Hurricane barriers will be easier talked about than designed and paid for. But most engineers and land planners agree societal costs will be much higher if we don’t engage in building physical barriers where possible in vulnerable coastal areas.
The same fate applies if we don’t take strong action to protect wetlands in and near those metro areas. The problems of rising sea levels are already upon us and will inevitably worsen as a warming climate continues.
Sea levels don’t rise at even rates around the globe. I touched upon some of these complexities in a recent article. A basic dilemma we are dealing with globally is the speed of the worsening spinoffs from global climate change. The resistance to slowing or stopping those trends in the face of factors such as the great longevity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means there is no quick fix to slow, let alone stop, that warming.
To be sure, I’m not suggesting we throw up our hands at dealing with slowing the warming, most of which humanity is responsible for unleashing. However, there are limits to what we can do about about the warming in the next couple of decades.
Most of you have read about what made the extreme severity of flooding unprecedented in southeast Texas.The most glaring example of poor planning in our recent history is in the Houston metro area. The vast urban sprawl and paving over of formerly protective, absorptive wetlands led to much of the extreme nature of the tragedy which occurred there.
One mitigating element which may afford some improvement in drainage would be the replacement of impervious pavement with pervious pavement, which allows some percolation of drainage into the soil below.
Even with this more beneficial material, though, come many limitations. It is not recommended for use near wells, or within 4 feet of bedrock underneath. It is recommended for low human-traffic areas and away from snow and ice-prone regions where plowing and treatment can destroy the permeability of the material.
Wetlands were once viewed as not much more than impediments to development. Many people, not just developers, were mystified why we would block tax-producing development by protecting these flat, marshy regions. We now have grown more aware of how vital their preservation really is, in not only protecting wildlife diversity, but in preserving better drainage to protect property and human life.
As an example, the sometimes pungent, marshy Meadowlands of northeast New Jersey, butt of many comedians’ jokes in the New York area, are now recognized as an important wildlife preserve and drainage facilitator for the New York area in event of tidal flooding and storm surge, as was the case with Sandy.
In many parts of the country, wetlands which were about to go by the wayside not that long ago are now protected by law, both federal and state.
The rising sea levels are already resulting in more frequent tidal flooding in the Miami area, even without the addition of tropical cyclones. This often occurs even on bright, sunny days. Many climate/sea level rise models put a large portion of the Miami metro area under water by the 21st century. The current sea level rises which have already occurred have brought the predicted flooding problems to the public’s attention.
The Florida governor seems to have been a skeptic to the warming climate prior to the extremes presented during Irma. I admit curiosity as to whether his views which have been riddled with a lack of scientific understanding were altered by reality in the last week.
Sea walls, levees and new drainage conduits are being investigated by many more coastal cities and local governments. At the least, these expensive projects can give some breathing room to our major population centers here and globally until we eventually begin to get a handle on anthropogenic/human activity-caused warming in a few decades.(The Netherlands are far in advance of the U.S. in such engineering, as you might guess, out of necessity. Their engineers have much to offer us.)
Again, these projects are expensive, but they are much less expensive than letting nature take its course with no new protections against inevitable continued sea level rises from freshwater ice melt and the expansion of water volume due to warmer oceans. The New York-New Jersey region is looking at several options, some of which are truly frightening in costs and impact, and some of which would still be useful compromises.
It often takes a true disaster to kick political leaders and planners into high gear. The smaller but more powerful Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992 led many counties in Florida to design new building codes.
The new codes added some costs to building, but have brought much greater protection to property owners. These counties went from having the flimsiest building codes in the nation to having the best. (i.e., roof staples instead of nails, particle board instead of wood, statewide minimums of buildings having to withstand winds of 111 miles per hour and 130 miles per hour winds in more peak hurricane force wind prone counties such as Miami-Dade, no unmoored mobile homes. Some of Florida’s landmark building codes are now being examined by coastal zones such at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.).
Anecdote: My closest cousin who lives in an inland section of Palm Beach County has a house built 12 years ago, with the new code. That location suffered hours of gusts exceeding 80 to 90 miles per hour or more. The house had a couple of window screens damaged, and numerous palm fronds came down, but it was intact and nearly unscathed.
How the nation, the states, local governments and insurance companies are going to be paying for the immediate crises brought on by Harvey and Irma involves a confluence of emergency restoration of power and water along with property damage and loss never before experienced by the United States with, to scale, even worse destruction in the Caribbean.
Some of our national impacts may involve drastically needed infrastructure investments which might bring new employment and growth opportunities down the road, especially if multidisciplinary experts are brought into the mix. Architecture, engineering, soil science, meteorology, hydrology, climate science, insurance planners, urban planners—and others I haven’t thought of—need to be brought into the mix.
If we are going to tackle these gargantuan tasks, we’ve got to make more of an effort to plan right than we’ve shown in our past.
*More from Don Paul: