Miami Forever: Combating Flooding Caused by Climate Change

Nicholas Lanni, Mariah Leslie, Hunter Magill, Jennifer Stowell

 

             Miami beach flooding in 2013

Home is where the heart is. But what if your home has been swept away in a catastrophic flood? Miami beach resident Bruce Bender represents one of millions of U.S. homeowners that are threatened by this reality with each and every hurricane that makes landfall. He shares with reporters how he is “completely, absolutely, one hundred percent desperate” (Harris, 2018). Due to climate change, sea-level rise is affecting Miami the hardest. Bender explains how he has to roll his pants up to his knees, to walk from his home to his garage, and he has photos of his home flooded in water a foot deep (Harris, Gurney, 2018). With sea level rise already impeding on life in Miami, hurricanes only worsen the problem and cause more damage. Hurricanes cause flooding, and climate change leads to more intense hurricanes which have worse floods and damage. As a hurricane hits land, it creates a rise in sea level called storm surge. A hurricane creates a storm surge due to the low pressure, large waves, and high wind speeds associated with its conditions (University of Illinois, 2010). Due to this rise in sea level, hurricanes cause flooding especially along coastlines, like those that Miami face (Loria, 2018). Due to climate change, hurricane flooding is only getting more intense. When the sea surface temperatures (SST) rise due to climate change, more seawater evaporates, increasing precipitation during hurricanes and other storms (Wang et. al, 2018) . This concept is similar to a sauna, where once you warm the coals to heat the sauna, the water you pour in quickly evaporates, creating more intense amounts of steam. When the sea surface temperatures rise, there is an increase in evaporation which intensifies hurricanes. Floods resulting from this increased precipitation damage coastal communities.

Miami plans to start its combat against climate change through a 400 million dollar general obligation bond called “Miami Forever”. The program’s main mission is to create future livability in Miami while trying to find more cost effective ways to withstand the environmental changes brought on by climate change (Smiley, 2017). Passed in Florida’s 2017 elections, the bond is intended to be paid back through property taxes and what’s more is that it will not raise property taxes for Miami residents. Instead, residents miss out on the reduction in tax rates they’d normally get when the city finishes paying off its old debt (Stein, 2017). Although the expected decrease in property taxes will not be coming to Miami residents anytime soon, they will not be paying extra for what this program, and voters, hope to achieve.

What the program lacks, however, is not being able to provide voters with any specifics on how it intends to achieve its climate adaptation and mitigation goals. Despite this, Miami officials can confirm that about 200 million dollars will be spent on sea level rise projects. The remaining 200 million will be spent on affordable housing, road improvements, parks, cultural facilities, and public safety (Smiley, 2017). The lack of specificity has left the program under high scrutiny and has stalemated the program from gaining any kind of momentum so far, however, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Leaders from the People of Climate Change March explains, “History has left us skeptical that the bond program will be implemented in an equitable fashion and without negative impacts to vulnerable populations” (as cited in Stein, 2017). In doing so, program directors are now held more accountable for how they spend the money, because, “programs like these are necessary for local government to begin addressing issues that our most vulnerable populations face.” ( as cited in Stein, 2017)

Before this program came to pass, voters passed the Stormwater Master Plan in 2012 and granted stronger water pumps to a few of Miami’s streets most impacted by floods. These pumps are capable of pumping 14,000 gallons of water per minute and were reported to be keeping the once regularly flooded streets relatively dry soon after implementation (Flechas, 2014). This program failed, however, because it failed to take into account local sea level rise projections for Miami so the pumps were not powerful enough (Stein, 2017). Mousavi et al. (2011) predicts climate change will cause the sea level to rise about one foot as soon as 2030. As tidal flooding continues to get worse in parts of Miami, Miami Forever should focus its sea level project efforts on installing more pumps. Updating Miami’s storm water drain system with more pumps will prevent Miami from hemorrhaging more funds into restorative projects, adding an overall cost effectiveness to the program. Although it’s important to note that these pump are only a temporary fix–like a band-aid over a deep wound–experts state it will give Miami a 30-40 year buffer for more conductive solutions to be made (Flechas & Staletovich, 2015).

Generally speaking, a city’s stormwater drain system consists of multiple storm drains, manholes, and basins from which storm water enters. It then flows through a series of well chambers and interconnected cylinder pipes before reaching an exit point; typically a nearby body of water (“MDOT Stormwater Drainage Manual”, 2006). Pumps are added along this pathway to help better guide the body of liquid by increasing the fluid’s static pressure. The water enters the pump inlet point and is fed through a turning, motorized impeller using centripetal forces to suction water into its center, or “eye”,  before exiting an outlet point at higher velocity (“HEC 24 Highway Stormwater Pump Station Design”, 2001). Because there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to water pumps, determining the pumps strength, or how many gallons of water it needs to move per minute, is based off different calculations discussed later in this paper. As climate change continues to be realized, Miami continues to be hit the hardest with rising sea levels, as well as increasing hurricane storm surges and precipitations (Wang, et al. 2018). Miami’s stormwater drain systems need to be equally equipped in any way it can be and should be the program’s first steps in mitigating these water increases and limiting the damages caused by hurricanes and tidal floods.

There is currently a project underway to raise the roads of miami beach to prevent flooding. This will cost the city about 25 million dollars (Flechas, 2014) and the funding for this project is just the beginning to solving the problem. Miami beach is only a part of Miami-Dade county and a very small part of the Florida. If these measures were implemented to the rest of the county they wouldn’t have the same financial impact. There wouldn’t be as large a need for raised roads and the funding can go to installing pumps. Additionally if there is still need for more funding it can be found with the various businesses found in the county. During major storms and hurricanes they have to close down from the flooding and wind, but if they each gave a small percentage of their loss from the flooding to fund the project there would be more than enough to fund the project. Even though there is less than a 1:1 ratio for the money spent on prevention and money saved by the flood prevention. There is still money saved to the people and the businesses. There is no specific date to only pump flooding prevention cost benefits so the data is also skewed by including the costs of raising streets above sea level.

