The events of recent years have made it increasingly difficult for Florida to ignore the glaring effects of climate change. With the coronavirus (which has been partly linked to climate change) affecting South Florida’s tourism industry, the area has had more than one sign that the effects of climate change will have unignorable impacts. All the same, since the beginning of spring, South Florida’s sunny and sandy beaches have been a welcome break from winter’s low temperatures.

When the rains started towards the end of May, the showers were a welcome gift to quench the drought that had hit the area. However, it soon became apparent that the rain was a lot more than was needed. Light rains graduated to heavy downpours that lasted through Memorial Day, with a total of 7.27 inches recorded in 48 hours. Flash floods were particularly severe in areas with backed up sewer and drainage systems.

What Is Causing These Floods

"Burn Notice" tv show crew during a South Beach flood. Photo Credit: maxstrz/flickr

Urban construction only serves to exacerbate the problem as natural drainage channels are no longer in place. Additionally, the cement is impermeable and the designated drains are not big enough to accommodate the sheer volume of the water resulting from high rainfall in the region.

Before South Florida was as developed as it is now, nature had its own mechanisms of draining excess water. As urban development began in the late 1800s, the natural water drainage mechanisms were destroyed. It doesn’t help that the area’s climatic conditions make it prone to heavy rainfall.

South Florida has exceptional atmospheric moisture that is drawn by the tropical system. This creates the perfect conditions for precipitation of the evaporated water which accumulate and replenish the ability to rain. The cycle goes on and on, thanks to the onshore wind fetch.

The area is now experiencing heavy rainfall. The land can no longer absorb water as it used to. This means that the water that would have seeped to the underground remains on the surface, thereby causing the floods. The rising water levels and heavy rainfall don’t make the situation any easier.

The problem has been brewing underground for a long time; it cannot be ignored anymore. Local and federal governments have embarked on programs that are meant to mitigate these issues.

Collaborations between the government, the Public Works Department, and local stakeholders have resulted in innovations. These innovations combine structural and non-structural approaches to solving the flooding issues. They have been allocated funds for implementation through various programs.

To Adapt or To Relocate; the Encroaching Sea Dilemma

Southern Florida has one major geological problem; it sits on silt, which acts like a sponge. The rising sea waters find their way into septic tanks and freshwater aquifers. Local authorities had erected seawalls in a bid to keep out the water. The erected seawalls, however, cannot stop this seepage, as some of them are already being destroyed by the heavy rainfall.

The seawater brings with it contamination as it seeps into the freshwater aquifers. This means that there is a looming shortage of fresh drinking water. The contaminated water may also make it impossible for salt intolerant plants to survive.

Families that have been living here for decades are faced with tough decisions in the wake of a looming crisis. The former mayor of the City of South Miami, Philip Stoddard, is one of the few politicians who are subtly encouraging relocation through the term “managed retreat.” He asserted that Miami residents may not afford the costs of restructuring their property to the required standards.

While Miami’s median household income is just under $42,000, the city’s restructuring to adapt to the changing sea levels will cost a lot more. FEMA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, had a $125 million budget set aside for the restructuring. But here is the issue: to simply replace the area’s faulty septic tanks with a sewer system would cost $75 million.

For a small city of 13,000 people, the math doesn’t add up; it is quite apparent that retreating makes far more sense. This is what Mr. Stoddard is pushing for.

While in theory, FEMA can buy out homes in vulnerable areas such as those hit by Hurricane Irma, the process is long and tedious, taking up to 5 years. They help people to relocate to safer areas and halt the destruction – reconstruction cycle. However, this is not a practical solution for the current situation. Given the magnitude of such a project, FEMA would not have enough cash to buy up all the homes whose owners need to leave.

Florida’s Declining Property Market

For centuries Americans have been building homes as close to the water as possible. People who can afford it are willing to pay more for the beauty and tranquility of the ocean. But climate change is putting the future of that property at risk. Florida is one of the states that is most at risk.

As some leaders encourage departure, wealth management advisers are advising their clients to be guarded with their investments to prevent losses. Residential homes have, for a long time, been considered a safe investment option. However, with the recent climate changes and rising sea levels, beach houses in South Florida are no longer as lucrative.

In the long run, insurers will charge hefty premiums or decline to offer the service for properties built on the seafront. Financial institutions will not lend money to people who want to buy these properties. Eventually, property owners may be stuck with houses they can’t sell.

Investors have taken note of higher areas such as the West Coconut Grove. This area is not luxurious, but it is safer in comparison to the beachfront. This has given rise to a new crop of investors and property developers. These developers are buying the homes, demolishing them, and building luxury modern replacements.

This is what is now being referred to as climate gentrification: where the rich encroach the safer areas of the beach land and displace the original inhabitants of the estates.

Conclusion

From coast to coast across the United States, investors and homeowners are waking to the reality that a failure to prepare for the changes in property values as a result of climate change could cost them an arm and a leg. In 2017, the U.S. real estate industry sustained the most expensive damage on record following extreme weather events.

Yet, there’s reason to believe that the damage in the future will be even greater, with individual homeowners at the greatest risk. As South Florida residents grapple with their choices, they have to weigh the consequences of staying put against the benefits of relocation.

With a McKinsey report estimating that properties in the state’s flood zones will have shed up to 35% of their present value by 2050, it might be advisable to relocate. But even those left behind should consider hiring risk assessment experts to calculate for them the risks of staying put, including the effects of climate change on their homes or property portfolios.

There are also free tools available to give you an idea of the level of risk you are dealing with. A good example is the Coastal Flood Exposure Mapper. While these free tools do not offer comprehensive insights into your risk exposure, they still give you a rough idea of what to expect as the climate in your area continues to change.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate Change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.