Featured image: Hurricane Irma aftermath in Clay County. FWC photo by Tim Donovan (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The takeaway message:

Florida is no stranger to floods thanks to heavy rainfall, hurricane-induced storm surge and rising seas. New studies and resources can help property owners be more aware of their personal flooding risks.

What’s going on?

Flooding hits close to home for many Floridians — quite literally in some cases, with water seeping through doorways, creeping up driveways and leaching through floorboards. Most recently, torrential downpours from Hurricane Sally hovered over towns in the Panhandle. According to CNN, the storm dumped “four months of rain in four hours.” These 30 inches of water prompted dangerous floods throughout lower Alabama and the western Panhandle, destroying homes and businesses.

Of course, this isn’t the first major flood Floridians have endured. And it won’t be the last. These heavy rainfall events coincide with the ongoing warm phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, which has led to more active hurricane seasons since 1995. Some previous rainfall records occurred when Hurricane Fay dumped 28 inches in Melbourne in 2008 and Hurricane Debby drowned Curtis Mill, a community south of Tallahassee, with 29 inches in 2012. These heavy rains coupled with powerful storm surge, lead to flooding that is listed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as one of the main hurricane threats to people who live inland.

But storms aren’t the only culprits of flood events. Sea level rise is also to blame. According to sealevelrise.org, Florida’s sea level is up to 8 inches higher in some places than it was in 1950, and the speed of this rise has accelerated over the last decade. Today, scientists estimate that sea level around Florida is rising roughly 1 inch every three years.

This increase in sea level means that it no longer takes a hurricane or bad storm to cause flooding in coastal cities. Today, routine high tides can result in a phenomenon known as nuisance flooding (also known as sunny-day flooding), which can lead to road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised city infrastructure. A 2018 NOAA report states that “the southeast Atlantic coast is currently experiencing the fastest rate of increase in annual high tide flood days, with more than a 150% increase since 2000.”

One extreme example of this phenomenon occurred just last year in a Key Largo neighborhood, prompting a flood that lasted for more than 40 days. Other Florida cities like Miami or St. Augustine are already experiencing this “new normal.”

Even so, there are still difficult public conversations going on about development in flood-prone areas. For example, during a city council meeting in August, St. Petersburg residents sparred over plans to build more housing in an area especially vulnerable to hurricanes. Despite these concerns, council members still passed these development plans 7-1; they also voted for stricter building standards within high-risk areas in the city.

How can I find out more about my flood risk?

Typically, it’s recommended that people research properties in FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center to understand their risk before making a purchase. But in June, the nonprofit First Street Foundation released the First National Flood Risk Assessment. It found 114,000 more at-risk Florida properties than reported by FEMA.

With this knowledge, property owners can be more aware of their flood risks. First Street Foundation also released a flood-risk search option, where a user can input an address and discover information about past floods, current risks and 30-year future projections. For example, Gainesville, Florida, is listed as “flood risk is increasing.” This means the number of properties at risk is projected to increase from 2,725 to 3,080 within 30 years. This “flood factor” is now listed as a risk index rating on Realtor.com for any hopeful buyers to be more informed about their purchases.

If you already live in a flood zone, be sure your flood preparation plan is up to date.

Why it matters.

Not only do floods jeopardize lives and livelihoods, but they can also wreak havoc on entire communities. With a price tag of more than $1 trillion since 1980, flooding is one of America’s most costly natural disasters.  From Hurricane Sally alone, insurance forecasters are estimating $1 to $3 billion in damages.

Florida ranks the highest in the U.S. for exposure to rising seas and the associated flooding and is already planning to spend more than $4 billion on solutions like raising roads and building seawalls. Another report from the advocacy group Center for Climate Integrity estimates the state will need to spend roughly $76 billion “to safeguard businesses, homes, roads, and entire communities in Florida from chronic flooding by 2040 under a moderate sea-level-rise scenario.”

What can I do?  

Learn more:  

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