Let’s look at the effectivity of this solution. This answer comes as one of the least costly and most effective. As we know, most any problem can be solved if we throw enough money at it but in a time where funds need to be distributed over a broad range of enterprises, we can’t spend it all in one place. A category 3 hurricane, Norbert, dropped 464 mm of rain per hour at peak measurements which equates to 18.27 inches per hour. (Black, 2012) The reason this particular hurricane is of importance is how recent it was, 2014, and the amount of rain it dropped for the relatively low category number. Now unfortunately we are going to have to come to the realization that this amount of rainfall simply cannot be diverted into places to avoid flooding. However there is a way to calculate the amount of drainage in gallons per minute needed to help with the surplus of water during flood level events and keep flooding to a minimum in low sea level areas. Miami covers 55.25 square miles. This roughly equates to 289,935 gallons of water per minute for one inch of rainfall over one square mile. When hurricanes make landfall and the amount of rain being dropped is found, it’s a simple calculation to find how much water needs to be pumped out of the city and what size pumps should be installed or how many. There are many companies who make pumps ranging from 1,000 gpm all the way to 100,000 gpm and can be utilized in two ways. One way is a hard mount and the pump never moves. This way would be used preferably under ground or at a pumping station which takes all the water from the city and pumps it into the ocean or reservoir after being disinfected of chemicals and contaminants. This is much how city water systems work. The other type of pump is a movable configuration and is typically used as needed. Imagine you’re filling your bathtub with water but the drain can’t handle the amount coming in from the faucet. Once the water reaches the drain flip on the side of the tub then it can handle additional water. This is how the movable pump would be used and would be great for those areas in the city that have a lower average altitude and thus accrue more water and need additional support. Installing them to the existing storm drain infrastructure would minimize costs and increase effectiveness of the system. A 50,000 gpm pump could easily be integrated to the system at a rate of 6 per square mile to drain the water from, for instance, a hurricane like Norbert.

A possible argument against the use of drainage pumps is that these systems must be installed which costs time and money. While any addition of infrastructure will hold an economic impact, the amount of damage avoided by avoiding heavy flooding will save much more money than it costs to install the systems. As stated above, researchers are finding that the effects of hurricanes are only becoming more intense, and this includes flooding from excessive precipitation. Based on a report from Moody Analytics, “Property damage and disruption from Hurricane Florence is expected to total at least $17 billion to $22 billion, but the estimate could end up being conservative, as the Carolinas continue to face historic rainfalls and flooding” (Domm, p. 1). This estimate of cost in repairs was for one hurricane alone, meaning that with each additional hurricane more damage is done, and worse flooding will result. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was reported to have cost $108 billion in damages, half of which were due to the damage done by flooding (Amadeo, 2018). After this hurricane, Louisiana began to install stronger, more effective pumps in order to avoid facing that same level of damage (Schleifstein, 2018). These drainage pump systems ended up going over budget, and costing the city of New Orleans $728 million for three main pumping stations. While this is a large sum of money, comparatively to the damage done by Hurricane Katrina, these costs could pay off for another high intensity hurricane. Half of the damage costs of Hurricane Katrina were reported to have been due to flooding, meaning that the $54 billion amount of damage could have been drastically reduced if proper infrastructure were in place (Amadeo, 2018) (Schleifstein, 2018). This comparison between the costs in New Orleans, could speak largely to

Bruce Bender is one of many home and business owners who are desperate to find solutions that will make their quality of life at the coast more sustainable. Stronger drainage pumps are not the only solution to Florida’s flood problem, but it is a practical approach to a much larger and complex issue in which they cannot afford further delay. If there is one thing we can be certain of is that climate change is here and creating more intense hurricanes. Combined with a rising sea level, another side effect of climate change, and recipe for disaster is likely to ensue upon coastal communities as has been the case for Miami, a major U.S. city. NOAA reports that the U.S. has seen 25 500-year hurricanes since 2010, in which the U.S. has paid a little over 300 billion dollars in damages for just 2017 alone (Ingraham, 2017). If even a portion of that cost can be reduced by adding stronger drainage pumps it could give coastal communities like Miami time to respond and reevaluate the framework of their society’s infrastructure. The millions it costs to install these pumps are alarming but nominal when compared to the billions it could save in flood damages. Adding stronger drainage pumps could be the starting point that allows for more permanent solutions to be made.

Hurricane Resistant Building Techniques for New and Restorative Residential Construction in Coastal Communities

 

Emma Curran- Environmental Science

Erika Smith- NRC

Dean Jenssen- BCT

George Baidoo- BCT

From Webster’s Dictionary, the word ‘claustrophobia’ is the fear of being enclosed in a small space or room and unable to escape or get out. Many people in the world suffer from this phobia, while others simply feel uncomfortable with the idea of being stuck in place. This is a feeling thousands of people have endured, especially in times of a natural disaster, faced with a rising storm surge and trying to escape. This is the fate many residents in hurricane prone areas, particularly the Gulf Coast and Florida have encountered. Unfortunately, a storm surge rises irrespective to one’s claustrophobia. Brendan Smialowski and Gianrigo Marletta interviewed Mexico beach resident Loren Beltran after the recent devastation Hurricane Michael caused. “My house, which is in Mexico Beach, is under water,” said Beltran, distraught after learning that water had reached the ceiling of her damaged home (Smialowski, B et al. 2018, October 11). Climate change is progressing, and factors like storm surge, sea level rise, and sea surface temperature (SST) increase are causing high intensity hurricanes to happen at a higher rate. This has led to more much more flood damage in coastal communities.  The only viable solution to better protect the homes of residents living in coastal areas is building with flood proof materials and methods, such as concrete foundations, to ensure minimal damage possible from the hurricane. Continue Reading

