Sorry I haven’t updated the site lately, but I’ve actually been busy writing the 2021 edition of “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners & Real Estate Agents.”
Managing the threat of Covid-19 threw me off my intended schedule, which was to release the book in November or December of 2020, but I’m back on track to bring you a comprehensive look at the risks involved in purchasing real estate in coastal communities that are currently experiencing sea level rise flooding or will have to confront the challenge in the years and decades to come. The new edition includes the latest developments regarding sea level rise science and the approach federal, state, and local governments are taking to address the flooding. It also has chapters that describe in detail how sea level rise flooding impacts communities, neighborhoods and specific properties, and what buyers, sellers, owners, and real estate agents need to do about it.
Those of you who purchased the 2020 edition of “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions” on Amazon.com will find a lot of new information presented clearly and concisely. The book will be of special value to buyers, sellers, owners, and real estate agents operating in coastal areas who want to make informed decisions regarding real estate transactions in areas confronting this creeping threat.
I will update the site when the book is available in paperback or Kindle versions, which should be in about two weeks. Thank you for your patience.
Once the book is released, I will get back on track to updating this site on a regular basis with the latest reports regarding sea level rise flooding and real estate.
Tropical Storm Eta made landfall in the mid-Florida Keys, but it left a lasting impression on homeowners 90 miles to the north in South Florida. Many who owned real estate inland away from the coastline in what they thought were high and dry neighborhoods in Palm Beach County, Broward County, and Miami-Dade County woke up on Monday, November 9, to flooded homes, streets and businesses. Climate experts are already saying the devastation is a result of a dangerous confluence of soils already saturated by repeated rain events in October, a tropical storm with heavy rains super-charged by climate change, and a drainage system based on gravity that’s operating less efficiently due to sea level rise.
Bryan Norcross, a hurricane specialist at Local 10 in Miami, said the region has experienced this type of flooding before, just not in recent years. “I’ve been dealing with hurricanes since the 1980s and that’s evolved into discussing how climate and hurricanes fit together,” he said in an article posted on the station’s website. “The fact that sea level is rising and rising a little more than just a half an inch, an inch at a time, that makes our drainage system work more poorly.” In other words, when there’s less difference between the elevation of water pooling on land and water in the drainage canal system and ocean level, the harder it is for the system to move water off the land and into the ocean.
In an opinion piece titled “Historic Eta flooding in Florida areas thought to be drier proves we’re all vulnerable,” Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago described what it was like living in a neighborhood that flooded. She said the experience at her home in Miami Lakes, an inland community she thought was not vulnerable to flooding, was like living on an island. Even if a resident’s house and street weren’t flooded, they were still impacted by the flooding because they couldn’t travel far before they encountered a flooded street.
“If your street didn’t flood,” she wrote, “you still couldn’t get out of your neighborhood because other thoroughfares did flood. Streets were dangerously deeper than they seemed at first.” She also worried that she would lose power and/or internet service due to the flooding.
Santiago’s final paragraphs are a cautionary tale for all who are considering purchasing real estate in coastal areas vulnerable to or now experiencing sea level rise flooding: “Global warming is real folks, not just a concept put out there that only concerns the scientists. Eta’s rains are here to show us just how up close and personal climate change can get in all of South Florida.”
Touring storm damage in my own city in southern Palm Beach County, I saw many streets that normally experience sea level rise flooding, especially in the fall “king tide” months, flooded to a higher level than I’d ever witnessed. Streets that residents needed to travel to get from their homes were bisected by floodwaters rendering them useless. This is a major frustration to many property owners in my area. Experts say property values in areas that experience sea level rise flooding are already appreciating at a slower rate than properties that don’t.
Tropical Storm Eta’s nasty surprise is a reminder to all property owners and buyers that they need to perform due diligence and know the risk of flooding to homes and businesses so they can make an informed decision regarding real estate ownership. It’s also a reminder that they can’t just focus on a given property or neighborhood, flooding in the wider community and region can also impact their ability to get around town and the costs of maintenance, insurance, and taxes, as communities are forced to invest ever more in efforts to prevent flooding events.
It’s a tough nut to crack, but it shouldn’t be. Real estate buyers should have a right to full disclosure of the risk sea level rise flooding (or any flooding for that matter) poses to a home before they submit an offer. But, in reality, with no effective national disclosure policy and a hodge-podge of mostly toothless state laws, real estate buyers are too often left unaware of the risk until floodwaters show up in their neighborhood or at their doors.
