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Superstorm Sandy Delivers Wake-Up Call for Low-Lying Florida

Dozens of cities in Florida would be flooded with a 3- to 7-foot rise in sea level—substantially lower than Hurricane Sandy's 9-foot storm surge in NYC.

Nov 5, 2012
(Page 2 of 2 )
Map of Tampa, Fla. if sea levels rose by 5 feet.

Jennifer Jurado, director of the Natural Resources Planning and Management Division in Broward County, said concerns about water supply prompted the county to create a climate change task force in 2008.

Some wells are already contaminated, she said, so the county is considering restricting pumping rates to slow the contamination, or moving the wellfields further inland. The wells with the highest quality drinking water are located along the coast, so they'll be hit first by rising sea levels.

Broward County is home to 1.8 million residents and the city of Fort Lauderdale. Many areas are only three or four feet above sea level, Jurado said, and they're often flooded during seasonal high tides in the spring and fall. "You can see water seeping [in] from near the sea wall, and you can hear it rushing through the drainage infrastructure."

Fort Lauderdale under a 4-foot rise in sea level. Credit: Architecture 2030

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels rose more than eight inches along Florida's coast between 1913 and 2006. The change hasn't gone unnoticed by longtime residents in coastal communities. Jurado hears many anecdotes of how the intensity of seasonal flooding is "more than what it's been historically…the water doesn't stop at the driveway. Now it goes up to the garage door."

She has seen photos of residents canoeing down the street or swimming in their driveways. "You're not just talking about two inches of water," she said. "You're talking about water [flooding] multi-lane roads, water reaching porches."

The county's climate change task force is still in the planning phase. It's modeling the effects of sea level rise and precipitation on ground and surface water systems. Jurado said the results of that study—which is expected to take another two years—will drive the county's long-term planning decisions.

Potential solutions include installing more pumps or raising sea walls. Sand dunes are also important, she said, because Hurricane Sandy showed that the beaches protected by sand dunes suffered much less erosion than those without dunes.

The costs for Broward County will be extremely high—a single pump can cost $70 million. And Jurado said the county will have to discuss difficult issues like potential restrictions for growth and development.

Broward County is also part of a regional climate change compact that seeks to coordinate mitigation measures across four southeastern counties.

Berry, the climate expert, said that while the local efforts are "encouraging," they are "becoming even more urgent" after Hurricane Sandy.

"I think local level action is where it should be at," he said. "But it needs to be built into state and national levels as well. Because as we've learned [from Hurricane Sandy], states can't do it all."

Jurado said she's increasingly aware of how climate change is impacting her county. After heavy rains or extreme high tides, she and her colleagues often tour affected neighborhoods to assess the damage caused by flooding.

"I think it's important to have that personal experience rather than just reading about it or seeing snapshots," she said. "You can see what the vulnerabilities are today. They're there. They're not going to diminish with time."

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