The Effects of Climate Change on Hurricanes and How to Potentially Minimize Hurricane Damages

Jennifer Arthur: Animal Science/Pre-Vet

Abigail Buck: Wildlife Biology

Spencer Rock: Forest Ecology and Conservation

 

During hurricane Sandy in 2012, many businesses in New Jersey were left badly damaged or completely destroyed. Donovan’s Reef, a local restaurant in Sea Bright, NJ was completely washed away by the storm. The restaurant was not rebuilt or reopened for over 5 years, leaving anyone who relied on the business for their livelihood without jobs and without an income (Murdock, 2017). Following Hurricane Sandy multiple family owned businesses like Donovan’s Reef, Seacoast Marina, and Memphis Pig Out suffered as insurance did not account for anywhere near their total costs. (Murdock, 2017; Quittner, 2015). Memphis Pig Out is a barbecue restaurant that was built from the ground up by a local husband-and-wife team, Strassburg and Mark. Following Hurricane Sandy their restaurant suffered over $65,000 in damages but only received $5,000 in insurance coverage, barely a fraction of the rebuilding costs. Immediately, to get renovations started, Strassburg sold every single piece of jewelry she owned but it wasn’t nearly enough. Just to keep their restaurant open the couple had to take on second jobs that paid barely anything. Strassburg took on a nightly magazine advertising job while her husband became a dog walker. This money kept their business afloat but meant they worked excessive hours, spent barely any time together, and still barely pulled their business out of collapse. Despite their best efforts restaurant sales in the years following Sandy fell by over 30% and the business is only reaching pre-Sandy production six years later (Quittner, 2015).  Global warming is no longer just an inconvenience in our day to day lives, but is starting to have a real impact on communities. Continue Reading

Using Mangroves to Mitigate Hurricane Damage to the Southern US Coast

Authors:

Jodie Berezin, Natural Resource Conservation

Samantha Gray, Pre-Veterinary

James Woodward, Building & Construction Technology

 

In August of 2005, hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana. Sitting directly on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans is no stranger to tropical storms. Katrina, however, hit the city like no other. The levees, which were the city’s primary defense for keeping storm surge out, failed. Wind and water devastated the once vibrant streets and shops, leaving the same streets that hold the famous Mardi Gras celebrations each year completely underwater. By the time the storm passed, the ocean had claimed eighty percent of the city, submerging people’s homes beneath ten feet of flooding (Plyer, 2016). Katrina left nearly a thousand bodies in New Orleans’s streets, with drowning accounting for 40% of the death toll. About half of these victims were elderly citizens taken by surprise, who failed to prepare themselves for the terrifying waters rushing over them (Brunkard, J., Namulanda, G., & Ratard, R., 2008, p. 2-3). This tragic scene plays itself over and over as large hurricanes continue to ravage the Gulf Coast, and something must be done. Continue Reading

Preserving New England Lobster Fisheries in the Face of Climate Change

By Thomas Isabel, Hannah Brady, and Shawn Monast

Since the 1970’s, the waters off the coast of Southern New England have been warming at a startling rate due to a toxic combination of man-made factors including greenhouse gases and pollution. These changes to the Earth’s atmosphere are happening at a rapid pace, making climate change one of the biggest issues facing humanity. The aqua life inhabiting oceans, especially coastal waters, are being forced farther North into ocean environments with cooler temperatures fitting their ideal thermal range. One of the many species being affected by increasing water temperature is the American lobster, scientifically known as the Homarus Americanus. These ocean creatures have been around for almost 500 million years, long before any humans were recorded on Earth, and they are now being pushed out of their homes as a consequence of human actions. Although lobsters constantly face different challenges to their populations such as predation and disease, climate change has become their biggest threat in the last decade. Fishermen all along the Eastern coastline rely on the catch and sale of lobsters to make a living to support their families and keep the market afloat. Without this species, fishermen and seafood establishments would miss out on a potentially crucial portion of revenue and be forced to rely on the catch and sale of other ocean species or perhaps a different profession in the fishing industry. The American lobster makes up a large percentage of income for fisherman and their migration due to global warming is crippling the economy of coastal regions. In order to save lobster fisheries in southern New England from climate change, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission needs to educate fishermen on the constant changes in thermal temperatures range, new production possibilities, and the migration patterns through technological advancements.  

Continue Reading

Protecting Against Climate Change’s Mega-Storms

 

On August 24, 2017 hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas as a category 4 hurricane. It was the first major hurricane to hit Texas since 1970 (Allen & Davis, 2017), and it was devastating. The storm delivered a year’s worth of rain in less than a week, being called the wettest tropical storm on record in the United States as affected areas received more than 40 inches of rainfall with peak accumulations of 64.58 inches in just four days (Dart & Helmore, 2017, para 3). The two main flood-control reservoirs that were supposed to protect the Houston area broke. Water levels rose dramatically, damage was increased tenfold, and hundreds of lives were lost. A storm surge of over 12 ft was reported at Aransas Wildlife Refuge, and other areas had storm surges ranging from 3-10 ft as the hurricane stalled over southeast Texas. Hurricane Harvey is the costliest hurricane to ever hit the United States, the damage is so high that it was feared that Texas will not receive enough money to rebuild within a month. Eventually congress budgeted 7.8 billion dollars for recovery efforts, which was only a small fraction of what was truly needed out of the $180 billion that Harvey cost (McWilliams & Parraga, 2017, para 5). After the hurricane, relief efforts were not only attempted by agencies and different government organizations, but also by neighbors and friends. With a disaster as devastating as Harvey, people needed each other to come together and offer relief and support.

