The water swept in like clockwork. It was just before high tide at 10 a.m. when the Intracoastal Waterway swelled to the rocky banks of the historic coastal neighborhood, and then cascaded over them. It slowly crept onto the grassy medians, into the streets and up driveways. The minutes passed and the water kept coming: six inches became 12, and one foot quickly became two, and two almost pushed three.
Dental floss, a bag of plantain chips and a Burger King cup floated with the current across the street. Barefoot residents raced to their cars, seeking elevation from the salt water, which had stalled and corroded enough mufflers and exhaust pipes in the past to stir panic. In the mad dash to escape, vehicles barreling up the street left a wake that lapped at residents’ doorsteps. Many residents feared that the sandbags in their garages would not be enough to save their lawnmowers and washing machines from short-circuiting—and for good reason.
This isn’t some far-fetched vision of South Florida’s future if leaders fail to act and adapt to climate change. This is what it already looks like for one low-lying community, which already experiences as many as 30 flood days a year. The king tides — when water levels rise as much as three feet during the autumnal full moons — have become a seasonal nuisance. And it only seems to be getting worse. The National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration projects sea levels to rise two feet by 2060 and as much as six feet by 2100. Unfortunately, the waterlogged plight of the Hollywood Lakes neighborhood is an existential reality about what life will eventually look like for all of us in South Florida, where half the land is no higher than five feet above sea level.
“South Florida is certainly the most vulnerable urban area in the United States to sea level rise,” says Jeff Goodell, whose book The Water Will Come chronicles the eye-opening threat of sea level rise. “There is no scenario for Fort Lauderdale where you can just put up a wall or simply elevate every building; it’s an economic disaster that’s looming on the horizon.”
“It will be too late.”
Sea level rise is precisely the kind of tortoise-moving, not-too-near future threat that humans have never been any good at tackling. It’s not as immediate as shuttering your home before a hurricane strikes, but make no mistake: The water is still slowly but surely rising around us. More than $360 billion of South Florida real estate rests on our doomed bed of porous limestone, and yet, it’s business as usual: Florida’s population is the third highest and one of the fastest growing in the country, expected to top 26 million by 2030. New construction is shooting up on Fort Lauderdale Beach, cranes are dangling high over Flagler Village and property values are on the upswing.
But it’s only a matter of time. The flood days will become more frequent and unbearable. Insurance rates will skyrocket. Banks will stop granting 30-year mortgages. Property values will take a nosedive. A new housing crisis will leave homes abandoned and quite literally underwater, turning South Florida into a modern-day Atlantis. With a president who considers climate change to be a hoax and a governor who refuses to use the term altogether, we appear to be on our own, which is a grim and mind-boggling fate to anyone who can fathom the entirety of the funding, construction and upgrades to infrastructure that needs to happen in the next 30 years to keep us afloat. Now local leaders, who in the face of indifference in Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee have formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, are racing the clock to figure how to adapt before it’s too late.
If it’s not already.
“It’s like a frog in a pot of water,” explains Jeffrey Huber, an architect and assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University focusing on sea level rise. “Turn on the high heat slowly and before the frog knows it, it’s dead and the water is boiling.”
University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless does not harbor any optimistic delusions about climate change. Studying sea level rise in South Florida since the 1980s might do that to a person. On subjects such as Florida’s unique geology, specifically our porous limestone foundation that confounds levees by letting ocean water seep in through the ground, he’s direct and unwavering. “It’ll honestly save us a lot of money and wasted effort,” he says. “Once sea level starts rising six inches or a foot per decade, none of these levees are going to help you.
“Back in the ’90s I never thought I’d see much of these changes — I’d talk and study about it but thought it was down the road,” he says. Now the 75-year-old Wanless and his wife, Lynn, are questioning whether or not they should retreat from their home in Coral Gables. “We’re not on the ocean or a barrier island, so I think we might have another 10 or 20 years, but I don’t know. Sea level might be moving much faster than I’m even thinking right now.”
Calculating mortgages and flood days and property values is an algorithm Wanless says Floridians will find themselves debating as the effects of climate change become more and more frequent and unbearable. Eventually, there will come a point when people will be forced to leave their homes behind. “Eventually people will be unable to sell their homes and are going to have to move to North Carolina or Nebraska,” Wanless predicts. “It’ll be like the Dust Bowl Okies: They moved on and nobody wanted them; they were treated like the dirt from which they came.
“I’m afraid that by the time people realize that, it will be too late.”
Moving to Drier Land
In 2016, Hollywood Lakes homeowner Peter Scher stood tippytoed on the highest peak in his driveway, being interviewed by a reporter about the king tide flooding ravaging his neighborhood. “We get trapped in our homes!” he said then. “It’s funny how the seller didn’t mention this when we bought the house!”
