Climate Change, Covid-19 & You: Lessons from Science

In this video, we discuss the disturbing similarities between how the US is coping with climate change and sea level rise and Covid-19.

There are many disturbing similarities between how the U.S. is dealing with the climate change and Covid-19 pandemic crises. In both cases, the science is well established. We know what’s driving climate change, global warming, and sea level rise and almost all there is to know about the coronavirus that has tragically killed over 200,000 Americans and sickened many millions more.

In this video, we discuss climate change and Covid-19 and the need to recognize the science behind them to create effective national policies to deal with them. If we don’t take an aggressive, comprehensive, science-backed approach, climate change and Covid-19 will continue to threaten America and the world. In the case of climate change, this will mean that the seas will continue to rise, flooding valuable real estate and threatening entire communities, wildfires will continue to burn out of control, and more animals will be put at risk of extinction.

Humans have through sheer numbers and technology assumed control over the world and its destiny. It’s time we take that responsibility seriously.

Video: A Failed Sea Wall, Sea Level Rise Flooding & You

Coastal cities and towns are taking different approaches to sea level rise flooding. Some communities are ignoring the problem and hoping it will just go away, which is irresponsible considering that the burning of fossil fuels continues to warm the Earth, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt, the ocean continues to expand, and sea levels continue to rise at an accelerating pace. Some communities are acknowledging the problem but are waiting for it to hit a critical point before they respond — which might be too late. And still others are taking the responsible approach and planning and implementing projects to fend off the floodwaters, but even this approach, as you’ll see in the video, is not risk free.

To protect their property and jobs, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to know how their community of interest is tackling the challenges posed by sea level rise flooding. And, as this video about a well-intentioned but failed sea wall project in my South Florida community attests, if local government officials are up to the job.

My city clearly illustrates the available options and consequences of which approach a coastal community takes to dealing with sea level rise flooding. Within a half-mile stretch along the Intracoastal Waterway near our downtown core, we have: 1. A section of sea wall currently being raised to protect a roadway, critical infrastructure and million dollar townhouses; 2. A section without a raised sea wall that chronically floods for the four or five month king tide period between September and January with devastating consequences for several property owners; and 3. A section of sea wall that was raised a few years ago that has structural faults that are allowing floodwaters to inundate a park.

As you can see, the city’s approach to managing sea level rise-driven flooding runs the gamut of what’s possible in all coastal communities: Try to protect the property, let it flood, or make an attempt to stop the flooding that, unfortunately, fails. All have lessons for buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents.

If the improved section of sea wall manages to hold back the floodwaters, then the the city may have found a viable solution — at least on a short-term basis. Sea level rise isn’t ending any time soon. (It’s also important to note here that South Florida is built on porous limestone which can allow sea water to flow under sea walls rendering them ineffective.) The section that’s being allowed to flood shows what can happen if a city doesn’t take on the sea level rise challenge, but the waters, as waters do, continue to rise. And the section with the failed sea wall shows the very real and expensive consequences of a well-intended approach that failed.

The failed section of seawall is falling short for two easily visible reasons: 1. Engineers left a yard-wide gap in the seawall so the cruise boats could easily be serviced — which, even with protective measures installed after the fact, allows floodwaters to course through into the park; and 2. Floodwater bubbles up in joints on the park side of the sea wall, indicating some kind of structural failure. Bottom Line: A failed sea wall is as good as no sea wall at all. Property behind it will still be inundated.

With seas continuing to rise, and mere inches of it posing a threat to property, structures, roads and critical infrastructure, it’s clear that buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents can’t afford to ignore the problem. They need to know: 1. How their community of interest intends to take on the sea level rise challenge; 2. How the plan, if any, will impact their property; 3. Whether or not the plan makes sense; and 4. If local officials are up to implementing the plan and taking corrective measures if it fails.

Without this level of knowledge, buyers, sellers and owners could be floored when floodwaters show up on their street or at their doors and they’re hit with higher maintenance costs, higher insurance premiums, higher taxes and, if applicable, association fees. They could also have to park a block from their home, take off their shoes and socks, and wade through the floodwaters to reach their doors.

Video: King Tide Season: The Sea Level Rise Stress-Test

King tide season returned to coastal communities this week, and with it came the king tide/sea level rise flooding that periodically inundates roads, real estate and whole neighborhoods. This video, produced for SeaLevelRiseRealEstate.com, features a discussion of the many ways the king tide months — roughly from September-January — provide the perfect stress-test to give real estate buyers, sellers, owners and agents a sense of how well their communities are battling against sea level rise flooding. It also gives them a read on the level of risk sea level rise flooding poses to their property of interest.

As ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt and the ocean heats and expands due to global warming, sea levels are gradually rising. Add the many inches of sea level rise accumulated over the last hundred years or so to the ancient king tides — higher than normal tides due to the unique alignment of the sun and moon in the fall — and you have a recipe for disaster.

Coastal communities all over the world face a greater threat of flooding during this period In the U.S. this can lead to an enormous amount of property damage as well as damage to roads, water pipes, sewer pipes and other critical infrastructure. The end result is that property owners in affected areas can face higher carrying costs, including expensive repairs, insurance premiums, and taxes as communities implement plans to stave off the flood waters.

During the king tide period, buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to take the time to see what’s actually happening in their communities, find out how much worse it could get, study what their local government intends to do to mitigate the flooding, and reach a dry-eyed understanding of how this will impact their carrying costs and property value. This information will help them to make informed decisions regarding real estate transaction.

Properties Miles Inland Can Still Be Subject to Sea Level Rise-Driven Flooding

When we think of properties at risk of sea level rise flooding, we usually picture properties near beaches. Due to Florida’s unique coastal geology, some areas of the state bust that myth. They’re home to real estate that experiences sea level rise-related flooding miles inland.

How is this possible? Many communities on the Florida peninsula are built on porous limestone instead of granite bedrock. As the seas rise, the salt water is able to migrate inland through the limestone. When it meets fresh groundwater trying to flow to the sea, water pressure pushes the fresh groundwater up. As a result, when it rains, the land is too saturated to absorb the runoff, so it pools (floods) on the lowest land.

Miami-Dade County’s sea level rise task force noted in a 2016 report that this dynamic will make it more difficult for the existing network of drainage canals to protect inland properties from flooding.

Government officials in some locations are struggling with the problem. In some cases they’re able to improve the drainage system. In others, they’re not.

A solution they’re increasingly turning to is using federal funds to buyout properties that flood repeatedly. After the properties are purchased, they’ll turn the land into parks and fields that can store excess runoff. This approach, they say, is less expensive than repeatedly repairing properties that flood.

Miami-Dade County and Brevard County together are in the process of purchasing about two dozen inland properties that experience chronic flooding. Overall, Florida state officials have earmarked more than $44 million for buyouts across the state. As sea level continues to rise, this is likely just the beginning of the buyouts.

Not all homeowners are pleased with the buyout program. WLRN, a local public radio station that serves South Florida, canvassed at-risk inland neighborhoods and found homeowners had several concerns. In an article posted on the station’s website, the owners said they didn’t want their property values to decline because buyers were worried about the threat of flooding. They also said they worried that empty lots left after the houses were razed would give the wrong impression that every nearby property was at risk of flooding and further erode the value of their homes.

The hidden threat of sea level rise-driven flooding miles inland from the coast is a powerful reminder to real estate buyers to perform due diligence before submitting an offer on a property. They need to determine whether a property or neighborhood currently floods or if it will flood any time soon. The answer will impact the carrying costs, value and live-ability of the property that caught their eye.

Florida Republican Leaders Pledge in a Column to Address Sea Level Rise Now

Climate change denial is apparently a thing of the past for Florida’s Republican political leadership. State Representative Chris Sprowls, the incoming Speaker of the Florida House, and State Senator Wilton Simpson, incoming President of the Florida Senate, co-authored a column recently published in the Tampa Bay Times titled “Republican leaders say Florida must prepare for sea level rise.”

“With 1,350 miles of coastline, relatively low elevations, and communities built on top of former swampland, Florida remains particularly vulnerable to the risk of flooding caused by sea level rise,” Sprowls and Simpson wrote. “Over the last several years, we have seen that risk grow exponentially.”

This observation is a far cry from a time not too long ago when Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott gained national notoriety for discouraging any mention of climate change or sea level rise in government documents.

Sprowls and Simpson go on to note that high tide flooding events — commonly known as “sunny day” flooding — are becoming more common, and just a foot of projected sea level rise will put 65,000 homes and almost 122,000 Floridians at risk. Furthermore, they wrote, “Over 20 percent of homes, the largest single investment for families, have a greater than one-in-four chance of flooding over a 30-year mortgage.” The flooding, they said, “damages homes, disrupts businesses, and displaces families and employees, which leads to, among other significant impacts, increases in insurance premiums for all Floridians.”

