The impacts of large-scale disasters range from destroyed homes and businesses, to washed out causeways, to damaged wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, including exposed septic tanks and eroded drain fields. The message is clear: We need to bolster our resiliency efforts as we face an increasing number of powerful storms. Ominously, for every structure washed away or damaged in those storms, many more just like it now hang perilously close to a similar fate when the next storm, coupled with sea level rise, strikes Florida’s coast.
As we look to the natural world to safeguard not only our environment, but also our own health and well- being, Audubon calls for more comprehensive regional resiliency plans to upgrade outdated infrastructure, and a strategic approach as our state deals with inexorably rising sea levels. Often, right after a hurricane or other natural disaster, there is a need for speed to build back quickly. Permitting agencies do not want to stand in the way of people getting back to normal by quickly fixing their homes and businesses. In parallel, in the last two years Governor DeSantis and our legislature have focused on setting aside generous funding for local governments to complete vulnerability assessments and develop and implement plans and programs that build resilient communities. Together with funding for the state’s premier land buying program, Florida Forever, strategic land acquisitions have complemented this work.
One thing stands out starkly in videos and photographs of coastal communities nearly wiped out by our recent hurricanes. In the midst of all the wreckage, numerous homes and buildings remain virtually undamaged. These survivors were built on pilings well above storm surges after better building codes came into effect following Hurricane Andrew in 1994 and Hurricane Charley in 2004. Likewise, bridges across Florida bays built on pilings had little if any damage, while filled causeways washed away.
We can use the momentum of post-Ian recovery as well as this new source of funding to build back communities and natural landscapes with an eye toward future storms. Implementing hazard mitigation strategies, plus designing infrastructure to exceed current code requirements, ensures that the effects of severe weather events are woven into risk assessment studies. Importantly, we know that nature provides cost-effective solutions for minimizing coastal flooding, erosion, and runoff while providing critical habitat for Florida’s wildlife, as do man-made systems that mimic natural processes.
What Should We Do in the Future?
- On shorelines where structures are crumbling into the sea and expensive new seawalls or revetments are only a temporary fix, implement a new state program to allow insurance payments to be combined with state land purchase funds to buy out properties and allow the creation of parks and conservation areas.
- Require that temporary fixes for vulnerable buildings be coupled with long-term plans to rebuild completely to eliminate vulnerability, or eventually abandon and remove structures that won’t survive another storm.
- Further strengthen building codes to require all new or remodeled buildings to be elevated on pilings above storm surge levels in coastal areas.
- Inventory Florida’s coastal causeways and bridges to pinpoint vulnerabilities. Concentrate available state and federal transportation funds on replacing filled causeways with bridges. Recognize that replacing causeways with bridges will also have strong environmental benefits by improving water flow in our estuaries.
- Improve building codes for coastal homes in remote locations where sewer service is not available to prohibit septic tanks and require use of composting or incinerator toilet systems instead.
- Permit requirements for new coastal armoring should discourage or prohibit conventional seawalls and promote “living shoreline” systems that mimic the natural environment.
- Restore the extent and function of historic, drained wetlands throughout our watersheds, to absorb more water during times of flooding, clean more water before it reaches the coasts, and protect communities from the risk of wildfires during drought.
As we gear up for the 2023 Florida Legislative Session, we have the opportunity to build back better and to improve ordinances and codes so we do not make the same mistakes of the past. Building back exactly what existed before is a huge missed opportunity. Now, more than ever, there is a need for a regional planning component to ensure that projects that are funded through the state’s resiliency grants program are complementary and additive in nature and not creating unintended consequences. In addition, the Office of the State’s Chief Resiliency officer must be adequately staffed with technical expertise to meet the challenge at hand and to provide state-level guidance as we navigate the task of building a more resilient Florida.
Audubon will continue to work with regional resiliency collaboratives and meet with lawmakers and agency officials to forge a future that is better not only for Florida’s environment, but for its people too.