Getting ready for hurricane season never quite stops. In many ways, Floridians have been bracing for the next Big One ever since Hurricane Andrew crushed Homestead and nearby areas in 1992 and redefined storm risk. More than a quarter century after Andrew, building resiliency to hurricanes remains a work in progress.
Exposure to hurricanes persists in public infrastructure for storm water management, FEMA flood maps, Florida Power & Light’s electrical grid, and insurance coverage for homes and businesses. Population growth adds to exposure as the number of residents who never faced a major hurricane rises: Broward County’s population has grown by about 168,000 since Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and by about 610,000 since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Southeast Florida dodged a bullet last September when Hurricane Irma roared up the west coast of the state instead of the east coast, where the storm nevertheless exposed vulnerabilities.
“We had some lessons learned, and we’re working on those for this hurricane season,” says Nancy Gassman, an assistant public works director with the City of Fort Lauderdale. “It’s a continuous process.”
Keeping the Lights On and the Rising Water Out
The city’s biggest lesson from Irma was to work more closely with Florida Power & Light to ensure faster post-storm power restoration at the city’s municipal water and wastewater treatment plants. FPL may stage one of its employees at the Broward County Emergency Operations Center before future hurricanes knock out the power, Gassman said, “so we can bounce back faster next time.”
The City of Fort Lauderdale has installed storm water pump stations to keep the downtown dry. But the pumps lack generators that could provide backup electricity during a power outage, “so we are looking into generator backup for those facilities,” Gassman says. Under the city’s storm water master plan, seven more pump stations would be installed in flood-prone neighborhoods over the next five years, pending funding.
Sea level rise has made optimal resilience to hurricanes a moving target. Sea level in South Florida has risen three inches since 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit, and will rise another six to 10 inches by 2030, according to research used by the four-county Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. The compact outlines responses to sea level rise in Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties.
New infrastructure is part of Fort Lauderdale’s response, but some of the fixes have flaws.
Consider tidal valves, also known as back-flow preventers. These valves open to release storm water to the sea, then close to stop seawater from flowing into the city’s drainage system. The city has installed 147 of these valves around town and plans to install 110 more in the seven neighborhoods most vulnerable to tidal and coastal flooding, under its storm water master plan.
“Some of those neighborhoods have very little existing storm water infrastructure,” Gassman says. However, high tides can lift the sea above the level of the valves, preventing them from opening and releasing storm water. “If it’s high tide, the tidal valves may not be able to open … It may cause street flooding until the tide goes back down,” she says.
Still, tidal valves have proved more effective than so-called tiger dams. They resemble giant sandbags that users inflate with water to protect against flooding. Fort Lauderdale deployed tiger dams several years ago in a pilot project to manage tidal flooding. Inflated with fresh water, however, tiger dams float on tidal salt water instead of blocking it. “Fresh water floats on salt water, so the buoyancy doesn’t work for this application,” Gassman says. “The salt water comes in and actually lifts up the tiger dams.”
Among other efforts to build resiliency, the city government has set the minimum height for seawalls at 3.9 feet and requires owners to maintain them. Homeowners with cracked seawalls that cause street flooding can face municipal citations.
But a 3.9-foot seawall is not enough to protect a property from storm surge during a hurricane, especially if it coincides with fall-season king tides, says Albert Slap, who runs a Plantation-based flood forecasting company, Coastal Risk Consulting.
Slap has an apt name: His firm’s long-term flooding forecasts for individual properties can come as a smack to the head. Coastal Risk Consulting produces forecasts based on a mix of inputs, including flood models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
FEMA maps show the height of severe floods with a probability of happening once every 100 years and every 500 years. But they “have pretty much failed us as a country, because people are experiencing flooding at levels and heights that were not predicted by the FEMA flood maps,” Slap says, citing deadly flooding from rainy Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area last year.
NOAA models of future flooding typically forecast much higher storm surges from hurricanes than FEMA flood maps, he says, and compared to NOAA data, the FEMA maps also discount the impact of exceptionally heavy rainfall.
“The NOAA model was what was used to evacuate more than six million people in Irma,” Slap says. “The state, counties and local governments rely on this model to make their evacuation orders.”
Public policy has increased resilience to storms in other ways, too.
For example, Broward County recently enacted rules to limit power outages due to trees, the number one cause of outages. The county rules set the minimum distance of planted trees from power lines. The new rules apply only to property owners in unincorporated areas.
But relying on the public sector to fix every vulnerability to storms and rising seas is wishful at best.
“Everybody is kind of on your own,” says Slap, who urged against “waiting around for the City of Fort Lauderdale to save everybody and to make public investments that are somehow going to make all these problems go away.”
Going Low or Going High
Few methods of hardening the electrical grid are more effective – or more expensive – than putting utility lines underground.
Half a dozen Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods have applied to the city government to move overhead power lines, telephone lines and cable TV lines underground. Their applications are pending approval by the City Commission. Property owners would pay a special tax to bury utilities in the six neighborhoods: Harbor Beach, Idlewyld, Las Olas Isles, Seven Isles and Sunrise Key.
One of the most expensive fixes an individual home owner can make is elevating their property, a trend in some of Fort Lauderdale’s low-lying, high-income neighborhoods. In many cases, the buyer of a home near water “tears that home down and builds a home that’s higher,” Slap says. “That has gone on for a long time in Fort Lauderdale, and it will continue to go on.”
Not everyone can afford to elevate a home, of course. “But at a minimum, there are removable barrier systems that you can put over the front door and over a garage in advance of hurricanes,” Slap says. “There is a lot of new technology coming out of Europe right now in barrier systems.”
