Sustainable Development in Construction Indus

Monroe County, Path to Climate Resilience

12-16-2021

“Sustainable communities require healthy populations and resilient systems.”Priorities | Monroe County (greenkeys.info)

 

As part of our effort to raise awareness of the need to improve home resilience and educate homeowners in the U.S about solutions against climate risks, we gather information on resilient actions, strategies, and challenges from key cities and counties in the country.

In this blog, we focus on Monroe County, Florida, widely referred to as the Florida Keys, its challenges and efforts toward climate resilience. 

The Florida Keys is a 1,700 islands archipelago stretching 220 miles off the southern coast of Florida, forming the southernmost part of the United States. More than 95 percent of the 137 square miles lie in Monroe County. In 2014 its population was estimated by the U.S Census to be 77,136 residents.

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The county includes a mainland region as well as the Florida Keys archipelago. It contains seventeen national and state parks thanks to its high environmental diversification and history. 

I spoke with Rhonda Haag, the chief resilience officer in Monroe County, who outlined the challenging path to resilience that lies ahead for the Keys. 

 

Climate Risks

Sea level rise is the most urgent climate risk in the Florida Keys. It is an island community with hundreds of miles of shorelines and roads near or at sea level. Its low-lying elevation contributes to its high vulnerability to the rising seas. 

Nearly 36 percent of the county’s population is projected to be displaced under a high sea-level rise scenario of a two-foot rise by the year 2060.  

In the meantime, roads in the lower-lying areas become impassable, especially in October and November, the period of king tides. Monroe County ranked third highest in the country for impacts of tidal flooding. Some of the impacts from sea level rise are nuisance (not fatal yet disrupting) flooding, fluctuations in storm severity, and changes in ecosystems and species populations. 

Browsing numerous photos of floods from the county’s municipalities illustrates the frequent flooding in the Keys.  

 

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Other climate risks may seem negligible next to the sea-level rise, yet they exist:
Stronger storms: The county can expect more frequent and severe hurricanes and tropical storms. Hurricane Irma’s significant damage in 2017 exemplified the vulnerability of the Florida Keys to coastal storms. 
Extreme Heat:  The county has already experienced an increase in average temperature in the past two decades. It is estimated to see as many as 1,840 additional deaths per year in the next 25 years due to extreme heat, with the elderly and young children most vulnerable.  Extreme heat may also lead to a reduction in labor productivity, particularly in industries involving outdoor work, which is prevalent in the Keys.

Another vital concern of climate change is its impact on the unique natural environment which is the Keys’ economy and tourist attraction. Although the natural habitats of Monroe County are among the most highly protected and strictly managed in Florida, climate change poses a significant long-term peril to the future health and sustainability of many ecosystems. Scientific studies support that Monroe County’s marine and terrestrial habitats are among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts in the U.S. Haag stresses that guarding the national marine sanctuary is no less important than protecting its residents.

The County's Climate-Resilient Actions 

In 2008, Monroe County joined the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. The Compact is a regional entity that includes four counties including Monroe County. The compact works collaboratively with the counties to reduce regional GHG emissions, implement adaptation strategies, and build climate resilience across the Southeast Florida region. The Compact developed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Action Plan (RCAP). 

Monroe County is building resilience to climate change with the help of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. The Monroe County’s Climate Action Plan (MCAP) was released in 2013 and included climate mitigation and adaptation goals and recommendations. Recommendations are then filtered down to the local municipalities. The county assists its five small cities with resilience planning and implementation efforts.

In 2016, the county released the GreenKeys! Sustainability Action Plan consists of strategies, policies, and tools for reducing GHG emissions, increasing energy and water conservation, and increasing the county’s resilience to climate change and sea-level rise.

Infrastructure

Part of the GreenKeys plan is investigating a Keys Roads Plan to elevate the roads. The County’s and State roadway system is vital for access to employment, social, health, and education. It also plays a crucial role when evacuation is in place due to a threat of a hurricane or other extreme events. 

The main objective of the Keys Roads Plan is to analyze the impacts of current and projected sea-level rise on all county-maintained roads and stormwater features and develop an implementation plan to adapt the roads and drainage for future sea-level rise. 

The nearly completed study used climate projections from the Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact, and engineering modeling to determine which roads to elevate by the year 2045,  how high to elevate, and when. The conclusion is that by 2045, half of the roads will be subject to some level of inundation from sea level rise (150 miles of locally maintained roads). Haag adds that the cost of the road elevation plan is estimated at 1.8 billion dollars and that the implementation of this plan is dependent on the likelihood of its funding. 

