HURRICANE IRMA

Storm tests local climate plans and wins sometimes

Adam Aton, E&E News reporter

Published: Wednesday, September 13, 2017

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Don’t call it a dry run, but Hurricane Irma gave Broward County a chance to see how its climate policies match up against the kind of storms it could expect more often in the future.

Officials in this coastal population center are starting to weave sea-level rise into more of the county’s planning and operations. Hardening infrastructure, implementing stronger building standards and identifying risky areas play a big role. They anticipate waters to rise by as much as 2 feet by 2060.

Until then, climate adaptation will look a lot like storm mitigation.

“That inherently builds some protection against regular storms — because you’re acknowledging that there’s going to be some future [flooding] conditions, but even today you’re providing some of that benefit,” said Samantha Danchuk, Broward County’s assistant director of environmental and resilience planning.

The county just finished beach replenishment around Fort Lauderdale, meaning Hurricane Irma washed away sand instead of, say, the surrounding roads.

This summer, the Broward Board of Commissioners started requiring new or mostly renovated buildings to plan their drainage systems according to future water level projections, rather than historical ones. That’s supposed to reduce flooding.

Along many beaches, the storm caused erosion back to the sea walls. But the county is in the middle of adding more dunes and helping cities design better sea walls.

It’s still too early to say how much those investments blunted Irma’s damage, if at all. This county of 1.9 million people probably owes more to the storm’s last-minute veer west than to anything else.

In Broward’s beachside city of Hollywood, most of the storm surge was limited to the barrier island, said Jaime Hernandez, the city’s emergency management coordinator.

Hernandez said the city is a long way from comparing Irma’s damage to places where the resilience policies are already in place. As he spoke to E&E News, Hernandez juggled another call about people stuck in an elevator.

Joel McElveen said he saw the 2-foot surge come over the barrier island from his condominium. The 62-year-old has lived in Florida long enough to remember Hurricanes Andrew, Charley and Wilma. He was younger back then, he said, but watching the surge come over Hollywood’s barrier island felt different.

“It’s straight out of [the Book of] Revelation,” he said.

Scientists caution against blaming any particular storm on climate change, although there’s consensus that warmer conditions make storms stronger.

Renee Rosen, 73, said she has seen enough hurricanes over nearly two decades in Florida to know they are getting stronger. “We know something’s changing,” she said. “They’ve never been like this before.”

Nevertheless, the local damage seemed limited to uprooted trees and downed utility lines. The shoreline’s buildings showed little signs of damage, although sand still covered the walkways and workers pressure-washed even more from the beachfront patios.

Broward’s rapid impact assessment showed some wind and water damage, but nothing too severe, Danchuk said. But the “perfect” confluence of factors around Irma — the way the eye hit the land, the way surge projections changed at the last moment, the hurricane’s broad impact, the full moon and its effect on the tides — mean this storm will greatly help South Florida plan for the next big one, she said.

The county is also modeling how rising sea levels will interact with surface water and groundwater to reshape flood risk. That’s going to produce an integrated flood map that will probably surpass anything from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Danchuk said.

Much of that planning will take place among the members of the Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact, a coalition of four counties that develops common climate projections and mitigation policies.

Still, the farther south you go, the more skeptically people view policies promising to turn back the tide.

Luis “Paco” Canseco owns homes in both Hollywood and South Beach, a neighborhood in the city of Miami Beach. He stood in line yesterday outside Home Depot to buy supplies for his Hollywood home, which suffered some light storm damage.

As for his apartment in South Beach, he just wants to sell it. He’s heard about plans to install berms nearby, but “it’s not going to happen, man,” he said.

“In 10, 20 years, South Beach is not going to exist.”