This point was hit home in a recent article titled “Undisclosed: Most Homebuyers And Renters Aren’t Warned About Flood or Wildfire Risk” published on National Public Radio’s website. Reporters Ryan Kellman, Rebecca Hersher, and Lauren Sommer used real-life experiences of people living in flood and fire prone areas to explain how buyers and even long-time owners have faced damaged or destroyed homes due to a threat they didn’t know about or didn’t fully appreciate. Reading their article gives you a real sense of the human cost of America’s failure to disclose a property’s risk of falling to natural disasters.
The problems examined in the NPR article have been explored in great detail on this website and in our book “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions for Buyers, Sellers, Owners & Real Estate Agents”. Essentially, buyers are left at a disadvantage when purchasing property in a flood-prone area because: 1) There is no federal law that mandates seller disclosure of sea level rise flooding risk; 2) State laws, in most cases, don’t require either the disclosure of any and/or enough information for buyers to make an informed decision before submitting an offer; 3) The people buyers count on for the information — including sellers, real estate agents, mortgage providers and insurers — aren’t required to warn buyers that they’re purchasing a home that is subject to or could soon be subject to sea level rise flooding; and 4) The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) produces maps that identify flood zones that are notoriously out of date and do not take into consideration sea level rise flooding. This leaves many buyers ill-informed when making decisions that will impact their lives, livelihoods and financial futures.
The risk to homeowners and buyers purchasing property in coastal areas can’t be overstated. In many coastal communities, neighborhoods, roads and properties are already being inundated by sea level rise flooding. As the NPR article states, many homeowners have inadequate insurance that will fall short of making them whole should they experience flooding. In some areas repeated flooding is so bad states are setting aside millions of dollars to buy-out and demolish homes that repeatedly flood to stop the expense of the rebuild-destruction cycle.
Taxpayers, too, pay a price for the current situation. When properties flood and the federal government pays out billions of dollars for repairs the funds ultimately come out of their pockets.
The only fair solution to this problem is the passage of tougher national and state flood disclosure laws. Alice Hill, who led disaster planning efforts at the President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, told NPR that the federal government should take responsibility for giving Americans information about flood risk so they can make informed decisions.
Until that day comes, buyers and owners need to practice due diligence and determine a property’s flood risk to protect themselves from the expense and inconvenience of a flooding event. This entails putting on their detective’s hat and taking steps such as studying FEMA flood maps and asking residents, local real estate agents, mortgage providers, insurers, home inspectors and government planning officials if they’re aware of flooding in and around the property of interest. Researching media reports can also be of value. Throughout the fact-gathering process, buyers and property owners must fight the urge to rely on a single source for information as there are shortcomings to all of them.
A final issue to factor in when evaluating real estate opportunities in coastal communities is future sea level rise projections. Properties that don’t flood today, might flood over the course of a 30-year mortgage as sea level continues to rise.
Real estate developers rarely take the long-view when they’re considering new projects. They see their role in the economy as simply planning, building, and selling projects at the greatest return on investment. As a result, in Southeast Florida, billions of dollars worth of real estate development has proceeded even in areas known to be at risk of — or currently experiencing — sea level rise flooding. The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact — a partnership between Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Palm Beach County, and Monroe County — believes it’s time for real estate developers to recognize the larger threat sea level poses to the region and their industry and to get involved in mitigation efforts for the good of everyone.
To make their case, the Compact used a state grant to pay the Urban Land Institute (ULI) — a group comprised of 45,000 real estate and urban development professionals interested in creating sustainable communities — to assess the costs and benefits in cold hard cash of implementing projects now to address sea level rise flooding, which is expected to worsen as up to 40 inches of sea level rise accumulates by 2070.
ULI recently released its findings in a report titled “The Business Case for Resilience in Southeast Florida.” In it, researchers concluded that tens of billions of dollars will be lost over the next 50 years if the region doesn’t invest in resiliency, such as elevating structures and roads and infrastructure and building higher seawalls and berms, now. The report specifically estimates that spending $22.6 billion on flood mitigation between now and 2070 could prevent $56 billion in losses over the same period.
ULI said its approach to drafting the report was to view sea level rise not as a net negative but as an opportunity to actually build the economy by investing in resiliency today, an effort that would create business opportunities and new jobs. In a report summary ULI said: “The findings … identify opportunities for the real estate industry to achieve a positive return on investment by futureproofing developments and investing in community wide resilience infrastructure over time to build incremental solutions that protect people and property and grow the economy of Southeast Florida in years to come.”
