Over 13 million people live in Florida’s coastal counties. Florida’s flat, low-lying, porous geology makes it especially vulnerable to flooding…and ground zero for sea level rise due to climate change. In fact, the state is home to five coastal cities—St. Petersburg, Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach and Panama City—on a list of 20 urban areas in America most vulnerable to rising seas. Additionally, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties (about 6 million people) are located within the Biscayne Aquifer, an area made up of a highly porous layer of limestone. As sea level rises and threatens the coast, it is expected to cause water to intrude through the permeable rock of the aquifer, threatening many inland communities as well.
The forecasts paint an alarming picture. In 2016, Zillow predicted that one out of eight homes in Florida would be underwater by 2100. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) analysis expects that Miami streets could flood everyday by 2070. And, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2018 Underwater report, if Florida elected officials do not take action, by 2045 approximately 64,000 homes will be at risk and by the year 2100, one million homes throughout the state will be at risk.
The problem is already happening. Floridians in some areas like Miami Beach are already experiencing flooding even on sunny days. According to a NOAA report, high-tide flooding frequency along the southeastern coast of the country rose 160 percent from 2000 to 2017. NOAA estimates that as sea level continues to rise, there will be as many as 85 days of high tide flooding along the coast by 2050.
Given all of this, we would expect Florida to be on the cutting edge of climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, there are still several striking inconsistencies with regard to how Florida communities are grappling with sea level rise.
On one hand, we continue to see lots of new construction along the coast. On the other hand, we are starting to hear stories about retirees leaving Florida to head north as more financial warnings surface.
Studies show that humans do not respond well to abstract projections like sea level rise, which is quite evident in the real estate industry. All along the coast, in FEMA flood zones, there are luxury condominiums being built. The demand is still there. However, we are slowly starting to see home values impacted. A 2018 report found that lower-elevation homes in Miami-Dade County experienced $465 million in hurricane losses from 2005 to 2016. Between the threat of more hurricanes and higher flood insurance, some retirees are moving from Florida to other areas like North Carolina. According to money.com, about 52,000 people ages 65 and over left Florida in 2017, versus about 48,000 in 2016 and 43,000 in 2012. Nonetheless, Florida continues to be one of the fasting growing states.
On one hand, innovative regional collaboration between municipalities has been taking place for a decade. On the other hand, we are just starting to see leadership at the state level.
Four counties from Jupiter to Key West have been working together for 10 years on the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. It is the first regional climate governance initiative of its kind designed to bring together resources and research about climate adaptation and mitigation. In addition, 10 communities within Palm Beach County recently formed the Palm Beach County Coastal Resilience Partnershipto begin outlining a cohesive strategy for climate-change adaptation.
On the state level, after two terms of former Governor Rick Scott’s climate change denial, many are feeling hopeful about Governor Ron DeSantis’ early initiatives to address sea level rise. He formed an Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection within the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to help prepare coastal communities and habitats for impacts from sea level rise. He also created a new DEP chief science officer position to address environmental concerns in Florida.
There is also positive change in this year’s state legislature session. In a bi-partisan move, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted unanimously to pass Senate Bill 78, which would require that infrastructure projects funded by taxpayer dollars, like government buildings and schools, near the coast produce sea level impact studies before moving forward. Sponsored by State Senator José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat from Miami, this bill has bi-partisan support, indicating that sea level rise is becoming a critical issue in the state.
“This is a transformative bill backed by a bi-partisan coalition that is expected to save money in both the short- and long-term,” Senator Rodríguez explains. “It will help ensure that a planning process occurs for all publicly funded construction projects, which will end up serving as a good benchmark for the private sector as well.” He also points out that many families could be impacted by sea level rise and believes that we need to start planning for our children’s future right now. “I have my children in mind. I want them to have the option to continue to live in south Florida when they are grown.”
On one hand, we have seen numerous modeling projects completed to predict sea level rise in south Florida and educational programs to discuss it. On the other hand, besides Miami and Miami Beach, we have seen minimal concrete action taken by other Florida communities to mitigate the impending floods.
Miami and Miami Beach are already spending millions of dollars to install pumps, raise roads and structures, upgrade the drainage system, improve seawalls, and dredge the beaches to protect the community. For the most part, other areas are still in the modeling, planning, and community outreach stages and not taking tangible actions to prepare for floods.
The policies we put in place for sea level rise have consequences right now for Florida’s children, and will well into their future.