It is apparent that climate change is altering the world around us and that hurricanes are becoming more severe as a result. Global warming is changing our oceans, causing a rise in sea surface temperatures, and sea levels, which creates more favorable conditions for intense hurricanes (Mallard, Lackmann, Aiyyer, & Hill, 2013). Hurricanes are classified by the amount of damage they inflict, which is based off of wind speeds and duration of the storm. A category 5 storm is the most severe and a category 1 storm is the least severe. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association [NOAA], 2017). Since it is easier for severe hurricanes to form, there has been a global decline in weaker hurricanes with a proportional increase in higher category storms by 2-11% (Holland & Bruyère, 2014, p. 623). We are already seeing the aftermath of such implications; severe hurricanes, which are often classified as a category 3, 4, or 5, cause significantly more damage as opposed to a category 1 or 2 hurricane (Abrams, 2017). A major cause of damage and life loss are the incredible storm surges that large hurricanes cause (NOAA, 2011). High storm surges have been reported in nearly all the hurricanes this past season, including Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, and Hurricane Harvey (“Hurricane Irma”, 2017; “Major Hurricane Harvey”, 2017). Results of these hurricanes have included major flooding and infrastructural damage in affected areas, in many cases overwhelming hurricane defenses already in place (“Hurricane Katrina”, 2009). Hurricane Irma, which recently swept through Florida and the Caribbean, was the first category 5 hurricane to strike the Leeward Islands of Puerto Rico, and is said to be the most intense hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Katrina (“Hurricane Irma”, 2017). Just two weeks later hurricane Maria, the tenth most intense hurricane on record swept through Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic causing catastrophic damage and sending Puerto Rico into a state of emergency (NOAA, 2017). During this past hurricane season, there have been eight big hurricanes which is double the yearly average (Rice, 2017, para 4). Three category 4 and 5 hurricanes have hit the United States in 2017, inflicting severe flooding, which is a first in hurricane history. This trend of bigger, more damaging hurricanes can not be ignored. The current barriers in place are no longer a reliable defence against the greater intensity of these storms.      

Despite the evidence, climate science is still disputed and claims no connection between climate change or its effect on sea surface temperature that ultimately affects hurricane intensity. Nevertheless, the scientific community has reached consensus and agrees that the planet is warming due to climate change (Wang et al., 2016), and that it is affecting storm strength. For each degree Celsius of global warming, there is an 11% increase in the proportion of category 4 and 5 hurricanes, but a 7% decrease in hurricanes that are category 1 and 2 (Holland & Bruyère, 2014, p. 623). Warming sea surface temperatures have lead to more intense and violent hurricanes with larger storm surges (Kieper, n.d.) causing more and more damage each year to coastal communities in the United States (Dinan, 2017).

Natural disasters such as these are ultimately unavoidable, and there are many people who work to try to predict them in order to protect people from the damage. Anticipating hurricanes and their severity are paramount for providing effective damage and flood protection. Our effect on the climate through anthropogenic climate change has lead to an increase in hurricane intensity causing hurricanes to become bigger and last longer. Our knowledge of how global warming is affecting hurricanes can allow us to prepare more for these storms. The increase of severe, higher category storms will cause more damage than the milder hurricanes we are more accustomed to. As hurricanes intensify, there are greater costs to our economy, infrastructure, and lives (Wang, Li, Zhang, & Ellingwood, 2016; Mallard et al., 2013). There are two major types of damage caused by hurricanes: water damage and wind damage. Wind damage is caused by the high speed winds in a hurricane that can exceed 150 miles per hour which can rip trees out of the ground and move buildings (NOAA, 2017). Water damage is caused by the rain and storm surge associated with the hurricane. Flooding from these events can ruin homes, roads, coastal habitat, and even end lives. Infrastructure that was once used to hold back this storm surge is failing more often as they are overwhelmed by intense storms (Lafrance, 2015). While flood barriers won’t be able to protect communities and the landscape from wind damage, reducing the amount of water damage that will occuring during a hurricane will give people more time to protect themselves against wind damage and reduce the costs of recovering after a hurricane. For example, out of Hurricane Harvey’s 180 billion dollar bill, only 2 billion dollars of the damage was caused by wind (Wattles, 2017, para 9). It is imperative that better flood control and protection be improved and implicated to protect the people and land from severe flooding.    

As seen during hurricane Harvey, the precautions and systems in place are not enough to safely mitigate a storm. Steps that are taken in preparation include: hurricane, tropical storm, and storm surge watches, evacuation, sandbags, rescue cars and boats in case of flooding, and checks of the city’s drainage system (National Hurricane Center [NHC], 2017). No matter the preparation Hurricane Harvey breached levees and flowed over dams. In order to protect ourselves during future hurricanes and their storm surge, flood barriers, a form of levee, should be built along high risk coastlines or inlets. Areas that are at risk are cities built along the coast, which are often densely populated and at least partially below sea level. Cities that fit this criteria are Miami, Florida; New York City, New York; Tampa, Florida; and Virginia Beach, Virginia (Glink, 2013). A flood barrier is a fixed flood gate system that allows water to pass during normal conditions, but in the event of a storm or high water level, the gates are closed which stops water from passing and prevents flooding (European Climate Adaptation Program [ADAPT], 2015). These are improvements on traditional levees, which are typically artificial embankments. These structures are often placed at the mouths of inlets, rivers, or partially along certain low lying coastlines. They work by permanently installing either two gates at either side of an area, or a row of panels underneath the water. In the event of dangerous flooding, the gates swing closed through the water, creating a seal to prevent more water from entering. Or, the panels beneath the water rise, creating a wall against flood water. Flood barriers have been built in several cities throughout the world that are in high danger of flooding.

