Cape Hatteras Houses Collapse into Ocean: Is this the future of sea level rise?

When it comes to sea level rise damaging beachfront real estate, Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is the canary in the coal mine. The thin, sandy barrier island is infamous for losing houses to the sea whenever there’s a hurricane or strong tropical storm.

Now, before hurricane season even begins, houses in Rodanthe, south of Nag’s Head, are being swept out to sea. The National Park Service says three houses have been lost to the waves since February and another nine are currently at-risk of the same fate.

There are several factors contributing to the string of house collapses. A low pressure system swirling off the Outer Banks is sending powerful waves crashing onto shore. In addition, the barrier island has long experienced erosion due to regular wave action that gets worse whenever a hurricane or tropical storm hits or even passes close to the area.

Experts, however, have predicted that higher seas due to sea level rise would serve to intensify and speed up the erosion and house destruction, which only makes sense. Higher seas scour away sand more quickly and effectively. They also mean storm surges will travel further inland with more punch. In addition, the warming of the oceans and atmosphere due to climate change is super-charging hurricanes and tropical storms, which means they pack a stronger wallop.

Home loss on the Outer Banks is also due to the unique geology of barrier islands. In their natural state, the narrow sandy strands are meant to migrate inland as sea level rises. The Park Service is allowed to protect critical infrastructure, such as roads, but not houses. Even if the Park Service could take steps to shield the houses, such as building seawalls, nature would eventually break through the armor and sweep them out to sea.

It’s important to note here that scientists blame the loss of houses not only on natural forces but also the fact that humans never should have built the homes on shifting barrier island sand to begin with. Real estate owners and buyers need to carefully consider the consequences of owning real estate on barrier islands and beaches all along the US coast, especially now that sea level rise is in play. One thing’s for sure, houses toppling into the sea are going to become more common as the sea level rises and storms intensify in the decades to come.

(Photo Credit: National Park Service)

Freddie Mac Warns Sea Level Rise is Not Priced into Coastal Florida Real Estate Values

If you want to see where the real estate market is headed in light of climate change and sea level rise, watch lenders and insurers. Why? They have to be forward looking to protect their investment.

With that in mind, a research brief published this month by Freddie Mac, a governmental-sponsored company that backs mortgages, should sound a wake-up alarm to real estate buyers and owners in Coastal Florida (and across the country). In the piece, titled “Homebuyers in Coastal Florida are Not Factoring Sea Level Rise Risk into Home Prices”, Freddie Mac reported that prices are not being discounted for properties that are in sea level rise (SLR) exposed areas not within FEMA-designated floodplains. In fact, researchers found buyers of a primary residence, individual investors, and institutional investors were paying a 3.5% price premium for these homes.

Freddie Mac also reported that homes located in areas vulnerable to sea level rise experienced price discounts after hurricane flooding likely because buyers perceived a heightened flood risk rather than due to the risk of sea level rise itself.

“We conclude that homebuyers either lack awareness of SLR risk or consider it a long-term risk that will not be a concern during the time they own a home,” the researchers said.

Freddie Mac is concerned that the failure to consider the threat sea level rise poses to a property now could eventually lead to sea level rise-driven price drops later when (and if FEMA) updates its flood maps to reflect sea level rise flooding. The researchers say Florida’s housing market, with its large share of vulnerable properties built at very low elevation, could be significantly impacted.

This is yet another example of why owners and buyers of coastal property need to assess the risk posed by sea level rise flooding to make informed decisions and protect their financial futures.

Florida’s New Statewide Office of Resilience Gets Sea Level Rise Half Right

This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation to create a new Statewide Office of Resilience. The office is charged with creating an action plan to protect the state highway system from sea level rise flooding. It’s also responsible for creating a prioritize list of sites, such as medical centers, airports, utilities and emergency operation centers, that need to be hardened against rising seas.

The new law strengthens a 2021 law that required the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop a sea level rise resilience plan and a grant program to help cities and counties pay for infrastructure improvements.