The report, which is meant to convince business interests to join the sea level rise resilience movement, isn’t perfect however. It overlooks one of the most seemingly insurmountable problems unique to South Florida: The region’s real estate is built on porous limestone, so even if you block the rising seas with higher seawalls and other structures at the coast, the seawater will still migrate beneath the surface and cause flooding along the coast and well inland.
Despite this flaw, the researchers said the investment in resilience is worth it. They estimate Miami-Dade County will benefit from a 9 to 1 return on investment, Broward County 2 to 1, and Palm Beach County 1.3 to 1. Unfortunately, they did not see any benefit for Monroe County, which covers the Florida Keys. The report said the Keys population is too small to benefit compared with its highly populated neighboring counties to the north. Rhonda Haas, resilience officer for Monroe County, told the Miami Herald: “We are probably going to have to spend more per resident for resilience and that’s okay. Just because we have a lower rate of return on that investment, that doesn’t mean the Keys should not make the investment. We should and we are.”
The preface to the report notes that there are no easy answers to climate adaptation but all interests need to get involved. It also warns developers that not participating in mitigating sea level rise flooding could lead to negative consequences beyond their control. “Developers have control over the confines of their own parcels,” it states, “but they could be faced with negative consequences from reduced investor interest and lack of financing and insurance –if this is the case, it may be too late to recover. Though financial assets are at risk, this is also the time for the real estate industry to coordinate with the public sector on resilience planning initiatives and co-create new models for partnerships, policy, and funding to help the region continue to thrive.”
The lesson from the report for everyone living and operating businesses in coastal communities in Southeast Florida and everywhere else is that we’re all in this together and saving our lifestyles and livelihoods will take a team effort.
The last couple of years, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has experienced numerous costly and environmentally disastrous cast iron sewer pipe collapses. There are many reasons cast iron pipes fail, but it’s mostly due to corrosion (rust) that degrades the pipes to the point that the effluent escapes through cracks, holes and breaks.
Recently, experts have identified sea level rise as a contributor to the pipe failures. Cast iron is notoriously vulnerable to rusting. Exposure to salty seawater as the water table rises or from repeated flooding can speed up the process.
Unfortunately, the problem of cast iron pipe failures isn’t limited to municipal water systems. Prior to the mid-1970s, cast iron pipes were the pipes of choice to hook up homes to on-site septic systems and municipal water/sewer providers. As sea levels rise and cast iron pipes are increasingly bathed in salty water, these private pipes are put at risk, too.
Buyers and owners of real estate in coastal areas need to pay attention to this threat. A friend of mine bought a home decades ago that was built along the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1940s. This summer, she noticed that her plumbing was backing up frequently. A plumber analyzed the system and found that the problem stemmed from heavily corroded cast iron pipes under her home and yard.
As she found out, repairing or replacing cast iron pipes on even the most basic system can cost into the tens of thousands of dollars. For most of us, that’s a lot of cash.
What should buyers and owners in coastal communities do about cast iron pipes? Owners of homes built before the mid-1970s that are experiencing frequent plumbing problems need to find out if their properties are serviced by cast iron pipes and what shape they’re in. A licensed plumber should be able to inspect the system and issue a report.
Knowing the status of cast iron pipes will help owners to decide whether to leave the pipes alone or to repair or replace them. Time is of the essence, especially since many insurers won’t cover flooding from sewer backups due to corroded pipes. Owners should discuss insurance claims with their insurance providers and also research the possibility of joining existing class action lawsuits against cast iron pipe manufacturers.
Buyers of older home in coastal communities should consider having a licensed home inspector or plumbing contractor inspect the pipes, first to determine if they’re cast iron and second to determine what shape they’re in. The inspector or plumber should be able to assign a rough life expectancy for the pipes. Buyers, however, must keep in mind that the pipes will be increasingly exposed to salt water as sea levels rise. If the pipes are in moderate to poor shape, the decision to proceed with a transaction will depend on the buyers’ ability to absorb the cost of repair or replacement should the pipes begin to fail.
A company called Total Care Restoration has an excellent fact sheet that’s in line with other resources I’ve read about the threat sea level rise poses to cast iron pipes. This link is not provided as an endorsement of their services, it’s only for informational purposes. https://totalcarerestoration.com/cast-iron-pipes/
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.
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.
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’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 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.