His wife darted out of the house in rubber boots to move their car to higher ground. “Our next one is going to be a lease!” she said before driving off.
Everyone has their line in the sand, the amount of inconvenience they are willing to endure. After seven years of raising a family in their picturesque million-dollar home that overlooks South Lake, Peter Scher and his family finally found theirs. They sold their house last year and retreated 14 miles inland to Pembroke Pines. “We moved for multiple reasons, but flooding was one of them,” Scher says. “Now, we’re nice and dry. We made sure we weren’t going to deal with [flooding that severe] ever again.”
A report released by CoreLogic in May found that Florida is the most vulnerable in the country to hurricane storm-surge damage, with more than 2.7 million homes at risk and more than $550 million in reconstruction costs. In April, new data from Harvard University and the University of Colorado found that homes in lower elevations are selling for less and gaining value slower than similar ones at higher elevation. In 2016, the government-sponsored home-loan agency Freddie Mac released a statement that warned of sea levels and flooding reaching a point where properties would become uninsurable and unmarketable, causing homeowners to begin defaulting on their mortgages and igniting another housing crisis. “As the market shakes out, some residents will cash out early and suffer minimal losses,” says chief economist Sean Becketti. “Others will not be so lucky.”
And, quietly, people like Peter Scher are already escaping. The first of the climate change refugees, they’re the lucky ones because they can still afford to move. Take Brad Tuckman, who in 2014 purchased Wayne Huizenga’s two-acre Mola Avenue homesite in Las Olas Isles. It was advertised as the “largest assemblage of waterfront property in Fort Lauderdale.” And yet, it was only 2.7 feet above sea level. Coastal Risk Consulting, a Plantation-based sea level rise adaptation firm, found that the high tide would flood the property by 2035, and that the property would be completely inundated by 2045. Tuckman then invested nearly a million dollars into demolishing the structure, trucking in fill, raising the entire property more than three feet and heightening the sea wall. Now the property sits at six feet above sea level, the highest on Mola Avenue. In 30 years, the property should only experience seven flood days a year as opposed to 317.
“Another ethical question that comes up is equity,” explains geoscientist and Broward resident Keren Bolter, who now works at Arcadis, a consulting firm that specializes in engineering solutions for sea level rise. Many fear that the correlation between elevation and property values will trigger “climate change gentrification,” a concept referring to poorer neighborhoods located on higher grounds being swallowed up by rich developers, leaving the former residents pushed out to low-lying regions and vulnerable to sea level rise.
Regardless of income, if the scientists are right, not even Pembroke Pines will be far enough of an escape — at least not a long term one. Moreover, the western reaches of South Florida are in some ways even more at risk than properties perched on the coastal ridge that runs from Palm Beach to just south of Miami, which averages 12 feet above sea level. Developed out of the Everglades swamplands, western suburbs are so low-lying that heavy rains already propel the water up and out of their shallow storm drains and onto their streets and yards. And Bolter’s research has found that residents in Broward’s western suburbs greatly underestimate their vulnerability to sea level rise.
What City Hall Can Do
When Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, the category-two storm whipped up 15-foot waves that pummeled Fort Lauderdale’s coast. The tide breached the sea wall and flowed across A1A and two blocks inland. The road was not passable, entire neighborhoods were cut off and homes were flooded. More heavy rains a few weeks later caused a four-block section of A1A to collapse, dragging a stretch of the sidewalk, road and parking spaces down with it.
Local leaders say it was a wake-up call that ushered in a new era of sea level-rise preparedness: After the state spent $8.3 million to temporarily keep A1A from disintegrating further, the city allocated $11.8 million to rebuild the promenade. Whereas previously the city would rebuild at grade, this time the road and promenade were constructed sturdier and even higher than before.
“We lost 2,000 feet of one lane of A1A to the ocean,” says Nancy Gassman, an assistant public works director for the city with a doctorate in coastal ecosystems. “The take-home message is that our response has to be multi-jurisdictional. Climate change might be happening globally but we have to adapt to it locally.”
South Florida is not the only region struggling to stay afloat. Coastal Virginia has seen more than 14 inches of sea level rise since 1930, the highest rate of rise on the whole Atlantic coast. On the Gulf coast, Louisiana is facing faster levels of sea level rise than any other region on Earth. The state could lose as much as 2,800 square miles of its coast over the next 40 years, and 27,000 buildings will need to be flood-proofed, elevated or bought out. But it’s in South Florida where the threat is brought to a major metropolitan area. Jennifer Jurado, Broward County’s chief climate resilience officer, explains that our population density, limestone geology and high-water tables are “unique challenges.” And yet, she’s not discouraged.
