storm ANDREA had crossed over Florida and over the coastal region of Georgia and South Carolina where propelled by a dipping jet stream and other atmospheric features it regained some strength, after having decayed overland Florida, and began to move toward the northeast paralleling the Atlantic coast line at speeds of 40 kph (25 mph) and even faster.

While tropical storm ANDREA continued its progress along the Atlantic seaboard, its parting gift for southeast Florida during the afternoon on Friday, June 7, was an increase in rainfall, which began to fall at the rate of more than one inch an hour, causing the flash flood watch to be extended initially until 5:45 p.m., and then until 11:45 p.m. as more and more rain fell. Severe flooding occurred in North Miami Beach, Aventura, Hallandale, Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and neighboring areas. By 11:00 p.m. more than 356 mm (14″) of rain had already accumulated in North Miami Beach. Thousands of people and vehicles were stranded or  suffered damage because of the extensive flooding. Reports from communities in the coastal regions of the Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware and beyond, in New Jersey and New York, indicated numerous instances of flash flooding as the storm continued to accelerate toward the northeast.

Observing the havoc caused by tropical storm ANDREA’s parting shot over southeast Florida, even as it was causing severe impact in other far away regions of the USA, it was difficult not to wonder what could have happened if the  same or perhaps an even larger amount of extreme rain had been produced by a large wet hurricane approaching the coastline slowly over the Atlantic, generating wide-ranging storm surge and wave action in this region. For starters, the rain event on Friday, June 7, illustrated how ineffective our water management system already is in dealing with extreme rain and an already saturated soil. It is clear that as the level; of the sea has continued to rise, the draining capacity of the water management system, which is largely dependent on gravity flow, has already diminished and will continue to diminish in the future.

Tropical storm ANDREA, just as hurricane SANDY did in 2012,  demonstrated that the combination of a large wet tropical cyclone, generating extreme amounts of precipitation, and storm surge and wave action, can result in vast amounts of damage to the built environment along the coastal region. No major hurricane is really needed to generate really a lot of damage from the impacts of extreme rain, rising and rushing water, plus wave action. However, should a major hurricane with such wet and storm surge characteristics be in the mix, wind and flying debris damage will then add to the impact.

Were SANDY in 2012, and now ANDREA in 2013, typical of what we might see more of in the future? Was this a taste of things to come?  Are we prepared for such impacts or even worse ones? Relative to at least one of these questions, I would argue that empirical data alone show our coastal region is not prepared for these or worse kinds of impacts that may combine extreme rain, flash flooding, storm surge and wave action. Trillions of dollars in built environment, and all of the components of human  activity, as well as critically needed infrastructure, including essential water systems and waste-water treatment facilities located near the coast are at risk of suffering potentially catastrophic damage from recurring storm impacts.

So what is happening today, Saturday June 8, 2013? Where did ANDREA go? What is happening elsewhere in the tropics?

In the larger Atlantic basin, ANDREA has been pushed out of the region by the jet stream. Another area of disturbed weather has mover over the Gulf of Mexico generating vast amounts of rain over several areas in Florida. Tropical waves generated over Equatorial Africa continue to move westward over the warm waters of the Atlantic where hurricane alley is populated by several large cells of storms and disturbed weather all the way across to the coastline of the Lesser Antilles and South America. The satellite image below illustrates these tropical activities in the Atlantic.

GOES satekllite image on June 8, 2013  showing various regions of disturbed weather in the Atlantic basin.
GOES satellite image on June 8, 2013 showing various regions of disturbed weather in the Atlantic basin.

Elsewhere, at the other side of the world over the northwestern Pacific ocean  just to the east of the Philippines tropical storm YAGI, quite large and strong, has generated and is moving NNE toward Japan while generating quite intense rain mainly over open ocean waters.

Color-enhanced infrared satellite image of June 8, 2013 showing Tropical Storm YAGI to the east of the Philippines as it moves  NNE in the general direction of southern Japan.
Color-enhanced infrared satellite image of June 8, 2013 showing Tropical Storm YAGI to the east of the Philippines as it moves NNE in the general direction of southern Japan.

As summer approaches the tropics in the northern hemisphere are already seeing plenty of disturbed weather and potentially cyclonic activity. We all need to pay attention and be prepared. Above all, we must practice MITIGATION!