The hardest question about the Florida condo collapse: Is it worth rebuilding in a city that could be underwater in 30 years?
- The cause of the Florida condo collapse is still unknown, but climate change is among early theories.
- Experts say rising sea levels will pose major risks for other coastal residents in the near future.
- Yet Miami real estate prices are soaring, even as some experts warn against new development.
A week after the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, near Miami, Florida, collapsed, 22 are dead and more than 100 are still missing.
While speculation is already swirling about what caused the collapse, with observers blaming everything from inaction by the condo board to lax building regulations to rising sea levels, investigators are likely still months from a definitive answer.
One thing is certain, however: Climate change is already threatening to leave substantial parts of coastal areas like Miami underwater in the coming decades, meaning more buildings and infrastructure could be wiped out.
Despite the ominous signs, Miami real estate prices continue to soar and new development projects move forward, in what some experts say is a detachment from the environmental – and economic – reality.
In Florida alone, $26.3 billion worth of coastal property, housing more than 90,000 people, is at risk of becoming “chronically inundated” – that is, flooding at least 26 times per year – by 2045, according to Insider’s analysis of a 2018 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By those estimates, homebuyers taking out a 30-year mortgage today would likely see their homes flooding every two weeks by the time their loan term expires.
“Florida is ground zero for sea level rise in the United States,” Kristy Dahl, a senior climate scientist at UCS, told Insider.
That rise is causing more of the state to experience flooding, not just during so-called “king tides,” but also during normal high tides, Dahl said, adding that “seawater that’s flooding communities is incredibly corrosive.”
“Regular high-tide flooding will affect all kinds of infrastructure in the coming decades,” she said, pointing out a UCS study that showed how flooding could derail Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor route by 2050.
“A way to drive our economy”
After Hurricane Andrew devastated the state in 1992, Florida passed a wave of new building codes to mitigate future storm damage. The Palm Beach Post reported Friday that the collapse in Surfside could similarly push lawmakers to abandon the state’s historically hands-off approach to regulation in favor of more stringent rules for aging condo buildings.
Following decades of denialism, more Florida Republicans have also begun to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the risks it poses for their coastal communities, paving the way for more aggressive, bipartisan efforts.
Florida’s state legislature recently authorized $640 million for climate resiliency initiatives, while the mayors of Miami, Miami Beach, and Miami-Dade County have rolled out a strategic plan outlining steps to prepare the region.
Some developers are also beginning to see a business case for investing in climate resilience.
“We need to understand about how much it’s going to cost, but ultimately… we found that the return on investment is significant and it will create thousands of jobs,” Alec Bogdanoff, CEO of Brizaga, a Florida-based civil and coastal engineering firm, told Insider.
“We’re not only investing in adaptation and resilience because we have to, but it’s actually a way to drive our economy and grow our economy,” he said.
But some experts worry that trying to adapt to the climate – through evolving construction techniques, pump systems, and raised buildings and sidewalks, for example – may still not be enough to save cities like Miami.
“Why the heck are we letting people build?”
“We know seawater is going to arrive,” Harold Wanless, a professor and chair of the department of geological science at the University of Miami, told Insider. “What we should be doing is saying: ‘Why the heck are we letting people build in an area that’s going to be flooded by rising sea levels?”
Wanless said that a 2-3 foot rise in sea level, which estimates predict could happen in Miami by 2060, would also cause 100 to 200 feet of beach erosion, a rate that would make it too expensive to combat by simply adding more sand.
“At that point, you don’t fight it, and we should be realizing that’s where we’re headed,” Wanless said.
But many still don’t, partly because various financial incentives keep pushing developers to build in high-risk areas, including their outsize influence over local politics and wealthy buyers’ ability to withstand losses, according to a report last year in Yale’s Environment360.
That report argues that the “narrow path for survival” for Florida’s coastal counties involves, among other strategies, “orderly retreats from most vulnerable coastal neighborhoods.”
But withdrawing from coastal properties, despite the science, would run up against another obstacle, according to Dahl: human nature.
“We’re still drawn to the water just as we always have been, and I think that’s going to be a really difficult cultural shift to make,” she said, especially given the lack of disclosure about climate risks in real estate listings.
In 2019, journalist Sarah Miller pretended to be interested in buying a luxury home in Miami Beach so she could ask realtors about climate-related risks, detailing the “cognitive dissonance” she witnessed in an article for Popula.
In response to a friend’s skepticism about whether cities could become climate-proof through resilience alone, Miller wrote: “This is the neoliberal notion, that the reasonable and mature way to think about this stuff is: Get more efficient and find the right incentives to encourage the right kinds of enterprise. But my friend wondered, what if the mature thing to do is to mourn – and then retreat?”