Florida’s State Government Does a 180 on Sea Level Rise Flooding

Just a few short years ago, the state of Florida’s official position on sea level rise was not only “no problem” but “don’t mention it”. Then Republican Gov. Rick Scott made national headlines by banning mention of climate change and its many impacts from official state discourse.

This month, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis turned the tide — so to speak — on sea level rise by signing into law a bill that created the Resilient Florida Grant Program in the Department of Environmental Protection. The program will use millions of dollars in state funding to aid local communities in their efforts to combat sea level rise flooding, which has been damaging coastal real estate and infrastructure for years. Some of the funding will be spent on new seawalls in Miami and West Palm Beach, drainage improvements in Key West, and reconstructed roadways at many locations.

In addition to the grant program, Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that requires the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a statewide risk assessment and draft a three-year sea level rise resilience plan.

Environmentalists are generally encouraged by the state’s willingness to acknowledge and take on the challenges posed by sea level rise flooding. They would, however, like to see officials take the next step and actually tackle the root cause of sea level rise: the burning of fossil fuels that’s driving global warming.

Sea Level Rise & Real Estate: What happens when whispered truths are spoken out loud?

Sea level rise flooding is rapidly transforming from an issue that was whispered about in many coastal communities — for fear mere mention would tank the local real estate market — to one that’s appearing on the front pages of major newspapers. This week alone the Miami Herald featured articles titled “‘Now, It’s About Elevation’: Buying a South Florida home in the era of sea level rise” and “Miami Beach residents want sea level rise fixes. But finding the right spot is a battle”.

The first article features interviews with a real estate broker and other experts who commented on how higher elevation properties in the flat, flood-prone South Florida landscape are becoming the most valued by middle-class buyers as sea level rises. (Apparently, wealthy buyers can afford to absorb the loss if their properties are flooded.) The second article examines the growing NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement among residents in Miami Beach as the city struggles to find a location for a much-needed pump station that threatens to sully residents’ views.

Both articles are well-reported and matter-of-fact about the many complications sea level rise flooding poses to people involved in South Florida real estate. Reading the pieces made me think about how far we’ve come toward acknowledge the problem and what this tide change (pardon the pun) in awareness means to buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents.

One thing’s clear: As buyers become more educated about the risk of sea level rise flooding, they are becoming more sophisticated about where they purchase property in coastal communities. An article published last December in the Charleston, SC, Post & Courier put it bluntly: “Downtown Charleston house hunters ask about home’s flooding history first”. With flooding an ever-worsening problem, “Does this property flood?” is sure to become the first question buyers ask in coastal communities all along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico.

This reality is going to force owners to pay more attention to sea level rise to make sure that they get out before their property begins to lose value due to the direct flooding of their property or their neighborhood. Sellers are going to have to be very careful that they fill out seller’s disclosure forms in accordance with their state’s laws. (At this point, state seller’s disclosure laws range from full flood disclosure to none at all.) And real estate agents are going to have to make sure that they’re aware of which neighborhoods and properties in their farm area experience sea level rise flooding, that they fulfill their obligation to disclose the flooding to buyers in accordance with their state’s disclosure law and, if they’re a Realtor ™, their association’s Code of Ethics, and that they advise their sellers to comply with their state’s disclosure requirements. Conferring with real estate attorneys is always a good idea as there have been cases where real estate brokers and agents have had to pay out large sums of money for mishandling flooding-related issues.

Most Americans’ greatest investment is their homes. As buyers become savvier about sea level rise flooding and the many ways it can impact their home and their financial futures, it’s going to become harder to sell them a property that’s experiencing flooding now, soon to experience flooding, or difficult to access due to flooded roads. With this in mind, everyone involved in coastal real estate has to keep up to speed on this creeping catastrophe to make smart real estate decisions.