To address the challenges posed by sea level rise, Sprowls and Simpson said the state legislature funded Resilient Coastlines Program has already awarded grants to 30 coastal communities to help them strengthen their resilience to floodwaters. They then went on to call for more flood mitigation projects, such as the enhancement of natural barriers, including dunes, mangroves and stormwater parks, and the construction of man-made barriers, including seawalls, berms, and improved stormwater systems.

Sprowls and Simpson also called for a stronger partnership with the federal government to develop long-range planning and funding for the effort to battle sea level rise. And they called on the federal government to give Florida a “greater proportion of existing funds allocated for flood prevention.”

Finally, they said they want to see the state “partner with cities and counties that are doing good work and incentivize those who are falling behind.”

Sprowls and Simpson closed their column by noting that Florida can’t afford to ignore climate change during the pandemic. “Although the COVID-19 pandemic can feel overwhelming and all consuming,” they wrote, “we cannot allow short-term anxieties to blind us to our long-term needs.”

In recent years, some Florida coastal governments have banded together to form regional compacts to tackle sea level rise flooding while the state dithered. Sprowls’ and Simpson’s column is a welcome signal that the state legislature intends to take a leadership role in helping local governments to better coordinate and fund their responses. To protect their investments, everyone who owns real estate in the Sunshine State needs to hold them to their word.

California Warns Against Shelving Plans to Address Sea Level Rise during Covid-19 Pandemic

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) warned this week that the state can’t afford to delay efforts to deal with sea level rise flooding because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a report titled “What Threat Does Sea-Level Rise Pose to California?”, the LAO said: “While the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic and resulting economic impacts have rightly drawn the focus of the Legislature’s and public’s attention since March 2020, other statewide challenges continue to approach on the horizon. Among these are the impending impacts of climate change, including the hazards that rising seas pose to California’s coast.”

Report authors quote scientific estimates that California could face a half-foot of sea level rise by 2030 and up to seven feet by 2100. The threat posed by sea level rise could be amplified by storm surges, exceptionally high king tides that occur in the fall, and El Nino events.

Many coastal communities are already experiencing the negative effects of sea level rise and the situation is only going to get worse. Cities and towns are dealing with nuisance flooding, beaches are eroding, cliffs are collapsing — often carrying homes with them — and public infrastructure is being wrecked or overwhelmed. Natural resources, water supplies and entire economies are also at risk.

The report predicts that California will see up to $10 billion worth of property underwater by 2050 and up to an additional $10 billion worth of property inundated during high tides. When sea level rises four feet, 28,000 socially vulnerable residents in the San Francisco region alone could experience daily flooding. Furthermore, by the end of this century, up to two-thirds of the state’s beaches could be completely eroded away.

LAO officials said in the report that they recognize the burden the pandemic is placing on government and the economy. “However, given the significant threats posed by sea level rise in the coming decades–and the additional public safety and economic disruptions that will result absent steps to mitigate potential impacts –the state and its coastal communities cannot afford to defer all preparation efforts until economic conditions have fully rebounded from the recent crisis,” they said. They recommend that the government undertake activities to address the threat posed by sea level rise that require little funding, such as continuing to draft plans, meet and share information.

In the U.S., federal, state and local governments are bending under the enormous administrative and economic burden posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The California LAO’s insistence that efforts to address sea level rise continue even in these troubled times is on the mark. The fact that regardless of the pandemic, global warming continues to cause sea level rise, putting hundreds of billions of dollars worth of real estate and critical infrastructure at risk. Protecting property and infrastructure isn’t cheap and it can’t be accomplished overnight. Letting down our guard now, will have grave consequences in the future.

All coastal communities and real estate owners and buyers need to heed the California LAO’s warning.

Sea Level Rise Flooding at Superfund Sites Poses A Threat To Coastal Communities

Sea level rise flooding poses a multi-dimensional threat to coastal communities. Residential and commercial real estate, the economy, mortgage and insurance markets, tax bases and critical infrastructure are all at risk from rising waters. As if this list isn’t enough, the Union of Concerned Scientists — a non-profit organization that advocates the use of science to address pressing problems — recently released a report that points out that flooding at Superfund sites could spread dangerous chemicals in coastal communities threatening lives and property.