Flood risk seems to be gaining attention in the real estate business. Many of Slap’s customers are investors in hotels and other commercial properties. The costs associated with flooding have started seeping into investors’ calculations of coastal and inland property values. “Flood maps and elevations are definitely part of the consideration process,” says Stephen Tilbrook, an attorney with law firm GrayRobinson. “At the same time, coastal and eastern development is as lively as ever. So, they are kind of two opposing forces.”
Whether inland or on the water, real estate developments in South Florida depend on power. And since 2006, the region’s electric utility has tried to become more resilient to hurricanes by “hardening” its electrical grid.
Among other precautions, Florida Power & Light cleared vegetation from more than 15,000 miles of power lines each year. FPL also has inspected about 150,000 power poles a year, upgrading or replacing them as needed.
The hardening evidently is working: FPL replaced 4,600 power poles damaged by Hurricane Irma, far fewer than the 12,400 that Hurricane Wilma knocked down in 2005. FPL restored power to more than half its customers within one day after Irma, compared to five days after Wilma. New “smart” switches in FPL’s grid helped 546,000 customers avoid power interruptions.
FPL is still challenged to keep the lights on during severe storms, however, and the costs and benefits of its grid-hardening program defy easy measurement.
By 2022, FPL plans to substitute power poles made of steel or concrete for its wooden poles, which account for 10 percent of all its poles. But Jon Moyle, a representative of the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, says FPL should retire its wooden power poles faster than four years.
“It seems to me that’s a long time to wait,” Moyle said earlier this year at a hurricane preparedness workshop in Tallahassee held by the Florida Public Utility Commission (PUCO), which regulates FPL. He said PUCO should “set a priority on replacing wood transmission poles sooner than later.”
Moyle also questioned whether the benefits of grid hardening have exceeded the cost to FPL customers in the form of higher monthly bills: “Are rate payers getting their money’s worth from storm hardening? I think more work should be done on that critical question … Why is that data [from utilities] lacking?”
Flood insurance also is lacking. Slap, the head honcho at Coastal Risk Consulting, says coverage against flood loss is financial protection that many homeowners can afford but go without.
“If you have a home in Fort Lauderdale and you don’t have flood insurance, you’re making a huge mistake,” Slap says, noting that flood coverage typically is sold separately from homeowner’s insurance policies.
He believes flood insurance protects owners of fewer than half of the homes in the flood-prone “A” zone on FEMA’s flood map for Fort Lauderdale, including a large eastern swath of the city crisscrossed by rivers and canals.
Many of those homes are debt-free, so the owners face no requirement from a mortgage lender to buy flood insurance. “Some of them don’t even know it’s not included in their homeowner’s insurance,” he says. “They think they have it.”
Chad Pasternack, an attorney in the Fort Lauderdale office of Weisbrod Matteis & Copley, agrees that flood coverage “is an often-overlooked area of insurance. Most people don’t understand that a typical homeowner’s policy would not cover flood damages.”
Similarly, business owners may be unaware that their commercial property insurance policies include coverage for “utility interruption.”
“Even a savvy and sophisticated business may not be aware that there is utility interruption coverage,” Pasternack says. “Even if your property was not damaged, the power outage prevented you from going to work.”
Pasternack also advises immediate mitigation of storm damage to a home or business, which can include drying out water-soaked property “and performing emergency repairs to prevent additional damage. Insurance companies can deny coverage for damages that could have been prevented by mitigation.”
The Post-Andrew Home
Of course, avoiding both property damage and insurance claims is the preferred outcome for homeowners in a hurricane. Changes to the state building code have established sturdier construction standards since Hurricane Andrew.
Post-Andrew changes to Florida’s building code have raised the standards for roof construction and straps that anchor roofs in high winds.
But the process of updating the state building code has changed, raising concern about the potential for weakening the code.
Gov. Rick Scott last year signed legislation that ended the state’s practice of incorporating into its building code the triennial updates of a model building code published by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called International Code Council (ICC).
Instead, an obscure state entity called the Florida Building Commission will selectively recommend the inclusion of ICC updates in the state building code only if they apply to Florida.
Florida now has the strongest building code among the 50 states, according to a report by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. The Florida Building Commission is required to update the state building code every three years. Plantation-based electrical contractor Kevin M. Flanagan, a member of the commission, says the commission’s past practice of automatically adopting changes to the model ICC code has produced good results.
“After these past few hurricanes, anything that was built under the Florida Building Code has fared very well,” he says, “and we find that we’re doing our jobs.”
But Flanagan says selective adoption of the model ICC code is better for the Sunshine State: “We’re only trying to make good recommendations for Florida residents. We don’t try to do what New York wants to do.”
The Florida Home Builders Association lobbied hard for severing the state’s link to the model ICC code. “I think you’re going to find it’s a step forward,” says Rusty Payton, the association’s CEO.
“The ICC’s recommendations are not limited to storm resiliency,” Payton says. “When that code comes in, it contains lots of things, some of which don’t even apply to Florida, and some of which may not offer any particular benefit to Floridians, particularly if you add the price tag to it.”
As an example, Payton cited an ICC mandate requiring fire-resistant materials for zero lot-line homes to protect against “topographical fires, up big hills and down big hills, which you don’t have in Florida. That added about $7,000 to each home but had no relevancy to the state of Florida.”
Payton says his trade group is trying to balance the need for housing safety with affordability. “Just because something costs doesn’t mean we’re not going to adopt it,” he says. But “we’ve got an affordable housing issue in this state, so we want to look at all aspects dealing with affordable housing.”