Calculating the Risk of Rising Seas

At last, we have arrived at the week of the Inauguration. After months of nail-biting uncertainty, we hope soon we can return to some semblance of democracy fairly and safely. Now we ask: which items on the current List of American Anxieties worry you the most in 2021 — which make you wonder if we’re going to make it through the year without too much more agony? The pandemic, or political polarization? How about racial injustice, or terrorism? If you were a risk analyst, you’d have a field day trying to calculate which of these still might go terribly wrong.

Here’s one: do you worry about the fact that foreign agents hacked into our most secret computers to plant seeds for a future invasion of our infrastructure? I didn’t think so, not too many people did. How about this: would you worry if you learned that our government was completely unprepared for that possibility? OK, now that really has my risk-o-meter spinning.

“If anything, this hack is a prime example of what happens when your risk calculus is skewed towards preparing for wars of the past instead of fights of the future,” said a Defense Department spokesperson.

Well, there you have it — that statement took me right to my next highest anxiety: climate change. I recently learned something astonishing, that the new FEMA flood insurance maps currently causing a big stir down here in Florida are already out of date.

That’s right: the data that FEMA flood maps illustrate only represent past flooding events, not future flood potential. Sea level rise, nope, not in the equation. Stronger storms, King Tides, more extreme rain in the future? Sadly, they are underrepresented in the formula too, according to flood risk experts. FEMA, the guardian of our shores when water rises, is calculating risk based on data that is at least five years old — while with each passing year, hurricanes are becoming more destructive, King Tides are higher and last longer, and in many places, extreme rainfall is more frequent.

Here in Palm Beach County, tens of thousands of homes at high risk of flooding are not even noted on the FEMA maps or protected from future flood events by a Special Flood Hazard Area designation. The majority of those homeowners don’t even have flood insurance.

The scientists at Flood Factor published this head-scratcher last summer. Their geospatial mapping team counted 107,000 Palm Beach County homes at risk of flooding, compared to FEMA’s own count: 29,857 at-risk homes, county-wide.

If this is going to be another instance of our lack of preparation for a high-risk threat, let’s get ahead of that right now. It’s already giving me nightmares, and hurricane season is still four months away.

Last night, I dreamt of a quaint row of historic homes in Jupiter, Florida, homes we know need to be elevated before the next named storm hits. We scouted this street last month, the houses are charming, and the residents relatively unconcerned. In my nightmare though, their walls were soggy with high water, even on a sunny day, with clothes, toys and old photos floating out the windows and doors.

In a jumble of images from the same dream, I saw the PowerPoint presentation I have to give to a neighboring City Council. I had been warned that six out of seven Councilmembers were climate deniers — but I was invited to present to them, and talk them through their soaring flood risk. Yet in my dream, the Councilmembers are smirking while checking their texts and email on their phones. Lost in the funhouse of climate policy making, with the reverb setting on their guffaws at eleven.

I saw in that dream my friend who lives in Miami, standing ankle deep in a puddle in front of her house, telling me that to her, a home elevation is like a tooth extraction — her jaw may be throbbing, but she’ll only pull out the infected tooth when she absolutely has to. I tell her that margin of time between “has to” and lower jaw amputation is similar to the sliver of time between “that’s just a puddle” and “NO ONE WILL BUY MY HOUSE!”

I know the water will be up to her windowsill when the next King Tide hits. But how to explain that when the FEMA flood map for her street, fresh off the presses, says everything is A-OK.

It’s hard to communicate the calculus of risk when so many threats crowd the windshield. The “Russian hack”, as it is now known, is four or five items down on the list of concerns most people are fretting about. It happened months ago and we’re still alive, the AC is still running, so we’re good. Then there’s the attack on the Capitol, with fatalities and so much outrage, and the pandemic seems to be spiraling out of control, again, and then there’s our failing economy, producing so much misery. Where is climate change in all that? It is one of the new Administration’s four priority pillars, but in the latest Gallup Poll of Topics, it’s down near the bottom.

Swamped by this dizzying cascade of concerns, climate change will surely have to fight for attention. Will we have to rely on more heroic outbursts from Climate-Strikers and Valve-Turners to rivet our attention, or can the risk calculators help us elevate this issue in the public consciousness?

If you calculate risk by potential property damage in the trillions of dollars, in combination with potential loss of life and injury in the future, sea level rise should quickly move up the cascade of concerns. To that, we can add lost property tax revenue due to homes being abandoned, and people moving away when local governments can’t protect their homes from flooding.

This is not just nostalgia for beach communities of yore, rising seas are slamming our built environments and our natural areas in myriad other harmful ways. Explosive sewage breaks shock us, as do toxic water supplies with “Boil-Only Notices”. Salt water penetrates our fresh-water marshes and estuaries, blue-green algae blooms cause fish kills, and red tide on the Gulf coast kills other marine creatures — even manatees and sea turtles. The water’s warmer, the seas are higher, what did we expect?

The rising water gets into our streets through King Tides and storm surges, and when you top it off with hundred-year extreme rain events which seem to come once or twice a year now, and we’re back in our galoshes.

You know your neighborhood is in trouble when you can count more than three ServPro flood-rescue trucks parked on your block. And mold — I can smell the houses that need elevation and flood proofing from a block away. A Florida city lost the warranty on their police car fleet due to repeated undercarriage damage from salt water. It was a wake-up call, but few heard it.

Palm Beach County has been fairly progressive and recently received state funding to develop a “plan” and an “assessment”. That’s something, but is it enough? Some residents here believe the time for abstract planning is past. Haven’t we taken enough measurements? Skip the caliper, just give us a bulldozer.

Sample FEMA FMA flood map, 2021 “preliminary”, Palm Beach County, FL

Our risk calculators are also getting good with timeline forecasting. Turns out we can expect approximately fifty more years of sea level rise AFTER the cessation of carbon emissions. No question we must reduce our carbon emissions immediately, but we can’t take our eyes off the hard adaptation work ahead.

The first step is to calculate your own risk. If you live near a Florida coast, you’ll probably find that your home, likely your families’ most valuable asset, is vulnerable. Just go to Flood Factor and type in your address, you can see how wet your house will be, and your neighbors’ too. But there’s good news: the cost of protecting your home is far outweighed by the benefits.

You’re still going to need those galoshes — as a style accessory, no question those are here to stay. My risk calculator says if I keep my eyes forward, and my feet dry, I can learn to calculate my risks with care and get through this safely. And if I decide to elevate my house, my grandkids will enjoy our gorgeous Florida sunsets for decades to come. Knowledge is power, and knowing your risk is a superpower your whole family can enjoy.

The author works for Resilient Enterprise Solutions in West Palm Beach, FL

Carpenter works for Resilient Enterprise Solutions in West Palm Beach, Florida.