Other areas have already taken the initiative to bolster their protection against flooding. The Netherlands for example is an extremely prone country to storm surge flooding, since half the country is just one meter above sea level and more than an eighth is below sea level (Kimmelman, 2017). In 1997, the Netherlands built Maeslantkering, a storm surge barrier protecting the city of Rotterdam. At 1,600 ft long, the barrier is a modern engineering triumph capable of protecting Holland from the storm surge and rising sea levels it is so susceptible to (“Maeslantkering”, 2017; Kimmelman, 2017). The Netherlands isn’t the only country to implement this type of technology. Italy completed the Venice Mose Barriers in 2012, which also protects the low lying city from floods and sea level rise. Both countries are at risk of storm surges and have histories of major flooding, and the barriers are effective.

Levees are typically built to withstand a hundred-year flood event, which is an exceptional flood that has about a 1% chance of occurring each year. When a system is built to withstand a hundred year event, it assumes that the event will not change or get worse in that time period (United States Geological Survey [USGS], 2016). This is particularly problematic with global warming, since global warming has been rapidly changes the types of storms we experience, often making them much more severe. Therefore a hundred-year levee can easily become overwhelmed when storms that are more intense and more frequent than it was built for occur, making it essential that we build levees to more long term standards. The Netherland’s flood barrier is built to withstand a 10,000-year flood event. This makes it 100 times safer than the standards set for levees in the United States. Furthermore, since is it is built to last much longer, the Netherlands mandates that the flood control system must be upgraded accordingly to changes in frequency and intensity of flood events, so that the protection stays the same if the threat changes (McQuaid, 2012, para 8). While nothing can stop a hurricane or completely protect against them, more effective and technologically advanced systems can dramatically reduce their impact.

Upgrading our levees and flood barriers are not a foreign idea to the United States. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for various homeland duties such as environmental engineering, coastal fortifications, road and canal infrastructure, and disaster relief. With the Army Corps of Engineers’ generous budget and responsibility to preserving our homeland defenses against various threats, including natural ones, the U.S can fund and build select flood barriers, which has been demonstrated in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hurricane Katrina created the highest storm surge in the U.S’s recorded history at 27.8 ft high (Kieper, n.d., Para 1). New Orleans, the city most devastated by the hurricane, is well below sea level. Before Katrina, it was protected from flooding only by a handful of rundown dams and levees. During the hurricane, all of these systems failed to be enough and residents had fled to rooftops to escape the water as 80% of the city became submerged. Relief was painfully slow, as the hurricane caused over $150 billion in damage and economic costs (“Hurricane Katrina”, 2009; “11 Facts About Hurricane Katrina”, n.d., para 7&8). To fortify the city against such a devastating effect again, the Army Corps of Engineers has built a flood barrier around New Orleans, which should have been in place before Katrina (Burnett, 2015). This individual flood barrier cost approximately $1.1 billion to build; while this may seem like an astronomical number, it is dwarfed by the $150 billion that the storm generated. The Louisiana coast is considered to be much safer with the flood barrier, which is considered a state entity to consolidate and provide better flood control after the hurricane (Burnett, 2015, para 4).

Some may be skeptical of the cost of investment in flood barriers as these systems are expensive and take years to complete. Furthermore, even with our current technology, we cannot guarantee complete safety. Flood protection systems have failed in the past raising questions about our ability to protect our coastal communities, and this concern comes with good reason. When Katrina made landfall in August 2005 as a category 5 hurricane, New Orleans’ levee system, which was designed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, failed due to high wind speeds, heavy rain, and high storm surge. The city, where 50% of its residents lives below sea level, flooded taking 1,500 lives and causing $108 billion worth of property damage alone (“Hurricane Katrina Statistics Fast Facts”, 2017, para 1). However, advancement in hurricane forecasting has improved our ability to predict future storm intensity. Using this technology the United states Army Corps of Engineers have rewrote the standards used for flood barriers better preparing us for more severe storms and invested a total of $14 billion into improving and the levees and building new barriers to protect New Orleans (Burnett, 2017, para 5). Although, even with the rework of levee standards, retired Lt. General Robert Van Antwerp, the former commander of the Army Corps of Engineers said “though it would not be destroyed by another Katrina, it would most certainly be overtopped leading to many that will still be inundated” (Schleifstein, 2015, para 7). Divesting money from coastal protection should not be an option as the money is an investment in limited damages and is not intended to make our communities completely safe.
In 2015 the corps agreed that Louisiana’s levee system needed to be reevaluated by 2018. This occurred after Bob Jacobsen, who was hired to run storm surge models, found that many levees in the east bank system would fail if a 200 year storm hit, which has a .2% chance of happening in any given year. Over the next 50 years there will be $50 billion worth of projects improving New Orleans levees with risk reduction and land protection as the goal. The corps have proposed both 400 year and 1,000 year protection plans both costing $59 billion to $139 billion (Schleifstein, 2015, para 32). The corps argue that if we are going to spend the money to protect against a 100 year storm, we might as well go for the most protection possible.

Upgrades to our current flood protection systems will not be enough to protect our coastal communities. It would be most beneficial to build new flood barriers around the cities most in danger from hurricanes. An example of where there could be implemented is New York City, where flood barriers have been considered following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (McGeehan, 2017). Hurricane Sandy caused widespread power outages, took dozens of lives, and caused billions of dollars in damage (Sharp, 2012). If a simple flood barrier were to be built protecting New York City, it would cost about $11.6 billion, and if three barriers were built along New York coast, the estimated cost is $14.7 billion (Timmer, 2014, para 8). These are costly options, yet Hurricane Sandy caused $65 billion in damage to New York (Rice & Dastagir, 2013, para 2). No matter the price tag on a flood barrier, severe hurricanes rack up a larger one. With the success of barriers in other countries and in New Orleans, barriers are a solution to protect ourselves against dangerous storms as climate change cause worse and worse hurricane events.

