Irma: Florida governor's climate change denial has made state even more vulnerable, warn experts

'This is what happens when you build a major metropolitan area at sea level with a state government that is in denial...and supports polluters' 

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Saturday 09 September 2017 22:52
The Islamorada Brewing Company sits vacant and boarded up in the Florida Keys on 8 September 2017.
The Islamorada Brewing Company sits vacant and boarded up in the Florida Keys on 8 September 2017.

As Hurricane Irma ominously makes its way to Florida, experts have warned that the governor's denial of climate change makes the state's infrastructure more vulnerable to damage.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has warned all residents to evacuate because Irma "is wider than our entire state and is expected to cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast". The state is approximately 360 miles (580 km) wide.

“We can rebuild your home, we can’t rebuild your life,” he said.

In Florida, residents install storm shutters and wooden planks in an attempt to minimise inevitable damage to homes and storefronts, but the state may not have done enough to ensure public structures are equally prepared.

Mr Scott, along with Republican Senator Marco Rubio, have dodged questions on climate change over the years.

As recently as June 2017 after Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the global Paris Agreement on climate change, Mr Scott would not say whether he believed human action had an impact on climate despite scientific evidence.

Instead he focused on the President’s commitment to American jobs, saying: “You cannot invest in your environment without a good economy.”

However, this attitude could result in preventable damage along the Florida coast and particularly for poorer communities in the state.

Julie McNamara, an energy analyst at the Union for Concerned Scientists, told The Independent that research done by the group indicated that electricity transformers in Miami-Dade county were at particular risk of flooding.

She said that these structures are "not required to build for the future" and so sea level rise and increasing intensity of storms are not taken into account.

State government regulations do not reflect that reality in Florida either.

Ms McNamara pointed out that Florida Power and Light, a large public utility company serving almost 10 million people, has "doubled down" on nuclear power and has limited the state's residents ability to have more resilient, renewable sources of power than nuclear plants that could also flood.

However, even in places like climate-progressive California that requirement on building standards is just now being implemented.

Florida has provided funding to save the Everglades, the tropical wetlands in South Florida, but Miami Beach City Engineer Bruce Mowry said the state has not funded his city’s $500 million flood prevention programme.

Thus far the city has spent approximately $100 million of the overall funding to install drainage pumps with plans to raise low-lying streets that experience what he called “sunny day floods” when high tide is enough to deluge streets, parking garages, and homes.

Mr Mowry noted that though there was a “few million” allocated by the state in low interest loans for seawalls, the city are surrounding areas have not received state or federal help for this type of climate resilient infrastructure.

Miami Beach had to raise the money through a combination of stormwater utility fees and sales of municipal bonds, said Mr Mowry.

The programme implementation began approximately two years ago, but Mr Mowry told The Independent: “no one can do enough planning for a hurricane” of the size and nature of Irma.

The “design criteria we use for drainage system is not made for hurricanes” said Mr Mowry, but he expects that the design and construction standards of public buildings may change depending on the damage caused by Irma.

He does expect a slight “setback” to the work that has already been put in installing drainage pumps underground in public areas of the city, but that the real impact will have to wait to be assessed as flooding often brings dirt and silt that have to be filtered through drainage systems in addition to floodwaters.

He said Mr Scott is in denial of the impact of climate change and it “would be helpful” if the state saw it “as an overall comprehensive programme for the whole state” rather than just benefiting wealthy areas like Miami Beach.

Mr Mowry contended that whether the US was involved in the Paris Agreement or not, sea level rise would continue and coastal residents would still “bear the brunt of it”.

What really needs to happen in Florida and all over the world is an “overall culture change,” he said.

Nicole Hernandez Hammer, Climate Science and Community Advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Independent that what Miami Beach has done is great, but those same funds are not available in lower income areas.

“People [in these neighbourhoods and cities] deal with flooding frequently because of sea level rise...on normal days,” so it is frightening to think what may happen with Hurricane Irma, she said.

Ms Hammer, who lost her house in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, said she knows too well that a city can “never really understand the extent of the damage until the storm has been passed”.

But, she noted that though construction and building standards have improved in recent years, they are not resilient enough for increasingly stronger storms that are the result of climate change.

Government buildings left abandoned after Hurricane Irma destruction

“This is what happens when you build a major metropolitan area at sea level with a state government that is in denial...and supports polluters,” Ms Hammer said.

She has first-hand experience with Mr Scott’s aversion to even discussing climate change.

When she was assistant director of climate change research at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, Ms Hammer worked on a report regarding the state transportation infrastructure’s resilience to rising sea levels.

When her team submitted the report to the Florida Department of Transportation, the agency called to tell the team to scrub almost all mentions of the phrase “climate change,” even in the summary of the report.

“We can’t even mention the phrase but now we’re all panicking,” Ms Hammer noted.

Ms Hammer explained that Miami especially is full of large construction cranes as new buildings are going up on the water's edge. She worried about the damage these cranes may cause to existing buildings and homes nearby.

She was also concerned that lower income communities were in a particularly bad position as a result of evacuation infrastructure as well.

“If you take a bus, how are you supposed to go get sandbags, plywood, supplies” to prepare for the hurricane, Ms Hammer asked. She said there are a number of residents who do not own cars or have driver’s licences either.

Affordable options like the private bus services are full, but people have been told they have to make it inland well past Orlando to be in a safe place.

“People are frightened and rightfully so.”

State officials have said that those who do not or cannot evacuate should not expect an answer if they call for emergency help.

In preparation for the damage, Congress has authorised $15.3 billion in relief aid for the state of Florida.

How that money is allocated for long-term climate resiliency improvements remains to be seen.

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