DISCLOSING FLOOD RISK IN FLORIDA

This state with very high flood-risk is also a state that doesn’t require realtors to inform home buyers of their prospective home’s likelihood of flooding

One of my neighbors came by the other day, and leaned her very tanned arms across my gate. She bought a $6 million house down the street, and when she dropped her Gucci sunglasses to her nose, I could see the look of concern. With a sigh, she asked: Did I know where to buy sandbags? She’d just finished rearranging the garage, taking items out of the standing water and putting them up on new metal shelves. But she worried that the tennis rackets and gardening gloves were not going to be high enough to stay dry.

It’s not polite to ask: did you know the elevation of your house before you bought it? Because the answer is frequently “no, nobody told me!”.

In fact, there’s little that can be discussed freely about flood risk in Florida these days without getting a black eye. Some folks think your words might reduce their property value, when all you want to do is be, well, interested in a neighborly way. On a podcast this morning, I heard people from Wyoming arguing about wind turbines. A former Mayor got chased out of town for issuing permits for turbines in the view-scape of the big ranches. The town needed the revenue, he claimed, then added: “Some people love wind power, and some people love coal, and there’s just no truce in sight.”

We feel that here sometimes in coastal Florida. Some of us see the water rising, and some of us don’t — and they don’t want the higher sea wall in the view-scape, either.

Discussion of national issues here follows the divisions seen on TV, since so many of us have been glued to the news channels since lock-down began. First, there was the Covid Relief Bill, a reflection of where you stood on the income inequality continuum. Then came the Gun Control Bill, which has become a statement of how much you want to shoot someone, for some, or for others, how you feel about Home Rule (“you’re not the boss of me!”). Florida may be full of New Yorkers now, but we are still the South.

When the Climate Policy Bill comes up, I fear for our lives: somewhere on the arc from climate denier to climate activist, there’s climate disdainer, climate solutions naysayer, climate rage-monger, flat-earther, extinction rebel, oath keeper. Everyone is mad — and worse, many are now armed.

I experience that polarization every day, working in the resilience industry, a small but growing sector of the business community that markets products and services to protect homes from flooding. Home elevations, flood barriers and gates, flood insurance guidance, flood risk consulting are all offered as climate adaptation strategies for savvy homeowners.

Municipal leaders support us because they see King Tide waters rising up through the storm drains higher each year, they get the irate phone calls from residents. They want us to help hold back the tide, they pray an extreme rain event won’t coincide with a King Tide. But that’s what happened last fall in our town, and photographs of flooded streets all over the county were a wake-up call.

The problem is that here in South Florida, many residents did not directly experience last year’s King Tides, or those of the years before, increasingly magnified due to extreme rainfall plus nearby hurricanes plus the need for drainage improvements. Many Florida residents are not here in the fall — our snowbirds plus the northern quarantine-ers last year missed the dramatic show. In a recent panel presentation here, the fall flooding came up, and a member of the audience accused the speaker of “fake news”. They claimed he was doctoring the photos and exaggerating the problem.

Let me assure everyone: he was not exaggerating. Check out any science-based article about South Florida and flood risk in the last year, you’ll find plenty of evidence of increased flooding. Some of the old-timers say pshaw, what’s a few inches of water?

One of our Emergency Managers warned that every inch of water that gets into your house could cost thousands of dollars, depending on what you have on the floor. A family heirloom carpet, perhaps, or tiles that cost plenty to install — and when the water gets up to the electrical sockets, guess how much that will cost to fix.

New homeowners are mad, because they think they’ve been had.

“Florida has no statutory or regulatory requirements for a seller to disclose a property’s flood risks or past flood damages to a potential buyer. Florida home buyers are greatly disadvantaged when it comes to learning of a home’s past flood history or potential for future flooding.”

That’s from a recent NRDC report on flood disclosure. If you’re shocked that one of the most flood-prone states in a hurricane zone has no flood disclosure requirements, and prospective homebuyers are regularly hoodwinked, note that flood-prone Virginia, Georgia and others are in the same boat.

“Too many homeowners learn of their property’s propensity to flood only after suffering through multiple disasters”, wrote the NRDC reporter. “You may think you’ll be told if the home you’re buying has been underwater before, but that is not guaranteed.”

Newcomers to Florida during the Covid migration have been hard hit. According to US Postal Service data, last year 2,246 people filed a permanent address change from Manhattan to Miami-Dade County and 1,741 went to Palm Beach County. Together they account for 9% of the out-of-state moves from Manhattan.

You’d think the “ultra-wealthy” would do their due diligence, research the area and learn that the high water in their street could cause undercarriage damage from salt water to their cars. They might have inquired and learned that the automatic flood gate on the home they’re buying is not just a neat contraption, that it activates dozens of times a year. How about the mold that requires constant vigilance — that’s always a sign of water trouble.

