In November 2022, two consecutive hurricanes put the Florida coast in a tense situation: Waves undermined the land beneath several residences, leaving swimming pools and even buildings dangling over the water. In the vicinity of Daytona Beach, dozens of houses and condo buildings were considered hazardous.
The devastation has prompted the unsettling query: How much of the Florida coast’s remaining real estate is vulnerable to collapse, and can it be saved?
In order to help with these inquiries, I have spent the last 20 years studying climate adaptation challenges as the director of iAdapt, the International Center for Adaptation Planning and Design at the University of Florida.
Rising Seas, Aging Buildings
In Florida, where there are lovely beaches, ocean views, and frequently pleasant breezes, living by the water has a lot of attraction. There are dangers, though, and climate change makes them worse.
Over the next 30 years, the average sea level is expected to increase by 10 to 14 inches (25 to 35 cm) along the U.S. East Coast and by 14 to 18 inches (35 to 45 cm) along the Gulf Coast as a result of global warming. The intensity of hurricanes is also becoming more intense as temperatures rise.
Ocean waves more easily erode beaches, undermine sea walls, and submerge cement foundations in corrosive salt water with higher seas and more storm surges. They increase the risk of living along the coast together with subsidence or sinking land.
The soil, geology, and alterations in the shoreline naturally all affect erosion risk. But it is common in Florida and other coastal regions of the United States. The majority of Florida’s coastline faces a serious risk of erosion, according to maps created by experts at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Older or subpar construction techniques and materials, as well as deteriorated or poorly maintained sea walls and buildings, can significantly increase the risk.
Designing Better Building Codes
Buildings must be strengthened and constructed in accordance with modern construction rules as a first step.
Building regulations evolve as dangers increase and construction methods and materials advance. For instance, the Florida Building Code for South Florida’s design standards increased from requiring new buildings to be able to withstand sustained winds of 146 mph in 2002 to 195 mph in 2021, which corresponds to a strong Category 5 hurricane.
In the vicinity of the area where Hurricane Ian made landfall in October 2022, the municipality of Punta Gorda demonstrated how much more likely buildings built in accordance with the most recent building rules are to survive.
Following Hurricane Charley in 2004, which occurred just after the state amended the Florida Building Code, many of Punta Gorda’s structures were rebuilt. They were less severely damaged than residents of nearby towns when Ian struck. The revised code mandated hurricane-force wind resistance for all new construction, including the use of impact-resistant window glass or shutters.
Due to the fact that the current regulations don’t effectively handle the environment that buildings rest on, even houses built to the most recent codes may still be at risk. Even if it fits the current flood zone elevation regulations, a modern building in a low-lying coastal locale may eventually sustain damage due to rising sea levels and coastline erosion.
Residents of coastal areas encountered this issue during Hurricanes Nicole and Ian. The main causes of damage were not winds but flooding and erosion, which were made worse by sea level rise.
Numerous beach homes and condos that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Nicole in Volusia County may have first appeared to be in good condition. However, when the climate changes, the coastal environment also transforms, making the building vulnerable to a single hurricane. In Volusia County, sea barriers were destroyed by Hurricane Ian, and parts of them couldn’t be fixed in time for Hurricane Nicole.
Read More: The World Cup: Is It Truly Carbon Neutral?
How to Minimize the Risk
All coastal areas should take note of the devastation done to the Daytona area in 2022 and the condo tower in Surfside that tragically collapsed a year before.
The most vulnerable coastal locations can be identified using data and techniques. It is policies and enforcement that are absent.
In Florida, state-funded builders must now perform a sea-level impact analysis before beginning work on a coastal structure. Regardless of the funding source, I think it’s time to apply this new regulation to all new buildings.
The necessity for a thorough sea-level impact analysis should also permit risk-based enforcement, such as prohibiting construction in high-risk locations.
Similar to this, vulnerability analyses, especially for multistory buildings constructed before 2002, can assess a building’s structural integrity and aid in identifying fresh environmental hazards from sea-level rise and beach erosion. Many of the materials and structures utilized in those buildings prior to 2002 are not up to the requirements of today due to poor building regulations and lax enforcement.
Read More: Innovative Company Wants to Drill 10 Miles Down to Replace Fossil Fuels With Geothermal Energy
What Property Owners Can Do
There are several methods homeowners can employ to protect their homes from flood dangers.
In some locations, this can entail raising the home or grading the lot better so that surface water flows away from the structure. Remodeling using storm-resistant building materials and installing a sump pump can both help.
FEMA proposes adding more beach sand, fortifying sea walls, and anchoring the house as further defenses against coastal erosion. Engineering can benefit communities, at least temporarily, by building sea walls, ponds, and better drainage. However, communities will eventually need to evaluate how vulnerable coastal areas are. Moving is sometimes the best solution.
But after hurricanes, there’s a worrying pattern that Ian is part of: Lots of money is being poured into many damaged places to rebuild in the same risky areas. Why rebuild in the same location if these are already in high-risk areas is a crucial question that communities should be asking.
Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Florida, Zhong-Ren Pen
Disclosure: The National Science Foundation, Florida Sea Grant, and the Florida Department of Transportation all provide funding to Zhong-Ren Peng.