This past hurricane season has been swirling through the United States at unprecedented rates. The eight major hurricanes that made landfall along our coasts is double the normal average for the hurricane season (Rice, 2017). Hurricanes are being affected by rising sea surface temperatures, due to global warming. In turn, hurricanes are more intense, occurring more often. This has created a vital need for a more secure defense system against hurricanes and storm surges. In Louisiana and New York, it is agreed that adequate flood barriers would have reduced cost and life loss due to the hurricanes. If better flood barriers were to be built, then the cost could be estimated to be about $12 billion per city, referencing the costs approximated for New York. If we were to build around three cities with the highest risk, then it likely cost $36 billion. While that is a large cost, hurricane Harvey was dramatically larger at $180 billion. Building three barriers does not even equate the cost of a singular hurricane. Providing at risk areas with more effective protection against hurricanes will be undoubtedly beneficial, economically and personally. The damages that hurricanes inflict are far greater than the simple price of building and maintaining effective barriers. The lives, and money, saved are more than enough reason to build flood barriers around dangerous coastal areas.  

AUTHORS

Jennifer Beattie – Natural Resource Conservation

Juliana Berube – Natural Resource Conservation

Tyler Weeks – Building Construction Technology

 

REFERENCES

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Climate change results in more intense hurricanes

 

Susan and her entire family waded from her house in Houston Texas to a neighbor’s home on higher ground the morning that Hurricane Harvey hit in late August. Susan Magee a 44 year old wife and mother of two recounts her story of being evacuated from her home in the wake of of torrential rains.  Waking up her girls and telling them to pack three outfits each was one of the easier parts from her experience. The harder ones were leaving everything except her family, pets, and legal documents. Leaving the only place her two daughters have ever called home. The one space where she and her husband lived together. She acknowledges that her home was not the most spectacular building ever built but says that she did not “mind spending their savings on the down payment” (Holter, 2017). After the devastating results of the storm that was thought to only bring a few inches of water into their home (Holter, 2017), Susan comments that for the meantime they will be staying in a hotel, and are living off of donations and gifts from friends including her friends and more extended family. She sums up her struggle of being in need of assistance and simultaneously proud, she speaks on behalf of her family, when she said that they will not be able to “rebuild our lives without the help of other people” yet at the same time, “we can’t do everything on our own” (Holter, 2017).

The Magees’ home is only one of an estimated 100,000 houses that were affected by Hurricane Harvey this past August (Fessler, 2017). In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, 352,000 people was allocated  $403 million in FEMA assistance (CNN, 2017).  Five years later, many families living on the east coast still cannot fix all of the damage done, in terms of of the thousands of homes completely destroyed, and 90 lives lost (Schlossberg, 2015, para. 3). While we can continually rebuild and replace buildings and homes, we cannot bring back the lives taken in these increasingly worse coastal storms. In the past 30 years, floods have killed more than 500,000 people globally, and displaced about 650 million (Michaels, 2016, para. 1). Hurricane Harvey’s damage is estimated to be about $190 billion in damages, while the costs of Irma are projected to reach $100 billion. These costs burden taxpayers as they entail disruption to business, transportation and infrastructure damages, unemployment periods for many lasting up to months, loss of goods and crop (including 25 percent of orange crop), increased fuel prices, and property damages (Wile, 2017).  The United States government cannot afford the associated costs of building and rebuilding in these increasingly flood prone regions, nor can taxpayers. Because of society’s communal connections to land and region, it is understandable as to why people have chosen to settle their homes and communities on the coast. We have always been infatuated with living close to the beauty of nature, and water systems in close proximity have helped to support communities for centuries (Wilson et. al, 2010).

Instead of trying to dictate over nature or institutions that are intended for communities to seek assistance in order to rebuild and replace, perhaps we should shift our efforts that keep us safe financially and through damages that effect loss of lives and livelihood (Revkin, 2017, Sec. 2). It is the consensus of the scientific community that we are seeing increasingly intense hurricanes due to our warming climate (GFDL, 2017). Coastal communities have reflected devastating costs and damages more than any other community. If we can understand this relationship of increasing hurricanes due to the state of our changing climate, we can be more proactive in our future actions surrounding coastal development. Given that climate change is intensifying hurricanes, we must change the National Flood Insurance program to discourage future building in areas that will be prone to more frequent floods.

In 1968 Congress created the National Flood Insurance program (NFIP) after a series of hurricane-induced disasters.  The federal government got involved in existing disaster assistance programs by providing financial support only if a flood was officially declared to be a major disaster for communities that could not afford to continually support themselves (Lee & Wessel, 2017, para. 3). The NFIP is a federally subsidized program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), that enables homeowners, businesses, and renters in participating communities to insure their property if it is at risk of flood damage (Lee & Wessel 2017, para. 2). It was originally planned also that the federal government would make insurance available only within communities that adopted and enforced orders to manage development in floodplains (Lee & Wessels, 2017, para. 4). It has three components: Hazard identification and mapping, Floodplain management criteria and mitigation, and flood insurance (Lee & Wessel, 2017, para. 3).  

Roughly 28.2% of the United States population lives in a coastal hurricane-prone regions according to American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) criterion (Crowell, et al., 2010) and half are adopting insurance policies.  The ASCE definition of hurricane-prone regions as areas in the US Atlantic Ocean and and Gulf of Mexico where the wind is more than 90 miles per hour as well as islands off our coasts including but not limited to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam (ASCE, 2006). While the rates of adopting flood insurance policies among coastal communities is high, it is much lower inland.

When considering how people are able to live in these flood prone coastal zones, origins dates back to development and settlement in the coastal regions of the United States. Floodplain areas, or low-lying areas subject to flooding from a nearby waterbody, were advantageous to inland agricultural communities as a means of irrigation. For economic benefit, large cities were built near rivers and coastlines. This is because residents benefited from lower transport costs since they were close to ports and any trade that occurred there. In modern times we have improved transportation methods which makes this advantage obsolete (Michaels, 2016). Taking this into consideration, many people have lived in these areas for a long time, making it difficult to stop development in these areas where people live (Wile, 2017)

Additionally, the NFIP has incentivized living in these areas, making it not only possible to live here, but an attractive option. When people’s homes get destroyed they are simply able to rely on their flood insurance to rebuild their properties every time they there is damage (Lee & Wessel, 2017, para. 14).  The NFIP incentivizes this by offering low premium rates to those who need to insure their homes against flood damage. Federal funding easily repairs damages, the communities there are very resilient, and are able to keep rebuilding themselves to stay there.

