July 28, 2014

Special Report: Sea Level Rise and Florida

Impact: Building and Infrastructure

Lilly Rockwell | 7/8/2013

Hot Spot: Punta Gorda
Code Wet

After Category 4 Hurricane Charley ripped through Punta Gorda in 2004, city officials resolved to rebuild with an eye toward how climate change might impact weather and storms in the future. Tide gauges at Fort Myers show the highest average monthly sea level has risen by nearly four inches since 1966, the first full year the gauge was in operation.

The city of 16,000 residents examined its zoning practices, purchased some flood-prone properties and converted them into parks. The goal is to eventually move chunks of the city east and inland, leaving only the historic downtown near the water's edge. "We're doing small things that make sense at the time," says Joan LeBeau, the city's chief planner. "We're not trying to get people to approve a whole new way of life."

More notably, however, the city requires new structures to be built at higher elevations than current building codes require. Florida's building code relies upon Federal Emergency Management Agency flood hazard maps to set minimum elevations. FEMA sets these elevations using historical flood data. The code, adopted in 2002, gets high marks for its windstorm standards but is criticized for relying on FEMA flood maps that don't take into account sea level rise. Punta Gorda requires residential structures to be built three inches above the "base flood elevation," which is the level that represents a once-in-a-century flood event. The city also requires commercial buildings below base flood elevation to flood-proof up to 12 inches above that base flood elevation.

"The building code doesn't really address the issue of sea level rise because it's based on historical data on coastal flooding," says Ricardo Alvarez, a former engineering professor who now consults on sea level rise mitigation. "If you are designing a building you expect to last 50 years or more, the question is, shouldn't you be looking at what will happen during the service life of that building?"

Builders, not surprisingly, are skeptical that stricter building codes are the answer. "They can require higher elevations in the building code if they want to, but I think they would be crazy to do that," says Doug Buck, a lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association. "You want to do what science says you should do. Those elevations and other things in the building code cost money."

Studies by FEMA and Punta Gorda estimate that building a new house two feet higher would cost $2,000 more per 1,000 square feet during the construction phase.

Tags: Environment, Sea Level Rise

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