While Florida officials should be applauded for taking the initiative and combatting the sea level rise that threatens coastal cities and towns, there’s a glaring omission. The law does nothing to reduce the burning of coal, oil and natural gas as well as agricultural sources of greenhouse gases that are driving global warming and sea level rise. This is kind of like working to put out a house fire without addressing the arsonist who’s flipping matches at it. This oversight will ultimately prove costly and disastrous for a low elevation state with coastal communities that are already flooding due to sea level rise and ever-stronger storm surges.

Florida’s half-way there on climate change and sea level rise. With billions of dollars worth of real estate under threat of inundation, let’s hope the state takes the next step and addresses what’s driving the problem.

With Hurricane Season Approaching, Now’s the Time to Purchase Flood Insurance

Hurricane season 2022 officially begins on June 1, and it’s expected to be a busy one.

With climate change and sea level rise intensifying tropical storm and hurricane rains and storm surge, now is the time for real estate owners in coastal communities and well inland to consider purchasing flood insurance — if they haven’t already. This is especially important because standard homeowner’s insurance policies do not cover flooding.

Property owners who plan to wait until a storm is aimed at their region to purchase flood insurance are making a big mistake. New policies under FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program take 30 days to take effect.

Property owners who purchase properties using government-backed mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance policies. Many owners who purchased their homes using cash self-insure their properties. Some owners who are self-insured are under the mis-impression that because they’re located outside of designated flood zones that they shouldn’t be concerned about flooding. This can be a costly mistake. Estimates are that 25% of flood damage occurs in low-risk flood zones. An extreme example of this hazard is the fact that more than half of the homes that flooded in Houston, TX, during Hurricane Harvey were located outside designated flood zones.

Flood insurance policies cost on-average $700 a year, though FEMA has started to place a heavier premium burden on properties built in higher risk areas. The policies cover up to a quarter million dollars in damage. Buyers should also be aware that a seller’s flood insurance policy can be transferred to them at closing often at a significant savings.

Flood insurance is clearly worth purchasing. According to FEMA’s Flood Damage Cost Estimator, one inch of floodwater can cause up to $25,000 in damage and one-foot up to $72,000. As building materials and labor have become much more expensive in most regions of the country, these estimates are most likely on the conservative side.

Owners and buyers of real estate at risk of flooding can get more information about National Flood Insurance Program policies from the National Flood Insurance Program website.

New Hawaii Law Requires Sea Level Rise Threat Disclosure in Coastal Real Estate Transactions

Beginning this week, property owners selling coastal real estate in Hawaii are required by law to disclose the threat sea level rise flooding poses to a property. According to a State Department of Land and Natural Resources news release, real estate transactions involving properties located on or near the ocean must include the new disclosure. The new disclosure law is in addition to the National Flood Insurance Program’s requirement that sellers notify buyers that a property of interest is located near a flood-prone stream or area that may flood during heavy rainfall events.

According to an article posted on the Hawaii Life Real Estate Brokers website, the new disclosure law is based on modeling performed by researchers at the University of Hawaii. They studied coastal areas at risk from flooding or other damage due to sea level rises, annual high wave flooding, or coastal erosion.

Properties built between current sea level and 3.2 feet of elevation — the potential sea level-driven high water mark at the end of this century — are subject to the new disclosure law. Buyers, sellers and real estate agents can use the state’s interactive map to determine if they’re inside the disclosure zone.

Due to the hodge-podge of state-level sellers disclosure laws, buyers and sellers should always check to see what’s mandated in their area to avoid costly lawsuits and/or purchasing property that’s prone to flooding.

Sea Level Rise-driven Saltwater Intrusion Could Impact Coastal Real Estate Values

As sea level rises, coastal cities and towns are growing increasingly concerned that fresh water sources used for drinking water, wastewater treatment, agricultural irrigation, and industry could be fouled by saltwater intrusion. Saltwater intrusion occurs when higher sea level forces saltwater inland at the surface or underground through porous rock and sand. When the salt water reaches fresh water intakes on rivers or underground wells, the fresh water become unfit for human consumption and most other uses.

