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Daily Floods, Disappearing Beaches: Projections Show Miami's Worst-Case Climate Scenario Isn't Far Off

Americans looking for a sunny, low-tax environment have flocked to Florida in droves — roughly 1 million people have moved to the state since the start of the pandemic. For the masses for whom 2023 is their first summer in the state, the 100-degree ocean temperatures, skyrocketing property insurance costs and historic flash floods present a stark reminder that their new home state is the nation's most vulnerable to climate change.

Powerful hurricanes and extreme heat present near-term challenges, but South Florida faces a greater long-term threat from rising sea levels that threaten to leave much of Miami-Dade, the state's most-populous county, inundated and underwater.

“I think we're right at the point where anybody buying a house now and expecting to get 30 years out of it, especially in the lower areas and the oceanfront condos, are going to be in for a horrible shock,” said Harold Wanless, a geologist and professor at the University of Miami.

The height of storm surges in Florida will increase by as much as 70% by 2100, and $3.5T in assets will face risk from storm surge in the next 50 years.

Miami’s risk of damage from coastal flooding and storms is among the highest in the world, and climate change is only increasing the threat. Developers are adapting — in part because of runaway insurance costs — with strategies like building ground floors higher off the ground, but the solutions offer only near-term relief. While new construction is built to withstand today’s risk of storm surge and wind, experts say there are few options to mitigate against rising sea levels that threaten to consume entire neighborhoods.

The risk of damage from hurricanes isn't a new development in Miami. More than $400B in assets were at risk even in 2005, according to an analysis in the journal Climate Change. The Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach region is among the metro areas most at risk of damage to residential properties from hurricane storm surge and wind, according to the Insurance Information Institute

More than 31,000 multifamily properties in the region face storm surge risk, with a reconstruction cost of nearly $10B. When it comes to wind damage, the region has nearly 65,000 multifamily properties at risk, with a replacement cost of $22B.   

“Florida has always been considered the highest-risk state when it comes to hurricane losses, because Florida historically has had more hurricane direct hits than any other state,” said Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications at the Insurance Information Institute. “Last year, we had Hurricane Ian, which, according to our analysis here at the institute, will be the second-largest insured loss event in U.S. history, a $60B loss, second only to Hurricane Katrina.” 

The claims from Ian and risk of strong storms are among the factors that have led to an explosion in insurance costs in the state. While commercial insurance coverage prices increased 9.4% last year across the country, Florida saw average increases of 30% to 50%, Friedlander said. 

While the rising rates have led some developers to postpone or cancel projects, Florida has continued to see a wave of new development and migration from other states, including to the parts of the state that were hit the hardest by Hurricane Ian. 

Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Cape Coral and was devastated by the hurricane in September, added 66,000 residents in the last two years, a 65% increase from the prior two years, according to a Redfin analysis

While the hurricane led to 900 fewer home listings in the area in the two months after the storm, the market quickly bounced back and saw 1,314 more listings than projected by Redfin in the six months that followed. 

“People say, ‘Florida, great growth, but what happens when your next big storm [hits]?’” said Doug Faron, managing partner at Palm Beach-based developer Shoreham Capital. “Well, Ian is a great example. Category 5, sat there for hours, created extreme damage, and then we had a moment where people reset and we're still off to the races in terms of growth in the state.”

Last August, a month before Hurricane Ian struck, Shoreham partnered with Bridge Investment Group and Wynkoop Financial to acquire a 26-acre site for $120M in Cape Coral. The parcel is inland and outside of any flood zone, and the wind from the storm "just flew over our site," Faron said. 

Shoreham is moving ahead on a 412-unit rental community called Siesta Lakes at the property, with the wave of new residents arriving in the region only increasing demand in a chronically undersupplied market. 

Faron said his firm was focused on building “brand-new, best technology, super-resilient” projects in Florida, using concrete block for its multifamily properties and building them in places that are less threatened by flooding. 


'We're Not Going To Have Any Beaches'

While efforts to mitigate damage from hurricanes will help in the near term — and inland projects like Siesta Lakes have added protection — the rising and warming oceans promise to further increase the risk and create new challenges that strong building standards won’t be enough to address. 

