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  • Writer's pictureBob Leonard - Managing Consultant

Post Hurricane Ian, Floridians Have Complex Decisions to Make

by Bob Leonard

Living a quarter of a mile from the Gulf of Mexico in Sarasota, Florida, I knew we would eventually have to make a decision. Hurricane Irma was the deciding factor. We were without power (so no AC) for 10 days in September in south Florida. The heat and humidity were brutal. So we decided to get out of harm’s way. We relocated to Oregon. That was five years ago. The current residents of southwest Florida face more complex climate-related decisions.

A simple stay or go decision does not account for many other relevant factors. Climate-related weather events have grown in severity and frequency. There are many uncertainties regarding who is going to pay to rebuild, how much federal and state money will be available to rebuild, and where displaced residents will be allowed to rebuild.

“An either/or frame brings clarity and efficiency to the decision-making process, but it doesn’t lead to better decisions. The need to make complex decisions in an uncertain setting requires a different kind of thought process.” – Professor Tom Bateman, University of Virginia, McIntire School of Commerce

Opportunity and Proactivity

Effective leaders know that crises happen, and facing new circumstances with an opportunity mindset prompts better solutions than the traditional linear problem solving process. Our climate crisis is a wicked systemic problem that can’t be successfully addressed in the usual way. Properly managing such long-term challenges requires far more proactive approaches.

Now Hurricane Ian (a much larger and more deadly storm than Irma) has me thinking about all the people displaced by the storm. I tried to put myself in their shoes. Their situations vary widely.

Some are wealthy. Some are poor. Many are elderly. Some, like me, have had enough. Others really like the Florida lifestyle (even the heat and humidity) and want to stay. Some have insurance. Some don’t. And any build back plan should take into account rising sea levels and future storms.

There are an infinite number of potential roads to recovery. That makes it difficult to decide on which projects to fund. I use Strategic Foresight and Scenario Planning to develop a number of potential futures. That way city planners, business owners and residents can visualize how different scenarios will play out and proactively determine the best recovery strategies. I outline three potential scenarios below:

  1. Business as usual – build back in the same places, but using the latest construction codes,

  2. Build back better – build to new more stringent codes and avoid the most vulnerable locations,

  3. Build for the future – build back using all the knowledge we have about how and where to build to avoid the next catastrophe or at least minimize the damages. In 2017, the US National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) published a study that reviewed several thousand government funded projects designed to reduce the risk of damage from severe weather and earthquakes. The study concluded that every dollar spent on these investments in resilience saved six dollars in averted disaster recovery costs.

Business as Usual Scenario

After the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the state of Florida instituted stricter building codes. In 2002, Florida adopted the Florida Building Code (FBC). It mandated that new construction be able to withstand hurricane-force winds and include shutters or impact-resistant glass in all openings.

That addressed the wind issue. And, indeed, the buildings built after 2002 in areas hardest hit by Ian’s winds fared far better than those constructed before the 2002 construction codes. But the most severe impacts were due to storm surge. Water is the more deadly component of hurricanes… especially in Florida which is surrounded by water. Florida has 1,350 miles of coastline… much of it flat. Many of Florida’s most beautiful beaches are mere inches above sea level.

Storm surge from Hurricane Ian on Fort Myers Beach

Building to current code would not prevent these losses. So, should people be allowed to build back in locations like Fort Myers Beach? Probably not, but in this Business as Usual scenario they will be. There is money to be made in the construction, and by the businesses (restaurants, motels, bars, surf shops, etc.) that were located on this barrier island.

Which brings up the question, “What happens to a beach economy when there is no longer a beach?” For now, there is a beach. The water has receded. Every structure on the island is a total loss, but the primary asset (the island itself) still exists.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts sea level rise of 18 inches by 2050 in southwest Florida. The average elevation of Fort Myers Beach is three feet or 36 inches. The elevation varies from zero inches above sea level at water’s edge to five feet in the highest elevation on the island.

So any waterfront construction will be temporary… maybe lasting 10 years or so. Less if hit by another hurricane. Imagine you had a prosperous small business on Fort Myers Beach. Would you build back?

