Coastal Cities Summit: Sea level rise is no longer a matter of if, but when
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05/04/12 Liz McKibbon
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Cities on coastlines face unique challenges including flooding enhanced by rising sea levels. At the Bayfront Hilton in St. Petersburg this week people attending the 2012 Coastal Cities Summit warned about the consequences ignoring the threats to towns along the coast.

Of the estimated 60 guests in attendance, roughly half were local and half were representing for-profit companies. There were also a handful of non-profit, non-local government and international guests. Joseph Gunset is general counsel for Lloyd’s America, a global insurance company. He says last year was an “eye-popping” year for natural disasters.

”The Thai floods, $2.2 billion US; Japan earthquake, $1.95 billion US; New Zealand, $1.4 billion US; Australia, $300 million; US tornadoes, $600 million. The total of those is 5 is $6.45 billion and the way I did the math more than 50% would be storm related, certainly encouraged by, if not caused by global warming or climate change."

Gunset says 2011 can’t simply be written off as an intense year for natural catastrophes.

”Each year has shown an increase in natural catastrophes. Whether or not you want to believe this is directly tied to climate change, and I think the time has passed for “if” questions, the only responsible course of action for someone in the business of writing insurance is to start planning for this increased trend of higher and higher risk.”

PlaNYC is an initiative started in 2007 to combat climate change and improve quality of life for New York residents. Leah Cohen is with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning. Cohen says the city was reminded of its climate vulnerability last year, during tropical storm Irene, prompting the first ever evacuation of Manhattan. She joined the summit via Skype.

”So just to set the context a little bit, as a city with more than 520 miles of coast line, New York City already faces significant climate risks. We have over 200,000 people living in our current FEMA 100 year flood plane. This area accounts for over 200,000 jobs in the city, these areas also contain vibrant neighborhoods, natural areas and a lot of our critical infrastructure. Ten of the city’s 14 power plants are located within the 100 year flood plain, and all of our waste water treatment plants are located along the waterfront.”

FEMA’s 100 year flood plain means there is a 1% chance of that area flooding each year. The group has begun putting together a flood rate insurance map by estimating each neighborhood’s level of risk. Cohen says they have not been able to factor in projected sea level rise, but instead have to rely on historical data and topography of the land. At that comment, Cheryl Johnson, a consultant from FEMA responded.

”So I just wanted to let people know that you can put future conditions on the maps as an optional layer, but right now the problem is the funding. It was something the community or the county would have to help FEMA fund to study.”

Florida has adopted a program called the Community Resiliency Initiative. State regulations were amended in 2011 to acknowledge the potential impact of sea level rise and flooding on coastal areas. Julie Dennis is with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity which advocated on behalf of the changes. She says they are taking a proactive approach to future development, rather than reactive.

”It would make sense that we would begin as planners to take a no regards approach to this if we think this is something that’s going to happen. And look at the ways that what we currently do, could be augmented to address sea level rise as well. So, when we’re planning—there again—for our natural environments, for our built environments and our structures, and as well as our economy, it makes sense that we would begin to take these things into consideration.”

Another group at the summit considered the possibility of a local climate disaster scenario.

[Audio from video of simulation. "Because we are now looking at who has to get out first, and we are going to be looking at an incredibly large storm surge, anywhere from about 10 to 20 feet or possibly more if this does make landfall as a category 5 hurricane”]

Project Phoenix was created to simulate impact on nine counties in the Tampa area. The data was then used to draft a catastrophe plan of action. Brady Smith is senior planner with Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. Smith says the group gathered data and used HAZUS, a loss estimation software from FEMA.

”In structural-building related losses, which is structure, contents, inventory and business interruption, this is a $233 billion storm. We’re talking about a very high intensity hurricane, hitting a very populated area, very developed urbanized area. This would be a historic storm, no doubt, were we to have an event like this.”

In the event of a natural disaster private companies typically can’t cover all of the damages, so public subsidies, like a federal insurance fund, are often needed. Many of the panelists support a risk-based pay system instead of federal assistance. People living in the highest areas of risk would pay the highest price for insurance. Gary Appelson is policy coordinator for the Sea Turtle Conservancy. He criticizes developers on the St. Joseph’s Peninsula in Florida’s Panhandle.

”This is in a Coastal Barrier Resources Act unit, so none of these people can get federal flood insurance or any kind of federal disaster relief if there is a storm event. Notice the blue arrow where the condos are, that was built in 2004--an Atlanta developer. This is a close-up. Now if you can see, the condos right there in the foreground are actually seaward of the seawall. I mean goodness gracious. That’s not only nonsensical by itself, this is the highest eroding beach in the state of Florida.”

Appelson says these developers had to postpone construction due to the level of erosion in the area. Even so, they managed to navigate around the policies, and taxpayers could end up footing the bill.

“So what the county did first is they passed a local law exempting their county from the 30 year erosion projection set back. Now the county has hired a Washington DC lobbying firm to lobby the federal government to take it out of the Coastal Barrier Resources system, so these people—these property owners can get federal flood insurance and disaster relief if they get washed away. That’s the power of subsidies.”

Many of the speakers see the future solutions as a combination of policy and people changing their habits. The three-day Coastal Cities Summit concluded Thursday.

Tampa Bay ahead of curve with coordinated disaster prep study

2008 Coastal Cities Summit

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