The original objectives of the NFIP were to prevent unwise floodplain development through zonal mapping  ensure that property owners could receive coverage at a reasonable cost, get a large number of communities and property owners to buy insurance, and finally to base premiums on federal assessments of flooding risk so people would be aware of and bear the cost of choices they make (Lee & Wessel, 2017).

Most NFIP insurance policies are sold and run by private insurers under FEMA’s Write Your Own (WYO) program. The WYO is a program designed for FEMA and private insurers to collaborate, under FEMA’s rules and regulations. WYO allows the involved insurers to write and service the Standard Flood Insurance Policy (SFIP) in their own names. As agents of the federal government, the insurers receive an expense allowance for policies and claims processed while the federal government is responsible for underwriting losses (FEMA, 2017 & Marker, 2012). It is important to note that these insurers primarily serve an administrative function. This is a potential flaw with the NFIP because it means they do not bear the burden and associated risks with actually paying insurance claims (Lee & Wessel, 2017). This is problematic because they might be less cautious about building in flood-prone regions.

One issue making it difficult to disinvolve the NFIP from coastal development is the NFIP’s grandfathering rules. Grandfathering ensures that properties re-categorized as being at a higher risk of flooding under revised flood insurance maps will not be subject to large increases (Insurance Information Institute, 2017). Redrawing the flood-risk lines on insurance maps did not affect the low rates of insurance regardless of higher risk zone assessment (III, 2017).

While the NFIP has provided some coastal protection by providing incentives for new homes to be elevated above surge levels as well as strengthening buildings against windstorm damage, there still has been no solution to adapt to issues of increasing of sea level rise and increase of more intense hurricanes (Leathermann, 2017). It is due to lack of strict regulation by the NFIP, that there has been uneven enforcement of building restrictions on the floodplain (Revkin, 2017).

By making insurance for property in coastal regions readily accessible and appealing, the NFIP has led to a large amount of coastal development. The NFIP provides insurance at sizeable discounts for homes and other buildings constructed in flood-prone areas (Kristian, 2017, para. 4). This flood insurance is a federal mandate to have a mortgage in these zones (FEMA, 2017). One proposed idea is an increased premium price to cover and reflect the high risk of floodplain construction (Kristian, 2017, para. 6). This would then discourage vulnerable building plans among those who cannot afford to cover the cost of storm damage. As a result of more people being able to afford insurance in these areas, we have seen more properties being damaged by repeated flooding by increasingly intense hurricanes (Michaels, 2016, para. 3).

Hurricane intensity or severity are defined in a couple of ways. Firstly, we use the category or Saffir-Simpson scale of the hurricane, which is measured by the intensity of winds at the event on a scale of 1 to 5. Storm surge can be used to measure intensity as it examines an abnormal rise in water level on a coast. It is the water from the ocean that is pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds swirling around the hurricane. This advancing surge combines with the normal tides and can increase the water level by 30 feet or more. Storm surge combined with waves can cause extensive damage(US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011). Meanwhile, having a landfall hurricane means the eye of the storm reached land (Nosowit, 2012). When examining Sea surface temperature (SST) we found that it is a measurement of energy levels on the top layer of the ocean due to the movement of molecules. Spaceborne measurements give us a global measurement of sea surface temperatures (US Department of Commerce NOAA, 2011). Sea level rise (SLR) is the rise in global sea levels due to increase in temperature caused by release of greenhouse gasses as a result of fossil fuel combustion. The warming atmosphere transfers heat to the ocean’s surface waters and expands its volume (Ocean Health Index, 2017).With a better understanding of the connection between climate change and hurricane intensity, we will be able to implement the steps needed to prevent the associated economic, social, and environmental damages. In order to gain this deeper understanding, the scientific community considered various measures such as increasing SSTs, sea level rises, and landfall hurricanes.

Linear correlation showed there was a significantly high chance (82%) that global temperature  (GT) was causing an increase in SST. When it was tested inversely, for increased SST causing change in GT, it had an insignificant 31% of causality, much lower compared to the other way around. This statistic shows that there is a very high chance warmer global temperatures cause increased Atlantic SST (Elsner, J., 2006). Elsner (2006) explains that as climate change heats the Earth, the seas warm up and store significant amount of energy, which is converted to hurricane wind. This means that with climate change warming global surface temperatures, SSTs are then raised as a result. This increase is SST also has a significant effect on hurricanes. The rise in SST is causing more intense hurricanes. Major hurricanes, which are a Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale-which measures wind speeds to measure potential property damage (NOAA) , may intensify in response to the warming SST associated with global warming (Mousavi et al, 2011). They state that there is an average 8% increase in hurricane intensity for every 1 degree celsius of SST rise (Mousavi et al., 2011, p. 577). These results also indicate that local sea surface warming was responsible for 40% of the increase in hurricane activity relative to the 1950–2000 average between 1996 and 2005, which proved this to be a notably big increase (Saunders and Lea, 2008). This means that tropical hurricanes on Atlantic are extremely susceptible to intensity increase and frequency, with an increase in SST. This leads us to believe an increase in Climate change and GT, is causing more intense hurricanes overall.