According to a study published in the Journal Nature, millions of Americans live in coastal communities at risk of losing access to fresh water due to saltwater intrusion. KCRA in San Francisco aired a report last week that examined the threat saltwater intrusion poses to the state’s Central Delta waterways.

As sea level rises, it threatens to push salty ocean water up into delta rivers and estuaries that provide drinking water to 27 million California residents as far away as Southern California. The water is also used to irrigate the Central Valley’s farmland.

Sea level rise isn’t the only contributor to the saltwater intrusion problem. The West’s ongoing mega-drought is also drawing down river levels, which could potentially hasten the inland movement of saltwater from the sea. The only way to prevent this is by releasing more water from reservoirs or the construction of a barrier to block the saltwater, which California is trying on the West False River.

The threat to real estate owners and buyers in all of this is that any community that loses access to fresh water is a community in distress. This could cause real estate values to plummet. Clearly everyone involved in coastal real estate needs to be aware of where their fresh water comes from and how safe it is from saltwater intrusion.

Earth Day is a Call to Action!

Repeating “Happy Earth Day” to family and friends today isn’t enough. The holiday is, in fact, a call to action for us all to do what we can to save the planet from climate change and pollution.

For years, Earth has been flashing a RED ALERT about global warming. Oceans, the atmosphere and the land are heating up. As a result, we’re seeing mega-droughts, hotter and longer heat waves, fierce wildfires, stronger more damaging storms, rapid snow and ice melt in Antarctica and Greenland and sea level rise flooding.

To stop global warming, we need to curtail the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — that release greenhouse gases. We can all play a role by conserving energy. Here’s how:

1. Drive only when necessary, consolidate trips and share the ride.

2. Purchase the most fuel efficient vehicles we can afford and ride public transportation when available.

3. Weather-proof our homes and offices.

4. Buy energy-efficient appliances.

5. Turn off lights and electronics that aren’t in use.

6. Buy only goods we actually need.

7. Eat a more plant-based diet.

8. Vote ONLY  for candidates who are dedicated to fighting climate change.

The last point is critically important. Leaders on the federal, state and local levels are setting the policies that will (or won’t) allow us to reduce and nearly eliminate the use of fossil fuels. We need strong, motivated leaders to get the job done.

Together, we can prevent the climate change catastrophe we’re headed for if we don’t act aggressively to combat it. The time to for us all to start is NOW!

Are Houses on Stilts the Future of Sea Level Rise-Threatened Coastal Real Estate?

Coping with sea level rise flooding and sea level rise-intensified storm surge requires innovation and imagination in the public and private sectors. Among the solutions now being implemented in areas with real estate that floods or soon may experiencing flooding are building and raising seawalls, installing pumps and storm drains, setting aside parks and open lands to absorb and store flood water, and elevating homes, roads and critical infrastructure.

Another option that’s been in use in areas that have long experienced severe beach erosion and storm surge flooding is building houses on stilts. This has been the go-to solution in areas like coastal Louisiana and the Outer Banks of North Carolina for decades. With the oceans continuing to rise and storm surge becoming and even greater threat, areas that didn’t rely on stilts as a solution to protecting houses and other structures are now considering them.

This month, Dezeen — the self-described “world’s most popular and influential architecture, interiors and design magazine” — has a feature article by reporter Ben Dreith about a 4,500 square foot home Brillhart Architecture built on stilts for an owner who owned a house that was heavily damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The modern home is built on stilts that range from very slender to large enough to form circular rooms reinforced with rebar that can also be used as storage spaces. The entire first floor has usable living space and open areas that are all designed to quickly shed flood water.

The article gives a great overview of how a stilts can help a house cope with rising waters. There are limits, however, to their usefullness. For example, a house built on stilts is of little use if the property and surrounding roads are frequently or permanently inundated and/or access to fresh water and sewage service, electricity or other utilities becomes impossible due to flooding. These are the types of issues buyers and owners should ponder when they’re considering building a house on stilts in an area vulnerable to sea level rise flooding and storm surge.