The researchers warn that there are about 2,000 Superfund sites contaminated by extremely hazardous chemicals located within 25 miles of the East or Gulf Coasts. They say in their report titled “A Toxic Relationship” that rising seas could flood many of the polluted sites which could lead to people in surrounding communities coming into contact with the health-threatening chemicals. The scientists note that the areas around the Superfund sites are “disproportionately populated by communities of color and low-income communities” and they are calling on the government to take steps to protect them.

“Decisionmakers must take action now to protect the health and safety of the communities located near these facilities,” the report says. Among their recommendations is that the government agencies work together to evaluate the risk climate change and sea level rise pose to Superfund sites. Officials should use the information gathered to draw up plans to prepare communities for the risk and improve the resiliency of Superfund sites faced with potential inundation by floodwaters.

Real estate buyers and owners in coastal communities should consider the proximity of their property of interest to Superfund sites and other facilities — such as ports, power plants and factories — when evaluating the risk of sea level rise flooding. If nothing is done to identify and address the threat, lives and property could be harmed.

Flood Factor, a Revolutionary New Service, Aims to Help Real Estate Buyers, Owners & Real Agents Evaluate a Specific Property’s Flood Risk

Wouldn’t it be cool if real estate buyers were able to tell if a property of interest was currently at risk of flooding — or, due to sea level rise, might flood in the years to come — with a few taps on their smartphone screen?

Of course! This type of app would level the playing field between buyers, who don’t know the current and future flooding risk, and sellers who do — or should. As we’ve discussed before in posts and videos, it isn’t always easy for a buyer to tell if a property floods or is at risk of flooding.

In some instances, sea level rise-related flooding occurs during the so-called “king tide” season in the fall, when the alignment and proximity of the sun and moon to earth create extra high tides. Buyers who visit a property during other times of year likely won’t see evidence of flooding.

Another challenge is that state seller disclosure laws range from Virginia’s wide-open “let the buyer beware” approach to Louisiana’s pretty stringent “tell them everything you know”-style law. Most states fall somewhere between the extremes, and buyers can easily fall through the cracks. The situation is so dire there are many documented cases where buyers didn’t know a property regularly flooded until the water showed up at their doors.

Further compounding the situation, is a privacy law passed in the 1970s that requires seller permission for the release of a property’s flood insurance claims history. Many buyers don’t bother to request the information.

So back to the app idea. I’ve sampled a few smartphone apps that are basically toys. They show you virtual reality-style what different levels of flooding would look like on a given property, but they don’t seem to rely much on actual data regarding a specific property’s elevation, flooding history, and other factors that would help buyers to weigh the real-world risk of flooding.

The best resource I’ve tried — not yet in app form but available on a webpage — is Flood Factor. The free service was developed by researchers at First Street Foundation, a non-profit research and technology group committed to defining America’s flood risk.

The Flood Factor interface is as easy as it gets. Users enter an address into a simple field and, if all goes well, they receive a detailed report regarding the flood risk for a given property. What really makes this a standout is the fact that the data is delivered in an easy-to-understand format. You get a clear understanding of the current flood risk on a 1-to-10 scale AND the risk for the next thirty years, which is the average lifespan of the most common mortgage. First Street’s researchers even figure sea level rise into their forecasts.

Coastal and inland buyers can benefit from Flood Factor, too. The researchers not only estimated coastal flooding risk, they also evaluated the risk of flooding due to strong storm surge, rivers overtopping their banks, and heavy rainfall events.

Flood Factor’s researchers combined many data sets to generate the detailed flood risk reports for specific properties. They say that their data is much more rigorous than that used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA’s flood maps are notoriously outdated and inaccurate, so relying on them alone for real estate decisions is, in itself, risky.

The only problem I had with Flood Factor was that when I entered certain addresses located in areas known to flood in my town, the program said there was no data available. When I clicked on a link that said it would give me more information, I ended up back at the address input screen.

Despite this shortcoming — and I have no idea why it happened or the extent of the problem — Flood Factor is definitely a service that real estate buyers should use. It’s also of value to sellers, who might not know the full extent of the flood risk to their properties, and real estate agents, who need to know their farm areas to deliver top-notch service.

One final important note, despite Flood Factor’s comprehensive approach to flood forecasting, buyers shouldn’t rely solely on the reports when making real estate decisions. For example, if a property is at risk of flooding, buyers should find out what, if anything, is being done to mitigate the risk. An effective mitigation project — such as a sea wall — might reduce the risk for the period the buyer intends to enjoy the property. Buyers should also consider how flooding on the property of interest or in the greater community might impact their maintenance costs and tax and insurance rates. In short, taking the time to understand the big picture might prevent costly mistakes.