Sea levels along the U.S. coastline are expected to rise an average of 10 to 12 inches within the next 17 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, causing moderate flooding to occur 10 times more often than it does today. By the end of the century, the ocean could rise anywhere from 2 feet to 7 feet, exacerbating already-dire conditions.

“The real risk is sea level rise, and that's not something for the next century; that's something that we could have another 2 feet within the next decade or so,” Wanless said. “That's rather dramatic because it means that the areas that might be flooding a little bit during the big king tides now will be flooding daily within a decade or so.” 

With the combination of rising seas and a warming ocean that will fuel stronger storms, the height of storm surges in Florida is expected to increase by as much as 70% by 2100, with even the most conservative projections forecasting a 25% increase. In Miami, the $400B worth of assets at risk as of 2005 will grow to $3.5T within 50 years.

The rising tides are likely to remake the South Florida coastline, consuming barrier islands and flooding even inland areas that are only a few feet above the current water line. Because of the region’s geography, mitigation efforts won’t be enough to keep the water out, experts said.

“If we have 4 feet of sea level rise or 5 feet of sea level rise within the next 50 years, we're not going to have any beaches,” Wanless said. “They haven't had time to re-form, or if they have, they're going to be five blocks inland or something like that. We're not really looking squarely at the reality we're headed into.” 

Preparing for the rising waters will be more about adaptation than mitigation, experts said, because much of South Florida is only a few feet above sea level, and the region’s porous geography means that things like seawalls and levees are less effective. 

“We need to learn better to live with it, which means that we need to adopt some really important policies sooner than later,” said John Renne, the director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University. “So that way in 20, 30, 40, 50 years, that development can live with water in a very different way. Because we just won't be able to keep it out.”


'As Resilient As We Can'

Near-term solutions are available to mitigate the most immediate threats by building ground floors higher above sea level, adding infrastructure redundancy for utilities and avoiding underground construction, Renne said. 

That’s what Integra Investments and Related Group are doing at the St. Regis Residences Miami, a 46-story luxury condo tower the development firms are building in Brickell, an upscale neighborhood that already sees frequent flooding. 

The property is along Biscayne Bay, and to avoid the worst effects of storm surge and flooding, the developers chose to raise the elevation of the first-floor lobbies and common areas well above ground level and opted to build an above-ground garage. 

“From a climate perspective, we’re building something that is as resilient as we can,” said Nelson Stabile, a principal at Integra Investments. 

Designing sustainable properties benefits developers across all parts of the development process, Stabile and Faron said. 

Institutional investors and lenders are increasingly interested in resiliency when determining where to place capital, and in some cases, they offer incentives for sustainable infrastructure. Once a project is built, the features become selling points for homebuyers who might be concerned about the impact of a hurricane.

Storm resiliency “is a focus, especially for folks who come from outside [the state], and being able to explain the characteristics of the building envelope, the roofs, the window systems, the backup power and all of that good stuff is usually important and a good topic of conversation that we equip our sales staff that deals directly with the buyers to be ready to answer,” Stabile said.

But creating solutions for long-term threats will require governments, developers and residents to rethink how they build and re-examine the environment around them. Part of the approach could involve creating parks and other green spaces in densely populated areas that can serve as reservoirs for floodwater during storms. 

“We have to look not just at the building scale; we have to look at the whole neighborhood scale,” Renne said.

Local officials and developers create resiliency plans for “the blocks and the groupings of blocks so we can build protection for these communities to make the water go to the places where we want the water to go.”

Creating local programs that will help mitigate the effects of hurricanes and rising seas could see broad support in the region. 

In a 2021 survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 78% of Miami-Dade residents said that global warming was happening, 6 percentage points higher than the U.S. average. More than 65% of residents said that corporations, local officials and the governor should “do more to address global warming.” 

Only 60% of respondents said that they expected global warming to harm them personally, however. But as the problems compound and the waters rise in the coming decades, the region will face a new reality that will test residents’ willingness to live in an area that is increasingly submerged.

“If people can't drive to the store for long periods of time, if you can't get safely to your house because of flooded streets and so on, it becomes a less and less desirable place to live,” Wanless said. “There will come a point where people just say, ‘Forget it, I'm going somewhere else.’”