Build Back Better Scenario

This scenario assumes that new laws will prevent building back in the most vulnerable locations. It’s reasonable to assume that Florida will pass new building codes perhaps requiring all new construction on the barrier islands (of which there are many including Miami Beach and Siesta Key in Sarasota) and in low lying areas (like the city of St. Petersburg) be built on stilts… let’s say seven feet above the land surface the building sits on.

That would preserve those buildings, but what about the infrastructure? What about the city streets? Or the storm sewer systems? Or the bridges?

In the places hardest hit by Ian, all of that must be reconstructed. So it makes sense to build back better… which in this case means higher and stronger.

Notice though, that this scenario makes no fundamental change to the existing back story of Florida. It assumes that the 20th century Florida story of ever more growth and development continues. It’s embedded into the culture of the state. That’s the way it’s been for as long as anybody alive today can remember. To quote Joni Mitchell – “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The politicians and the real estate developers know the recipe for generating wealth. They have it down pat. They (usually) aren’t breaking any laws. Why should they change their recipe? Predictions are that millions of Baby Boomers will continue to flock to Florida in retirement. They will need homes and grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hospitals and new roads to access them.

I believe that’s myopic. Florida used to be an inexpensive place to live. The real estate, taxes, insurance and utilities all were much lower than in the northern states where most retirees emigrated from. That’s no longer true. Excepting taxes (which remain lower) – all of those other expenses are comparable to the northern states. Insurance is becoming really expensive… if it can be purchased at all. And if you can’t get insurance, you can’t get a mortgage.

The past does not equal the future. We live in a world of endemic and accelerating change. Using population growth statistics from the past to extrapolate future growth is no longer valid. Add in the ubiquitous media coverage of Hurricane Ian and sea level rise predictions, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the boom is over. That many retirees will decide to stay where they are… or will take climate impacts into account in selecting a retirement location. I also think the very wealthy (people who don’t need a mortgage and can afford to self-insure) will continue to buy (second or third) homes in Florida.

People will continue to move to Florida, but some current residents will leave because they want to get out of harm’s way. Best to sell while there are still buyers, and before the next big one hits.

A Future Fit Scenario

My friend, futurist Frank Spencer, likes to say, “A new world is trying to emerge.” What Frank means is that our existing cultural, societal… even economic norms are no longer fit for purpose. They worked for a number of decades, but we are now experiencing the unintended consequences of unbridled growth and a focus on profit as the sole metric for well-being. There is a healthier, cleaner, more peaceful and more equal world waiting to be born.

So how do we midwife this new world? We can use Florida as a microcosm and a precursor… as the canary in the coal mine for climate impacts (in the developed world – other locations like the Poles and South Sea islands are even more precarious).

What lessons can we learn from Florida? Two examples leap to my mind. Babcock Ranch and Cedar Key.

Babcock Ranch

I visited Babcock Ranch twice while it was being developed. It’s a remarkable place designed to thrive in the future that has arrived on our doorstep (future fit). And it proved itself even more extraordinary during Hurricane Ian. It’s a new community entirely powered by 700,000 solar panels, which create enough clean energy to power 30,000 homes.

Babcock Ranch is only a few miles northeast of Fort Myers where Ian made landfall. A massive storm, Ian battered Babcock Ranch for eight hours as it slowly made its way northeast across the state. The lights never flickered. A few palm trees fell, but that was the extent of the damage.

The developer, Sydney Kitson, said Hurricane Ian's winds didn't dislodge a single solar panel. Because Babcock is several miles away from the waters of the Gulf, storm surge was not an issue. Syd is a retired professional football player (he played in the Guard position for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys). I was fortunate enough to meet him. He’s not your typical retired NFL player. Babcock Ranch was his idea. It was his vision. He put the deal together partnering with the state and Florida Power and Light (FPL).

He's also not your typical Florida real estate developer. He didn’t follow the prevalent land development playbook. The 18,000-acre community is America's first sustainable solar-powered town with the majority of the land left wild to maintain the natural habitat. The solar facility and battery storage system, which is tied to the grid and owned by FPL, not only powers the growing community of nearly 2,000 homes but also feeds the region.

