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Report: Florida will have to spend $76 billion to prepare for sea level rise

For some towns, ‘costs would far outstrip their ability to pay’

Nowhere in the United States is more vulnerable to climate-change induced sea level rise than Florida, where $76 billion would have to be spent in the next 20 years just to build seawalls to standards to protect against routine 2040 storm surges, a new report declares.

Washington-based Center for Climate Integrity has released the report on what it says is a first-ever study of its kind, “High Tide Tax: The Price to Protect Coastal Communities from Rising Seas”, declaring the national cost of seawalls in vulnerable, low-lying areas would be more than $400 billion. The report breaks down those costs by state and by county, and in some cases by individual communities.

Numerous Florida counties are among the most impacted, with 22 facing more than $1 billion each in projected costs, according to the report. Florida is by far the most vulnerable state, facing roughly twice the costs of Louisiana to build seawalls along low-lying coastal areas.

“We are set to undertake the most dramatic economic and social transformation in human history and yet no one has bothered to estimate what the core components of climate adaptation will actually cost,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said during a press conference Wednesday.

“So our study looked at just one component of climate adaptation to help answer that question: basic seawall defenses for the entire U.S. coastal and tidal shoreline,” he said.

The report says Monroe County alone, home to the Florida Keys and some of the Everglades, faces $11 billion in seawall construction costs, second most in the nation to Suffolk County, N.Y., on Long Island. Collier, Franklin, Duval, Lee, Miami-Dade, and Pinellas counties all face costs of more than $3 billion apiece, according to the report.

Levy, Hillsborough, Dixie, Volusia, Wakulla, Citrus, Manatee, Brevard, St. Johns, Pasco, Gulf, Charlotte, Bay, Sarasota, and Nassau counties also all face costs of more than $1 billion apiece, according to the study.

For hundreds of small coastal and tidal communities across the lower 48 states, the costs would far outstrip their ability to pay, making retreat and abandonment the only viable option unless enormous amounts of financing emerge in a very short period of time, the center declares in a news release accompanying the report.

The report pulls out a few towns or settlements nationally where small communities face huge costs, breaking those costs down to per-capita. The report said Pine Island in Lee County faces a per-capita cost of $2.5 million if the resident population there were to pay for seawalls. The per-capita cost cited for the residents of Marineland, in Flagler County, is $2.2 million.

The report has a similar finding to one released last year by the Brookings Institute, which found Florida has some of the most vulnerable cities in the country to climate change costs.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has changed direction on climate change compared to his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, and is in the process of hiring a state resilience officer, who would oversee state study and response to climate change, and has created the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection, to assist local governments with planning and implementation.

Late Thursday, DeSantis office responded pointing out that one of the first things he did was sign an executive order beginning steps toward resiliency.

The governor’s office noted that, through this program, many of the state’s most vulnerable communities have already developed resiliency plans and are moving forward with implementing those plans. These plans incorporate a mix of strategies, including living shorelines, tide check valves on stormwater outfalls, and elevation of structures.

The governor’s office also criticized the center’s report, saying it “ignores this effort, and further is overly simplistic in its analysis in that it is not just seawalls that should or are being considered as part of an effective sea level rise strategy.”

The study was paid for by foundations and individuals that donate to the center, which also undertakes campaigns to, as the center’s website declares, “make Big Oil and Gas pay their fair share of the damages their products helped cause.”

The group based its study on an analysis that used a mid-range scenario for carbon emissions in coming years, among a set of standard prediction models that are in wide-use internationally. The study also based its assessment of needs on one-year storm surges, rather than on rarer and more profound storm surges. Wiles called these “conservative” estimates relating to climate change and storm surges.

Estimated costs of seawall construction were created using a combination of nationally-recognized construction cost estimates from the engineering community and local estimates from seawall design and construction companies to establish realistic localized per-foot costs. Paul Chinowsky, engineer and director of the environmental design program at the University of Colorado Boulder, and lead scientist for the study, said these cost estimates were based on what engineering firms would use to estimate costs on real-life projects.

The study team said it recognizes that many communities, such as the Florida Keys, probably would not use seawalls as a major part of their strategies to address sea level rise. They said that the cost of seawalls was selected as a consistent measure for comparison purposes, to illustrate which communities faced the most significant challenges, and what range their costs might reach.

“I think the point is the places that we identified as the high risk areas, while they may not use seawalls per se, will have to do something. And there will be substantial costs on par with the costs we’ve estimated here,” Wiles said.

The target year for many of the study’s findings is 2040, with costs estimated to be incurred over the next 20 years to prepare for that future.

These costs, the report declares, “represent a small fraction of total costs associated with protecting our coastal communities against sea-level rise.”

“First, this study only considers relatively conservative estimates of future sea-level rise. Second, it does not account for many line items that must be included in city resilience plans. For example, in New York City’s comprehensive plan to defend the city against predicted sea-level rise, coastal protection amounts to only 16- 20 percent of the total estimated cost. Other resilience considerations include: elevating buildings, insurance, utilities, liquid fuels, healthcare and community preparedness, telecommunications, transportation, environmental protection and remediation, and water and wastewater,” the report states.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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