Real-estate

The county’s buildings are also vulnerable to sea-level rise and need to be flood-proof.

In June of 2020, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers released a study on Florida Keys Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility to increase Florida Keys’ resilience. The study proposes to elevate thousands of the county’s structures including 4,600 private homes, floodproofing businesses, government buildings, and to build shoreline resilience in six locations along U.S Highway 1. Haag shares that the plan is estimated at an upfront cost of 2.7 billion dollars.

The county elevates its own buildings above code requirements. For example, a fire station projected to last at least 50 years is built considering climate change projections to determine the proper elevation level of the first floor. The county also performed a vulnerability assessment for all public infrastructure.

In addition, the county initiated a program to help residents with properties that were damaged from previous hurricanes. The assistance is either by applying for grant funds for elevating the homes or renovating if they were damaged, or by selling the property.

While the sea-level rise protection is costly, additional areas of resilience are inspected and researched at the county: preserving the natural environment (along with other federal agencies), protecting drinking water, sewers, and electrical utilities from flooding. 

The county sets a positive example by installing solar panels on new government buildings. The goal in adopting solar power was to reduce GHG emissions, but it is also an adaptation strategy when combined with storage. 

 

Building Codes 

Monroe county relies on the stringent Florida Building Codes. Haag is confident the county is ahead of the game in terms of building codes along with Southern Florida, adopting some of the most resilient building codes. The county needs to preserve strong codes, make sure they are not weakened and continue to update them according to climate future projections.

Florida significantly upgraded its building codes after the catastrophic Hurricane Andrew hit the South Florida area in 1992, proving the need for a higher standard of wind resistance. The county’s website shares the State’s building codes, specifically regarding flood protection. 

 

More locally, Monroe County strictly restricts building permits to control the growth of the population in the Keys. Therefore, there are no big housing development plans for the future. As mentioned, when evacuation is needed, the number of people that can be safely evacuated within a 3-day window is limited. The Key’s population is nearing its maximum capacity based on the evacuation time on highway 1, the only road that interconnects the Keys. In 1926, the Great Miami Hurricane caused loss of lives due to inadequate infrastructure for evacuation. 

 

Another local code requires contractors to responsibly remove or secure construction site debris to avoid damage from flying objects in strong winds such as hurricanes.


 

Promoted Residential Resilient Strategies

Generally, Haag believes residents should build against heavy winds using strategies such as hurricane windows and shutters. Haag explains that the county focuses less on protection from water damage and more on preventing flooding, to begin with, for example, by encouraging purchasing properly elevated structures.  

The GreenKeys website shares the following specific recommendations to mitigate the risk of flooding:

  • Avoid development in vulnerable low-lying areas prone to flooding. Moreover, relocate existing structures and land uses away from high-risk flood areas to allow wetlands, beaches, and natural coastal habitats to migrate to higher elevations naturally.

  • Flood Proof by installing structures that prevent floodwaters from reaching community assets. Hard structures may include seawalls or bulkheads, while examples of soft structures are geotextile tubes and fabric sandbags designed to be replaced after storms.  

The building department’s website shares additional recommendations for protecting properties from flood damage and helping with stormwater management:

  • Follow building requirements

  • Elevate your home/ utilities

  • Build with flood-resistant materials

  • Raise electrical system components

  • Install sewer backflow valves

  • Keep landscape waste out of storm drains and waterways

Energy Efficient Building

Monroe county’s website shares FEMA’s guide with retrofitting instructions for the mentioned strategies and additional dry and wet floodproofing solutions. 

Although all mentioned adaptation strategies can be helpful, the county shares a study that concluded that elevating and floodproofing buildings are more cost-effective than building an offshore barrier or a voluntary buyout of properties. 

The role of A Community

Haag believes climate resilience can not be achieved individually but should involve the entire community. If the county elevates the main road, private driveways and homes should also be elevated. Similarly, an individual property’s dry floodproofing strategy such as a sea wall will only be efficient if the neighbors install a sea wall as well. Climate resilience has to include all stakeholders, governments, businesses, and residents.

 

Incentives

Currently (December 2021), residents of Monroe County can rely on a couple of incentives:

Property assessed clean energy (PACE) is available in Monroe County. Its financing allows property owners to fund energy efficiency, renewable energy, and wind mitigation projects with little or no up-front costs. PACE allows property owners living within a participating district to finance up to 100% of their project and pay it back over time in the annual property tax bill.