“In many ways our community and region [are] well ahead of others,” she says. “We have been historically very knowledgeable about flood-threat impact and use hydrologic models so advanced that you’d only find them at an academic institution.”
Advanced mapping and models allow engineers, architects and city leaders to pinpoint the most at-risk neighborhoods and streets. Already a slew of fixes has helped shore up confidence. Tidal valves are simple, one-way rubber contraptions that keep storm drains functioning as they should. When it rains, water drains into sewers that eventually drain into the sea. During heavy rains and flooding, the sea water rises up and seeps backwards towards the city, causing sea water to gush out of drains and flood streets. But 147 tidal valves have been installed across Fort Lauderdale, and “areas that were once wet are now dry,” Jurado says.
In June 2016, Fort Lauderdale passed a sea wall ordinance that mandated minimum elevation for new sea walls, and the ability to cite property owners whose sea walls were in disrepair or had tidal waters flowing over them. During the king tide in the fall of 2016, 40 properties were cited for not being in compliance. Today, Gassman reports that all of those initial sea walls are currently up to code.
Pump stations are an expensive investment but one that helps drain stagnant flood or rain waters in especially low-lying areas. There are currently four pump stations in Fort Lauderdale, but in the upcoming years the city plans to install seven more. This is all part of the storm water master plan, which will implement designs to improve the most at-risk neighborhoods over the next five years.
“We have an emerging urban challenge as a coastal city so we have to be open to putting different tools in our toolbox for a challenge this new in the modern era,” Gassman says. “We have an aspirational goal to be a resilient and safe coastal community by 2035.”
When it comes to finding different tools to tackle sea level rise, Fort Lauderdale is in many ways leading the pack, says Jeffrey Huber, the architect and assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University. Huber focuses on what’s been called “Salty Urbanism,” a low-impact approach to climate change adaptation. Basically, using nature to fight nature. For example, the pumps installed in Miami Beach, though keeping the island more dry, cause marine die-offs because silt is being spit into the bay. A cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative can be to plant more trees. “An acre of mangrove forest can absorb up to 100 gallons of water in a day,” Huber says. “They’re nature’s pumps.”
But there’s no escaping the bureaucracy of government. It can take years to run the necessary exploratory studies to even approve these types of projects, and then even more time to secure funding. It can take a decade, Jurado admits. “Every year of delay has significant ramifications given the timeline and what’s involved…Ten years down the road, we may have exhausted that opportunity.”
It doesn’t help that the tangle of multiple jurisdictions among the city, county, state and federal governments is extremely convoluted. It’s hard to understand if a road like Las Olas Boulevard falls under federal, state, county or city jurisdiction, which is the first step in figuring out which entity is responsible for keeping it dry and safe for residents—and who gets the bill for those upgrades. When the financial brunt of the necessary upgrades and new infrastructure lands in the laps of smaller municipalities, they often can’t afford it.
At Arcadis, geoscientist Keren Bolter works on the urban and coastal resiliency team tasked specifically with helping local governments find hazard mitigation funding.
“Research shows that every dollar spent to prevent a disaster is saving $6 in recovery,” Bolter says. “It’s very dramatic so from a financial standpoint it makes sense to focus not on recovery but on preparedness.”
Sometimes that means waiting for a natural disaster to strike and the federal government’s disaster relief funds to become available. Bolter explains that when Hurricane Irma came barreling towards Florida last year, more than a billion dollars became available to local municipalities. While most of the money had to be spent on repairing damage caused by the storm, a percentage could be set aside for making a municipality safer and stronger for the next one. It’s an unquestionably odd way of doing things. Sure, a large amount of federal money would become available in the event of a major storm, but, as a community “it would influence the decision how and where to rebuild,” Jurado says. Some areas would have to be considered a total loss.
Of course, these are all short- to medium-term plans. Longer term, the effects of hurricanes – like everything else – looks more grim. If an Andrew-style category-five hurricane strikes Miami in 2060 — with an added two feet of sea level rise — the outcome will be even more catastrophic.
“We can try to adapt to a few feet of sea level rise each decade, but in 100 or 200 years it’s not going to matter,” says Harold Wanless, the University of Miami geologist. “South Florida will be completely underwater, and the water is not going to go down, at least not for thousands of years.”
For the workers on the frontlines, planning a decade or two ahead is hard enough.
“No one is planning for 2100,” Jurado admits. “We have a hard enough time meeting the infrastructure needs today.”
So, as a region,we take it one day — and one inch — at a time.