A few months after Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York, killing over 150 people and wreaking $65 billion in damage, federal leaders cried for help to make the Northeast more flood-proof. Dutch expert Henk Ovink answered. Ovink had helped make his homeland, where 55 percent of the country is extremely flood-prone, a world pioneer in preparing for sea level rise. With Ovink at the helm, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force put together a groundbreaking plan to make the region more sea-level rise resistant and started a contest to sponsor innovative design plans.
Which is all to say that there aren't many people alive who know more about helping threatened cities cope with sea level rise.
So there's good cause to be worried when the Dutch expert says there’s no place in worse shape today than Miami. He’s begun calling the city “the new Atlantis,” after the legendary and beautiful island subcontinent that was submerged by the sea in one night.
“If we look around the world and take into account sea level rise and the increase of water related disasters, among the places in the world that have the most assets and investments at risk, Miami is leading that list,” Ovink tells New Times. “Miami will no longer be a land city, but a city in the sea.”
In recent years, scientists have repeatedly warned that South Florida’s coastal communities and barrier islands could be completely underwater in 100 years. Earlier this year, National Geographic published research on the projected cost of an extreme weather event in 2050. With so many buildings, roads and other infrastructure so close to sea level, Miami was number one on the list, with a projected loss of $278 billion dollars, followed by Guangzhou, China ($268 billion), and New York-Newark ($209 billion).
A first step is for leaders to recognize and talk about climate change.
“It’s scary that the state of Florida briefed staff not to talk about climate change,” Ovink says. “When you think about future risks and how to deal with them, that is not right approach. You have to address those issues and come up with a strategy. It's an opportunity.”
The problem, Ovink says, is that dozens of individual cities, like Miami Beach, are pursuing their own balkanized strategies rather than making a unified effort to find creative solutions.
Government, businesses, NGOs and residents should plan together, Ovink says, and do more than just stop-gap efforts. In the very short term, ideas might include raising buildings, preventing ocean water from flooding freshwater aquifers, and installing pumps to stop city flooding. But long term efforts need to be more comprehensive.
Last year, a New York Times Magazine article about Ovink and Dutch water management efforts showed just how behind the U.S. is in its thinking around water. Beyond just keeping water out, Rotterdam, in Southern Netherlands, is “building floating houses and office buildings and digging craters in downtown plazas that will be basketball courts most of the year but will fill up with runoff during high-water periods, taking the strain off the surrounding streets.”
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In another region, a “wide trench” is being cut through the city where the river bottlenecks and an island is being built. Higher areas of the island may contain housing, but low-lying sections will be developed into parks and beaches. During flood periods, the lower sections of the island will simply be engulfed by water.
“In the Netherlands, we’re in a great place,” Ovink says, because “we have institutional, programmatic funding until 2050 and a collaborative, innovative approach.”
Ovink says Scott should propose a process now to deal with uncertainties and safeguard the state. The strategy should involve policy reform, investment and innovative projects that actually change the risk Florida is now facing. Inaction only means our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to suffer more, he says.
“And perhaps [the governor] could announce it himself,” he says, “to make sure he’s taking it seriously.”