Storm safety and climate resilience were factored into every element of the design and engineering of Babcock Ranch. The homes and other structures (it is a self-contained community with restaurants, grocery stores, schools, a hospital and a free zero emission transport system) are sited at 25 feet above sea level and are designed to withstand winds of up to 145 miles per hour.

So Babcock is an example state regulators and developers can follow as they rebuild southwest Florida.

Cedar Key

Cedar Key is one of Florida’s barrier islands. It was not impacted by Hurricane Ian, but it is vulnerable to storm surge, sea level rise and hurricanes. Surrounded by the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, the fishing village is a model for balancing aquaculture and tourism – and for successfully fending off developments on the barrier islands. Its region, stretching to the Big Bend where the peninsula curves to the Panhandle, is one of the least-developed coastlines in the contiguous United States. The wild coast and lack of pollutants running to the sea have kept the water clean enough for thriving shellfish harvests.

The lack of development has preserved much of Cedar Key’s mangrove forests. Mangrove forests are saltwater woodlands that thrive in tidal estuaries and coastal areas throughout the tropics. Mangroves help protect coastline ecosystems by preventing erosion and absorbing storm surge impacts during extreme weather events like hurricanes. They also effectively draw down and sequester CO2. Unfortunately most of the mangrove forests in Florida have been clear cut to make way for development.

Mangrove forests could be replanted in areas like Fort Myers Beach. There would need to be a tradeoff, though. Again, there is money to be made. Mangroves occupy spaces that could be used for swimming, boating and seaside dining.

Here’s an idea that originated with my colleague at This Spaceship Earth, Tim Rumage – planetary ethicist and professor of Environmental Studies at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. Tim imagined a replanting of mangrove forests in Sarasota Bay with the construction of an elevated walkway just inland. The walkway would follow the coastline and would be wide enough to accommodate bars, restaurants, surf shops… all the amenities and attractions commonly found in beachside resorts. Of course, they would all be powered by solar panels and batteries. Stairs would run down from the elevated walkway, through the mangrove forest to the water, where the stairs would meet a pier stretching into the Gulf. Boats could dock. People could swim, snorkel and scuba. Tim even imagined an underwater art gallery – statuary and more designed to create habitats for fish and coral.

Proactive Climate Preparedness

Our climate crisis guarantees that we will be living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world for decades at minimum. Each crisis, like Hurricane Ian, is an opportunity to apply proactive leadership principles.

“Proactive leadership considers not just the short-term but the longer-term; takes actions on behalf of both; thinks less about predicting the future than about flexibly navigating future uncertainties; strategic thinking plus forward-looking action; creating the future more than hoping for the best; creating a culture of shared leadership via both active problem solving and future-focused opportunity capturing.” – Professor Tom Bateman, University of Virginia, McIntire School of Commerce

The point I want to make is that what seems like an intractable problem can be addressed with creativity, an opportunity mindset and proactive leadership. There are informed choices to be made concerning whether and where to rebuild. Will the solutions outlined above solve all the issues faced by those who have been displaced by Hurricane Ian? No. But they are a start and an example of how we can imagine that new world and assist in its birth.

The opportunity here is to learn to think systemically… to augment short-term thinking with long-term thinking, to imagine the unintended consequences downstream from each decision, and to play with multiple options. It may be possible to multi-solve (e.g. use build back funds to create a community rec center designed to double as emergency housing).

Keep an eye on Florida – especially its insurance and real estate markets. How do the politicians, banks and insurers handle building back? There will be lessons learned that are applicable to other areas at risk from storm surge, wildfires, mudslides and droughts. If you live in an area vulnerable to climate impacts, now is the time to be proactive, think long term and carefully consider relocating. Our changing climate will have impacts everywhere, so look before you leap.

I work with businesses to help them evaluate their climate risks and opportunities, to develop multiple potential future scenarios, and to strategize how to work toward their preferred future.

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Oct 26, 2022

Yes! While other areas are focusing on climate relocation/adaptation plans, I feel like it is quiet news. I hope that these catastrophes can create opportunities for citizens to live safely and equitably. Perhaps a beloved state that attracts so many residents and tourists gaining attention and need for change will start widespread planning. Thank you for these thoughts!

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