Word on the street is that the allure of moving to Florida is starting to fizzle. Homes that were purchased for millions more than their asking prices have started to come back on the market. “The main problem with moving to Florida is that you have to live in Florida,” said one money manager, recently arrived, now departing. He might have been talking about the Florida Man thing, but the flooding doesn’t help.

This Florida home which sold last year during the Covid migration is back on the market — in spite of the water that’s been percolating up through the lawn and across the patio.

It is said some of them bought their houses sight unseen, with a realtor walking through the house talking with them on FaceTime. It was the height of Covid and they were desperate for a bed far from New York, even a multi-million-dollar bed. Buyer beware: mold is hard to smell on FaceTime.

A nearby town, also wrestling with this dilemma, conducted a survey of residents. They found that more than half had experienced standing water on the road in front of their house. 27% experienced flooding in their garage. 16% had flooding in the house, and needed to call a professional water damage clean-up service.

In spite of the mounting evidence, there’s little chance that disclosure rules are coming to Florida anytime soon. The real estate business lobby is too powerful at the State House in Tallahassee. The taxes from real estate transactions are a considerable part of the State budget. The best bit of progress we heard was a new ordinance in Broward County that requires a realtor to tell a prospective homebuyer if there is a nearby sea wall that needs to be repaired or replaced.

What’s worse, local realtors there weren’t even disclosing that the water coming into the home might be tainted with sewage. Ft Lauderdale suffered dozens of sewage breaks last year, and the murky water was up to your ankles in some neighborhoods. No disclosure was required on that.

“Residents were forced to step in sludge outside their homes, while city workers played an exhausting game of whack-a-mole,” reported the local paper, the Sun-Sentinel, “trying to keep up with the leaks in a series of sewage crises that state officials called unprecedented.”

That’s a compound fracture. Infrastructure decrepitude plus high water around South Florida equals a looming disaster. The problem is large and the funding to face it is small — and the gap is growing.

Local governments here are realizing the enormity of the problem, just at the moment when their coffers are low, due to the loss of sale taxes and high expenses during Covid. They don’t have the funding to pay for drainage improvements, street raises, building lifts, permeable sidewalks, new sea walls, absorbent infrastructure, all the elements of a town protecting its residents from flooding.

At a recent coastal communities meeting, I asked the head of Public Works of a nearby town when he planned to start raising the streets, and he barked back at me: “The streets go up last!”

Everybody wants to go up last!

If you’re a homeowner, you want your town to get moving, clearing drains and raising streets. If you’re a local government leader, you want the homeowners to get going on their elevations and floodproofing — even though Federal and State incentives for this are still in the future.

If you are someone trying to sell a house, you want everyone to be quiet — shhhhhh! Otherwise, you’ll be hearing the sound of ka-ching ka-ching in reverse, which is a low nauseating gargle.

The most common question we hear: how long can I hold onto my house before the flooding gets bad and the prices tank? People want to deny the problem until the last minute, then sell at the top of the market. I remind them it’s likely to be a slow fall down into the wet place — the best strategy is to elevate your house. Get above the rising waters, your house will maintain its price for generations to come, and no one will have to cough politely when asked “Does it flood around here?”

A glimmer of good news: the STORM Act (“Safeguarding Tomorrow Through Ongoing Risk Mitigation”) passed earlier this year, promising federal support for homes at risk of flooding. A new resilience tax break is also being considered in Tallahassee for people who will elevate and floodproof their homes.

Meanwhile, if the realtor who’s showing you a new house seems like they’re not telling you something, then get on floodfactor.com. Type in the address and find out the flood risk for the home you’re considering, as well as the whole neighborhood — and what you can do about it. If you love the home, buy it and do a “resilient renovation”, which includes elevation, storm windows and doors, a roof retrofit and floodproofing. It’s a small price to pay to live in paradise for decades to come.

Even with a little extra water, plenty of us believe Florida is still paradise. Our local school’s enrollment is up 22% in the last year, and there’s a new young crowd in the neighborhood, tricycles and puppies, northerners enjoying our beautiful sun-drenched life-style. Sylvester Stallone just moved into our county, Jon Bon Jovi and Rod Stewart are here. Houses are starting to get elevated, and soon, the haters will be outnumbered by the elevators.

As for disclosure, well, when the low homes are all lifted and the streets have been raised, there won’t be much flood risk to conceal. Realtors and home sellers and buyers can relax, there won’t be anything to worry about at the Open House, besides maybe… is there enough wine?

When the new FEMA flood maps come out later this year, many South Florida houses will need to be elevated — which can be good news for the safety, longevity and beauty of the home.

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