Monroe county joined the 1,500 communities nationwide that are part of FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS). It is a voluntary incentive program that recognizes and encourages community floodplain management practices that exceed the minimum requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Policyholders in a CRS community can receive insurance flood premium reductions of between 5 to 45 percent.

 

Insurance

The county recommends homeowners purchase three types of insurance: 

Purchasing the mentioned insurances is required for homeowners with mortgages, but they are very expensive in the county. Insurance companies provide premiums reduction to homeowners that apply adaptation strategies such as elevating, flood-proofing, and installing storm windows and panels. Structure elevation most dramatically reduces flood insurance premiums. 

Therefore, many residents have become knowledgeable about climate adaptation strategies thanks to the insurance companies’ incentives to reduce the premiums. 


 

Service Providers
Many climate-resilient strategies require hiring a contractor. Monroe County requires all contractors to hold a Certificate of Competency (contractor’s license), liability, and worker’s compensation insurance. The county encourages residents to hire only licensed contractors by stressing the $500 penalties to both the unlicensed contractor and the property owner, with possible additional fines. Residents can file a complaint about a contractor’s improper activity. 

Monroe County Building Department holds an extensive list of licensed and registered contractors that are considered active by the expiration date of their business tax, State/County, liability, and worker comp. The county emphasizes that hosting the list does not count as a recommendation on a specific contractor. The purpose of the list is to assist residents with identifying licensed contractors. 

Contractors who wish to apply for certification can find information on the county’s website

 

Education

Residents should be educated on climate risks and solutions, on preparation before extreme events, and how to recover:

Hurricane

The emergency management department shares suggestions and resources on hurricane preparation, information on evacuation, available shelters, and recovery resources after an extreme event.  

Floods 

You can also find resources on weather emergencies, how to prepare in advance, stay informed and protect yourself. General information is available on floods in the region, with suggestions focusing on avoiding purchasing properties in flood plains and structure elevation. Unfortunately, for more specific retrofitting recommendations, residents are directed to contact the floodplain official. 

Monroe County created an application that shows FEMA Flood Maps of the county. Coastal Flood Maps, otherwise known as Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) are used to determine the minimum elevation needed for construction to reduce the chances of flooding, and the construction methods required in certain zones.

General climate risks

The county also relies on information available on the Southeast Florida Climate Compact on climate indicators. The SFCC also hosts occasional implementation workshops and events to help residents better understand the impacts of climate change.

 

Final Thoughts

Sea level rise is an obvious risk for a low-lying county surrounded by the ocean. The feasibility of solutions to mitigate the potentially severe consequences seem equivocal and costly. The county faces other climate risks such as strong winds from hurricanes, life-threatening increasing temperatures, and the impact on the county’s natural ecosystem, which is the heart of its economy.

Monroe county takes effort in research and planning potential solutions to protect from climate risks yet the Keys’ plans toward climate resilience are a financial challenge. 

Florida’s climate adaptation funding is insufficient because so far, damage from hurricanes was not as catastrophic as in other states like New Jersey. However, Monroe County is one of the most susceptible to sea-level rise in the U.S without proper infrastructure in place. Haag believes it’s a matter of time for the threat to meet reality. 

The high risk of sea-level rise and flooding is so prominent, it takes most of the effort in the path to climate resilience. The county’s decision to adapt its roads to support a life-saving evacuation infrastructure in extreme storm or flooding events is notable.  

The county mostly focuses on adaptation strategies that protect from flooding, specifically structures elevation. The low-lying geography of the Keys makes other mitigation strategies insufficient to protect from the surrounding ocean. 

Monroe County is taking a brave measure of limiting its population growth, by strictly controlling building permits. Limiting growth is still taboo among most policymakers although, as stated in the 5th IPCC assessment, population growth is one of the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions

Monroe County also relies on insurance companies for introducing incentives to protect residents’ homes from the changing climate. Residents can benefit from additional incentives from local organizations and can find additional elaborative information on the county’s website. Providing more climate resilience information on the website can also reduce the workload of county officials.

The county encourages building and retrofitting only with licensed professionals to make sure the job is performed adequately to last longer and to withstand extreme weather.  

Monroe County outlined plans to increase its climate resilience to sea-level rise. They hold sufficient research and solutions. The question remains, as in other counties across the country, whether the excessive cost will allow it.

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