The Threat of Flooding in Coastal Communities Rises as Sea Level Rise Lifts Water Tables

When Tropical Storm Eta soaked South Florida with torrential rains in November, many property owners far inland were shocked to see streets and homes flood in their neighborhoods. Experts say that the extreme flooding was due to the enormous amount of rain that fell on land already saturated by heavy rains that fell in October. They also said that the nearly 75-year-old canal system built to drain what had for been Everglades swamplands was unable to cope with the volume of water.

Sea level rise was part of the problem, too. The drainage canals rely on gravity to transport water from land to sea. As sea levels rise, the difference in height between water on and under the land and the ocean is becoming narrower. As a result, floodwaters don’t flow as quickly downslope to the sea, and, during extremely high tides, sea water actually tries to rush inland through the canals.

Another reality of the canal system is that if the region is experiencing higher than normal “king tides” during a storm, authorities who oversee the drainage system have to close gates to keep seawater from rushing up the canals. During heavy downpours, floodwaters can get caught behind the gates and, with no place to go, they accumulate and flood the land.

Sea level rise poses another less obvious threat that’s right under our feet. As the sea rises, water pressure causes it to migrate inland underground through porous rock and/or soil. The pressure from the salt water, which is heavier than fresh water, forces the fresh water upward, effectively raising the water table.

This can have several negative effects. When the water table rises, it saturates the land. When it rains, the water that falls cannot be absorbed by the soil and flooding results. Another negative effect is that the groundwater itself can rise up to the surface and create flooding.

An even nastier effect of rising water tables is that floodwaters can, as was experienced in South Florida, flow into the wastewater treatment system through manhole covers and broken pipes greatly increasing the flow to wastewater treatment facilities. This influx of water can cause the facilities to lose efficiency or fail all-together. The higher water tables can also cause on-site septic systems to fail. Both problems can result in the release of stinky, and potentially infectious sewage into floodwaters and onto the land.

The flooding Eta brought to South Florida isn’t unique to the region, and it illustrates a problem that many coastal communities and real estate owners are coping with now or will confront soon as seas continue to rise.

Many coastal communities from Florida to Oahu are racing to cope with the problem of sea level rise-induced rises in water tables. A superb article by Grace Mitchell Tada titled “The Rising Tide Underfoot” recently published in Hakai Magazine discusses in detail how rising seas are threatening Oahu, Hawaii. As Dolan Eversole, a management coordinator with the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, told the reporter: “Sea level rise does not look like the ocean coming at us. It looks like the groundwater coming up.”

In South Florida, seawater is migrating inland through porous limestone. In Oahu, it moves through basalt rock. The end result is the same. According to the article, higher water tables are wreaking havoc, flooding residential neighborhoods and commercial and industrial areas. It’s also threatening critical infrastructure, such as roads, pipes that carry fresh water, wastewater, and gas, and underground wires that carry electricity and information.

As the groundwater rises, it also has the potential to release and spread toxic substances, such as oil and chemicals, deposited in the soil, which could lead to environmental catastrophe.

As sea levels continue to rise, groundwater issues will pose an even greater threat to at-risk communities.

Owners and buyers of residential and commercial real estate in coastal areas can’t ignore the threat posed by sea level rise-heightened water tables. The flooding can not only damage their property, it can make driving and communicating difficult, it can cause a spike in maintenance costs and in tax and insurance rates, it can discourage buyers from entering the market, which will drive down prices, it can discourage tourism and other business activity, and it could ultimately lead to lenders and insurers pulling out of the local market altogether, which would be the death knell for a healthy real estate economy.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to combat rising water tables. For example, if you construct sea walls or natural berms, the seawater can easily migrate under and behind them through the porous rock and soil. With this in mind, owners and buyers of real estate in areas at-risk of rising water tables, need to perform due diligence and determine the level of the threat — has it happened in the past, is it happening in the present, and/or how far in the future will it happen. This information is critical when you decide if you can handle the risk and whether it’s worth taking on to begin with.

Tropical Storm Eta Gives South Florida Homeowners a Wake Up Call: Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Flooding are for Real

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.

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.