Commercial Real Estate Investors and Developers Need to Consider Sea Level Rise Flooding Risk

Sea level rise is impacting public lands and residential and commercial real estate. Just as residential real estate investors need to consider the threat of sea level rise flooding, commercial real estate buyers and owners need to keep on top of it, too.

A recent article (“What CRE Execs Need to Know About Sea Level Rise and the Law”) written by Anca Gagiuc and published by CommercialSearch.com — a multiple listing service for commercial real estate — takes a detailed look at what commercial real estate buyers and owners should consider when they’re deciding how to proceed in coastal communities. In the article, Gagiuc interviews Emily Lamond who works in the environmental department at the Cole Schotz law firm.

Lamond says that commercial developers are already responding to sea level rise by raising land elevation, buildings, roads and critical infrastructure. Renters, buyers and mortgage providers are also interested in buildings that can resists or withstand sea level rise flooding.

Other issues explored are who has liability if a property is flooded and damaged to the point that it is essentially totaled. Lamond says typically the owners are responsible for demolishing and removing damaged buildings. She recommends that owners review their insurance policies to see what’s covered in this situation and also prepare for the possibility of unexpected costs.

Lamond touches on several other points that commercial and residential real estate buyers and owners should consider when evaluating property located in coastal communities threatened by or currently experiencing sea level rise flooding. The entire interview is definitely worth a look.

Latest UN Climate Change Report is Bad News For Real Estate Threatened by Sea Level Rise and the World in General

The Unite Nation’s climate science panel released a report this week that was bad news for real estate subject to sea level rise, wildfires, drought and other environmental threats tied to global warming.

Researchers found that humans continue to burn more and more fossil fuels, which releases ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases, at a time when we need to drastically reduce output. At the current rate of emissions, we’re set to blow through the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase limit past reports set for this century. We’re headed for 3.2 degrees Celsius. At this point, even if nations realize their past greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, the world would still see 2.2 degrees or more of warming.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a report that estimated US coastal cities and towns would see an average of a foot of sea level rise between now and 2050. That estimate was based on 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. If the globe warms much faster than that, the ocean will expand much faster and glaciers and ice sheets primarily in Greenland and Antarctica will melt faster contributing to faster and greater than predicted sea level rise.

U.S. coastal communities and private real estate owners are already spending billions of dollars to fend off sea level rise-driven floodwaters. They’re building and raising seawalls, installing pumps to remove floodwater, elevating land, homes, and government and commercial buildings, and hardening and/or elevating infrastructure, such as roads, sewer and water pipes and underground energy and communications equipment. If humans don’t drastically reduce their reliance on fossil fuels — such as coal, oil and natural gas — these projects won’t be enough. Last-resort measures such as managed retreat — property buyouts in flooded areas — will increasingly become the norm.

Faster and higher sea level rise will not only lead to more frequent tidal flooding of vulnerable coastal areas, it will also result in more powerful storm surges being driven further inland. All together, this will apply incredible pressure on the already strained insurance and mortgage markets in coastal communities.

UN report researchers say we need to cut all greenhouse gas emissions in half by the next decade. The best way to do this is by relying more heavily on renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. Improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses and energy conservation practices also play an important role.

Fortunately, these goals are within reach. For example, the cost per unit of solar energy is 85% less than it was in 2010. The cost per unit of wind power is 55% cheaper.

The X factor in all of this is our political will and personal commitment to changing our habits to achieve these objectives. The world’s nations have been less-than-honest about the efforts and results they’ve achieved so far in the fight against climate change, global warming, and sea level rise. Not being forthright with the facts is dangerous for us all. The simple fact is when we gaslight Earth, we’re the ones who get burned. The planet’s chemistry and physics are well-established, and the its rules can’t be broken without resulting in a world that is inhospitable to human life.

UN scientists say we have a very narrow and quickly closing window of opportunity to fend off the worst case global warming scenario. Each and every one of us has a role in preventing that outcome.

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