Oct 11, 2022 - Energy & Environment

What a rebuilt southwest Florida might look like

Illustration of a welcome mat at the edge of the ocean.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

If history is any guide, the areas devastated by Hurricane Ian will be rebuilt even bigger than before — but probably with storm-inspired improvements to local infrastructure and building codes.

Why it matters: Ravaged communities face increasingly tough decisions as climate change exacerbates natural disasters.

  • So far, they've largely opted for solutions that kick the can down the road, enabling people to stay in the places they love for perhaps a few more years or decades.

Where it stands: Big storms like Ian always prompt hand-wringing over migration and whether rebuilding makes sense.

  • In practice, storm- and fire-damaged cities and towns tend to repopulate quickly — and more densely than before. But there are signs that the conversation is shifting.

The latest terms in the debate include:

  • "Managed retreat," or the voluntary buyout of properties in vulnerable coastal areas. This increasingly-discussed practice is still largely considered taboo — in part because it tends to fall most heavily on low-income and minority populations.
  • Green vs. grey infrastructure: Opinion has tilted toward building up natural "green infrastructure" such as wetlands and mangroves vs. manmade "grey infrastructure" such as seawalls and levees (also known as "hard infrastructure").
  • Chief resilience officers: Cities and states are hiring "chief resilience officers" (in addition to chief heat officers) to start planning with future scenarios in mind — a process that's coming to be known as "precovery."
  • Hazard-resistant building codes: Cities and towns are embracing muscular building guidelines known as I-Codes (for International Codes), which are proving their mettle against severe winds, floods and seismic activity.
    • A landmark FEMA study found that I-Codes could forestall at least $3.2 billion a year in average annualized losses by 2040 — or $132 billion total.

What they're saying: "What we're seeing right now is a ton of new stuff being tried in pockets — experimentation with building codes, with elevation, with green/grey solutions," says Katharine Mach, a professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science.

  • "But one of the biggest limits right now is, we haven’t figured out just how effective all these things are."
  • A new report by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tried to take stock of every adaptation action globally, says Mach, a contributor.
  • But "the overwhelming finding is that there is a ton being tried, and we are making almost no effort to actually figure out how well it's working," she tells Axios. "And this is really important because the events are getting worse and worse."

Mach's work on managed retreat includes a study of more than 40,000 FEMA-funded voluntary buyouts of flood-prone properties — which tend to be concentrated in less-affluent areas, where people have fewer choices about where to go.

On the ground: Some Floridians told Axios Tampa Bay they were thinking of decamping the state permanently — that Hurricane Ian was the final straw.

  • On the other hand, there were places in Ian's path where "precovery" had clearly paid off — like Punta Gorda, which embraced modern building codes and escaped relatively unscathed, and Babcock Ranch, a solar-powered town where native landscaping helped control stormwater.
  • Green infrastructure is also gaining favor. Miami residents, for example, are growing "much more supportive about natural solutions like mangroves," which had been considered unsightly, said Rachel Rhode of the Environmental Defense Fund, who is based in St. Petersburg.

Generally speaking, communities that regularly get walloped are looking at a blend of improvements that will buy them time — either years or decades — of enjoyable waterfront living.

  • "If you're looking at cities like Miami Beach, they're not talking about managed retreat," said Laurian Farrell, regional director for North America at the Resilient Cities Network, a global nonprofit.
  • "They're talking about what tools are at their disposal to allow residents to stay and enjoy the city in a way that they've become used to."

The big picture: Our current incentives system doesn't sufficiently steer homeowners or municipal planners toward disaster-resistant policies, experts say.

  • While FEMA is updating the National Flood Insurance Program to a new risk standard and private insurers are raising rates in flood-prone areas, "insurance is not stopping development" in hazardous locations, Mach said. "If anything, it is subsidizing it."
  • Big disasters tend to get federal money flowing toward "grey infrastructure" projects, like the $31 billion "Ike Dike" being planned for coastal Texas.

Federal dollars are "perversely only available after a disaster," said Yuliya Panfil, director of the future of land and housing program at New America, a think tank.

  • "There still needs to be this large-scale coming-to-terms with the reality that incremental fixes aren't going to solve the issue," she tells Axios.
  • In a Politico article about the benefits of managed retreat, Panfil writes that places that are trying proactively to relocate — like Newtok, Alaska, and Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana — have struggled to raise the necessary funds.

The bottom line: Familiar names like Katrina, Sandy, Andrew and Charley have prodded us toward more enlightened and forward-thinking redevelopment, but there's still a long way to go.

  • "In terms of hurricane strike zones throughout the U.S., the houses that are built post-disaster are bigger than those in the first place," says Mach. "Literally, we're increasing our exposure in the aftermath of disaster."
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