While not technically an app, Flood Factor can easily be accessed and used on a smartphone. Give it a spin.

New Report: Millions of U.S. Property Owners Are Unaware Their Properties Are At Risk of Flooding

As many as six million U.S. properties face a substantial risk of flooding without their owners being aware of the threat. That’s according to a report recently released by the First Street Foundation, a non-profit research and technology group committed to defining America’s flood risk.

The researchers combined data from a number of different sources to develop a model that determined 1.7 times more properties face a substantial risk of flooding than are awarded that designation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers the Federal Flood Insurance Program.

In real numbers, 14.6 million properties are at substantial risk of flooding. However, due to the well-known shortcomings of FEMA’s chronically outdated and/or incomplete flooding maps, the report says the owners of 5.9 million properties are “currently unaware or underestimating the risk they face because they are not being identified as being within the FEMA designated SFHA (Special Flood Hazard Area) zone.” Interestingly enough, the researchers also found that some areas that are listed by FEMA as being in SFHAs actually shouldn’t be.

The danger to real estate owners in all of this is that millions of property owners who should buy flood insurance might not have it because they’re not aware of the risk. Others who have it, might be paying for coverage they don’t actually need. Among the problems for homes that flood is they can be expensive to repair, experience a loss in value, and can be hard to sell. They can also flood again and again, compounding the owner’s misery.

When creating the report, the researchers considered many potential sources of flooding, including rivers, rainfall, storm surge and tidal source. To estimate the future risk of flooding, they also took climate change-generated extreme weather and sea level rise into account. First Street estimated that 21.8 million properties are at risk of flooding this year. Climate change will boost that number by 1.7 million properties over the next 30 years.

First Street created the report to help real estate buyers and sellers to make informed decisions regarding properties at risk of flooding. This is especially important for buyers since states vary widely regarding the amount of information sellers have to disclose to them and the flood insurance history of a property is protected by privacy laws.

In addition to the groundbreaking flood report, First Street has created a tool called Flood Factor that real estate buyers and owners can use to determine the current and future risk of flooding to a particular property by entering the address. When put to the test, Flood Factor provided reports for some addresses but not all addresses, including those that are located in well-known flood prone areas. A screen would appear that said “Information for (X Address) is unavailable. Please try another location or find out why this address isn’t listed.” When we clicked to find out why an address wasn’t listed we were taken back to the address search screen.

When First Street works out the kinks, Flood Factor will be a very useful resource to all real estate owners and buyers. Knowing the risk of flooding with a few key strokes will even the playing field in real estate transactions in a way that’s now not always possible. The researchers also hope that the information will be used by mortgage providers and insurers to better assess risk and by government planners to decide how to better address flooding.

15 U.S. Communities Set High Tide Flooding Records Due To Sea Level Rise

“Sea level rise flooding of U.S. coastlines is happening now, and it is becoming more frequent each year.” That warning is the opening sentence of a new U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report titled “2019 State of U.S. High Tide Flooding with a 2020 Outlook”.

Agency scientists report that in 2019 fifteen communities, including Miami, Charleston, and Savannah, set records for the number of days that they experienced so-called “sunny day” flooding that isn’t related to rain storms or storm surge. From May through April, East Point, a city near Houston, TX, reported 64 days of high-tide flooding.

According to the report, the situation is going to get much, much worse as sea levels continue to rise in the coming decades. In some cases, it will reach the point that the high tides now bringing “nuisance” flooding will one day be considered the normal high tide.

It’s important to note that NOAA only measures high-tide flooding at 89 sites, so there may be many more communities experiencing regular sea level rise flooding on an increasing basis that aren’t included in the agency’s findings. The experts list New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington among the communities that could see 100 days a year of high-tide flooding by 2050.

Of special interest to real estate owners, the report mentions that the bouts of sea level rise-driven flooding are already “damaging to infrastructure and cause other economic impacts (transportation delays, businesses closed, tourism impacts, etc.) in coastal communities”. As we’ve seen, coastal cities and towns are already scrambling to find hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for projects — such as sea walls, pumps and the raising of roads and water and sewer pipes — to deal with sea level rise flooding. With federal funds hard to come by, the burden of paying for the much-needed projects will likely fall on taxpayers. Owners and buyers need to stay informed about this pressing problem to protect their financial futures.