Friday, October 4, 2013

Are Miami's condos and apartments at a disadvantage for storm proofing?

A recent Atlantic Cities piece Why It's so Hard to Storm-Proof an Apartment Building highlights the disadvantages faced by multifamily apartment, condominium and co-op buildings when it comes to getting funds for repairs and protecting against future storms. After Sandy, single family homeowners are applying for FEMA funds for repairs to houses damaged by storm surge but multifamily buildings are not eligible for funds to repair common areas and utility systems. This is despite the fact that more than two-thirds of the New York housing units in the Sandy storm surge area were in multifamily buildings. What's more, New Jersey created a state fund that makes money available for raising homes above the flood plain-- an increasingly common plan in flood-prone areas, especially those dealing with higher flood insurance rates-- but this fund will primarily benefit single family homeowners since it's usually impractical to raise multifamily buildings.  

Along with the many other lessons from Sandy, Miami should be paying attention to this one too. Just like plenty of other cities in the path of hurricanes along the Atlantic coast, Miami has large concentrations of multifamily buildings. According to the latest census data about 38% of Miami households are in buildings with at least 3 units. There are certainly things that multifamily buildings can do to become more resilient to floods, like moving utility rooms off the ground floor and installing mechanisms for moving elevator cars out of harm's way. Cities like Miami Beach have included many of these features in their building codes for new housing, but older buildings need sources of funding to undertake expensive retrofits. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

5 things Miami can learn about sea level rise from the Dutch

It’s possible to live – and thrive – below sea level.

At last month's Resilient Miami Beach seminar Dutch engineers and planners shared their country’s long history of dealing with flooding, what they’ve learned and where they’re headed. Since the first dike was built in 1200 they’ve developed an elaborate system of pumping, dikes, and storm barriers to protect settled land and in some cases reclaim new land. Today 70% of the country’s GDP is below sea level, and in fact the coastline isn’t seen as a liability at all, but an asset, the backbone of the country.

But disasters do happen, when massive floods have occasionally overwhelmed the infrastructure and caused destruction and loss of life. Over 1,800 people died as recently as 1953 when storm surge overtopped dikes in a large area in the south. As the experts explained, those tragedies led to a “safety first” approach which mean projects in vulnerable areas are designed for protection from 1 in 10,000 year storms. By comparison, most of our defenses in the U.S. are for 1 in 100 year storms. 

Culture is thicker than water.

Hazerswoude-Rijndijk - Groenendijkse
Molen by Quistnix
The Netherlands is a small country on a major river delta in northern Europe, tucked between the ocean to the west and Germany to the east. The Dutch don’t have a lot of options if they want to remain a country. So as one Dutch representative said, only half-joking, they decided a long time ago “we’re not moving to Germany.” They worked towards developing systems and creative technologies that allowed people to continue to live there—examples like canal cities with floating houses, and barriers that keep out storm surge. Going all the way back to the windmills which first pumped water to keep farmland dry, these water management solutions have become symbols of the country and a significant part of what makes it unique and attractive.

It’s not just the engineering that matters, it’s the process.

These famous engineering successes didn’t just happen because the Dutch are smart people – they represent hard choices and negotiations about how water and land should be managed, and about spending large amounts of money to develop workable schemes that meet a variety of different and sometimes competing interests - those of coastal landowners, fishermen, shipping, and environmentalists for example. With sea level rising the stakes are even higher. So last year the country decided to devote $1 billion per year to climate adaptation, and to create a plan that involves input and action from all levels of government, the private sector, and the general public.

Obviously a great deal of unity and public support is needed for major changes. The Netherlands has a long-standing  governance structure of water boards, which are elected bodies that have the power to tax and make decisions about water management within their local region. As it’s evolved over the centuries, this system has ingrained into the Dutch DNA that compromise for the sake of water management is a necessary part of life. One consultant group summed it up with a fitting African proverb-- “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.”

Even if something’s been working for 800 years, it might have to change.

Major floods in the early 1990’s caused the country to take stock of their system and make some dramatic changes to the protection approach, particularly in light of accelerated sea level rise. By holding back the water and protecting low-lying areas from flooding the Dutch had actually encouraged development in risky areas. So instead of simply enlarging dikes and waiting for the next flood, they switched approaches – to working with nature instead of against it, and accommodating water during times of flooding instead of attempting to dam it up. For example the “Room for the River” project reshapes urban areas to create wider river basins that can accommodate periodic overflow without damage to life or property. Another example is the “sand engine” which redistributes sand naturally along beaches using the ocean’s currents, instead of trucking it in and dumping it.