Sea Level Rise (SLR) plays a huge role in hurricane intensity. SLR projections show that catastrophic ice-sheet melting, as a result of climate change, estimate SLR increases of 1 m or more over the next century (Mousavi et al. 2011).  This increase in SLR can mean one thing, more fuel for hurricanes and more water for the hurricanes to help the formation of floods. The storm surge is difference in water from normal to flood height (NOAA, 2017). Landfall hurricanes become increasingly dangerous as water is added to create flooding. An increase in SLR will give them the storm surge they need to cause more deadly floods. Balaguru. Et al. (2015) shows there is a 90% increase in storm surge due to SLR when looking at the projection from the Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes(SLOSH) projection. This means the intensity of storm surge in mainly dependent on, and worsened by increasing sea level.  This increase in SLR leads to more storm surge, which in turn causes more floods. A study shows between 1970 and 1999 the highest amount of fatalities during a hurricane was from floods. It also showed floods contributed in approximately 59% of the fatalities during hurricanes (Kaye, 2008).

With climate change leading to both more intense hurricanes and more SLR, we can only expect the number of fatalities and damages to go up from here. If the predictions and the projections are true, the more intense storms with higher SSR will keep doing more damage if we keep on building these coastal communities. As it currently stand there is an average of 28 Billion dollars against an 18 Billion dollar budget (CBO, 2017, slide 4). The projections show this number is going to increase and is going to be a 39 Billion dollars worth of damage versus a 24 Billion dollars budget (CBO, 2017, slide 4). That is why it is crucial to move people away from coastal areas to more inland.

One of the first actions to take is to improve floodplain maps to more accurately describe the flood risk and extent of the floodplain. Floodplain mapping is defined as a system in which the height of the 100-yr flood is estimated with at least a confidence interval of 50%, but the higher the confidence interval level goes the more accurate, more reliable and overall better the map would be (Burby, 2001). Floodplain mapping can help identify the safe locations. This will reduce and discourage development in the remainder of floodplain. One issue is that currently FEMA does not incorporate climate change projections or sea-level rise in their flood insurance maps. As it stands, they state their policy does not map flood hazards “based on anticipated future sea levels or climate change” and that “over the lifespan of a study, changes in flood hazards from sea level rise and climate change are typically not large enough to affect the validity of the study results” (FEMA 2017).  If Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps incorporated future climate conditions, it would send a ripple effect into real estate and insurance markets. This would be something the public would have to acknowledge. If the federal government made it a legal requirement to have projected climate conditions to be considered in the flood insurance risk maps, construction practices would change to be more precautious (Revkin, 2017). Of course mapping these floodplain areas can also spread awareness. By mapping these and showing them to the community, they can be aware of the dangers, risks and consequences of building in these areas. So instead of doing the cheaper option, they can go the safer way.

People in hurricane zones are able to pay the cheap insurance premium and get subsidized in return after the hurricane damage. These cheaper insurances discourage people to build in other safer area but it prompts them to rebuild in the same area. Enforcing higher flood insurance premiums makes it more difficult to get federal disaster assistance, while reflecting the actual damages (Flavelle, 2017). There is evidence of insurance policies going more towards this direction. In 2012 congress passed the Biggert-Waters Insurance Reform Act, which aimed to extend the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for five years (Kunreuther & Michel-Kerjan, 2017). The main focus of this extension was placing more of the insurance risks onto coastal property owners. When it gets more difficult and more expensive to get federal insurance, the more individuals and local officials would care about where to build, therefore building less in flood risk areas. As it is, when insurance premiums are too low and do not reflect the actual risk of loss, a resulting subsidy on the coastal development encourages people to support sprawling floodplain building (Burby, 2001). This is what we are currently witnessing in coastal communities, and we see it reflected in the sizable 28.2% of the United States population currently living in these coastal regions (Crowell et al. 2010). If they were able to raise the cost, that incentive would be removed. The NFIP cannot accommodate the future scale of  flood damages that are rapidly increasing under a changing climate; a study commissioned by FEMA to help it gain better understanding of this (AECOM 2013) has shown that existing 1% flood hazard zones are fundamentally underestimated given ongoing climatic change (Shively, 2017). Making the insurances more inaccessible, more difficult to get and more expensive would eventually help the community. With more difficult to attain insurance, people will be urged to build in safe floodplain areas, discouraging further development in flood zones. (Flavelle, 2017; Burby 2001). If it becomes unattainable, development will be forced more inland.

There is no doubt that raising premiums and making insurance less accessible will be difficult to pass initially. This is because homeowners will not want their insurance costs raised, and homebuilders will not want to be out of business if coastal development is discouraged. For homeowners, if the premium is raised they might benefit from moving to a safer region inland. In doing this, we believe that the burden of losing their belongings and endangering their families will be eased. While many items can arguable be replaced by insurance, there are a fair amount of things that are irreplaceable. They also will not suffer from the economic loss of unemployment periods, associated with the damage from hurricanes in these flood regions (Wiles, 2017). As for homebuilders, if the rates increase they might lose money at first. Everyone moving away from the coastal communities and less people building near the coast will have an impact on them in the beginning, but over time they would have more chances to build bigger and better complexes away from the flood risk without their building and houses being destroyed. It can also provide the homebuilders with a safe community they can live in themselves with their families (Friedman & Scism, 2017).

We propose that the package of bills proposed by the House Financial Services Committee, pushed by Chairman Jen Hansarling (R-TX) be passed into law. The bill package would renew the NFIP program for five years. It would also enact the raise of insurance premiums, which we advocated for. In doing so it would make coverage more expensive for policyholders, and make it easier for private companies to sell their own flood insurance policies (Lee & Wessel, 2017). We also propose the passage into law of the House and Senate backed bill called; Sustainable, Affordable, Fair and Efficient (SAFE) NFIP Reauthorization Act. This bill supports what we suggested as it calls for greater investments in flood risk mapping and risk mitigation (Lee & Wessel, 2017).

AUTHORS

Amir Entekhabi – Environmental Science

Rachel Finn – Natural Resource Conservation

Keren Radbil – Agricultural and Environmental education

 

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