Global Consultant Recommends Steps to Protect Florida Real Estate Value from Sea Level Rise Flooding

McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, released a report this week that analyzes the risk sea level rise flooding poses to billions of dollars worth of Florida’s residential real estate and recommends steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage.

The report, titled “Will mortgages and markets stay afloat in Florida?”, starts by stating the simple fact that Florida’s unique location — in a hurricane-prone zone — and geology — extra low elevation with a porous limestone foundation that allows sea water to move freely — makes it very susceptible to sea level rise flooding. In fact, the authors cite a First Street Foundation study that concluded sea level rise will increase the number of days that many coastal areas experience tidal flooding each year from a few days today to 200 days a year by 2050. In addition, the average annual damages from storm surges will itself surge from $2 billion today to up to $4.5 billion by the middle of this century.

The report goes on to discuss how sea level rise is already depressing home values in areas that experience sea level rise flooding compared with those that don’t. “About 25,000 homes in Florida already experience flooding at frequencies of more than 50 times per year (almost once a week on average),” according to the report. “With rising sea levels, 40,000 coastal properties representing $15 billion of value could run this risk by 2030, and 100,000 properties worth $50 billion by 2050.”

The threat to the value of Florida’s residential real estate isn’t posed only by direct flooding, either. The report says as buyers are increasingly made aware of the flooding and the expenses involved in owning a property in a flood zone, prices will likely drop. Buyers could also balk at the higher insurance premiums and taxes that are sure to be levied as a result of flooding. A final point of pressure is the mortgage market. With the risk of flooding increasing every year, experts are wondering how long mortgage providers be willing to write 30-year-mortgages — or even 15 year mortgages, for that matter — for high risk properties when the owners might never pay back the loans.

The report authors offer a few potential solutions that could help mitigate the risk. Among their recommendations are that: 1. Real estate markets become more transparent about the risk of sea level rise flooding, so buyers don’t lose confidence in the market; 2. More money be spent on projects needed to upgrade the infrastructure — such as sea walls and storm sewers — needed to fend off the flooding ; and 3. Policy makers, engineers, investors and community organizations band together in groups to decide which properties to protect from sea level rise flooding and which to abandon.

In the end, the authors write that “While the state and communities face hard choices in the face of rising sea levels and worsening hazards, planning today can help manage the consequences and minimize the costs of climate change in the future.”

It’s clear from this report that the day of reckoning is here for buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents in coastal communities. Understanding the roles played by individual property owners, governments, insurers and mortgage providers in the health of a real estate market impacted by sea level rise flooding is critical to protect your financial future.

Florida’s First Sea Level Rise Resiliency Officer Leaves Bombshell Report

Julia Nesheiwat, Florida’s first sea level rise resiliency officer, left her position after only a few months on the job, but a report she left behind in late 2019 should act as a call to action for the state.

According to the 36-page annual report she prepared for Governor Ron DeSantis that was acquired by the Tampa Bay Times, Nesheiwat evaluated how Florida was dealing with sea level rise and concluded that their response was too slow and disjointed. “Florida’s coastal communities and regions do not have a lot of time to waste,” she wrote. Her main concerns are that local communities are trying to cope with sea level rise on their own and, as a result, they are duplicating fact-gathering and planning.

“Florida needs a statewide strategy,” she wrote. “Communities are overwhelmed and need one place to turn to for guidance.” One of the facts fueling her concern cited in the report is the “$26 billion of residential property in Florida at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.”

Nesheiwat said the state should serve as the repository for information and guidelines so coastal communities wouldn’t have to duplicate efforts to come up with solutions to common problems posed by sea level rise flooding. She also made it clear that the state can’t rely on cities to address the enormous challenge alone. One of the examples she provided was the $75 million Monroe County needs to raise less than 3 miles of road in Sugarloaf Key.

With sea levels predicted to rise several feet by the end of the century, Florida’s residential and commercial real estate holders can’t afford to ignore Nesheiwat’s warning and advice.