After Eta’s deluges, Floridians looking for all the help they can get
ABOVE: North Atlantic Drive looked more like a lake than a road on Hypoluxo Island after Tropical Storm Eta blew through Nov. 8-9. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
BELOW: Boca Raton resident Natalie Conte walks her dogs Nico and Rocky next to a flooded sidewalk in Highland Beach on Nov. 9. Tim Stepien/ The Coastal Star
By John Englander
Rising Seas Institute
Following the U.S. presidential election, many pundits speculate that Joe Biden will use executive orders to deal with many issues that do not require Congressional legislation.
That would follow the precedent of both Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. It raises an interesting question as to whether executive orders can affect flooding. Of course, flooding fundamentally comes from forces of nature, which residents of South Florida learned once again last month.
Tropical Storm Eta dumped up to 14 inches of rain in western Broward County, a dousing that might have amounted to a once-in-100-years event, Robert Molleda, a Weather Service meteorologist, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
As the planet warms, scientists predict that we will have to cope with more tropical storms and that they’ll contain more water. Eta delivered that lesson. Florida has been called “ground zero” in the United States for climate damage, and 2020 has delivered the flooding to warrant that designation.
In recent decades it has become clear that rising seas are contributing to the increased flooding as the warming planet melts polar ice caps. In fact, there are two approaches for a president to try to reduce flooding: mitigation and adaptation.
Mitigation in this context refers to slowing the warming, by policies that might reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the principal greenhouse gases. Executive orders could well focus on that issue, perhaps regarding vehicle emissions standards, rule-making with the Environmental Protection Agency, encouragement of renewable energy, and other policies. Taken together, over decades, such policies can flatten the curve of rising CO2 emissions and eventually slow the warming. Over decades such policies can begin to reduce the problem of rising waters that cause worse flooding.
The second approach is adaptation. To reduce flooding we can raise buildings and infrastructure in Florida and other coastal areas. In the United States, building codes — the regulations — are typically set at the state and county levels.
The president does not set them. But he can issue an executive order with regard to all federal buildings and infrastructure. In fact, Obama did just that. The order directed that all federal new construction and major renovations would allow for an additional two feet of higher sea level, or three feet for structures that were deemed critical. Also, the order used the 500-year flood plain as a reference point, far more conservative than the usual 100-year flood plain guideline.
Such an executive order to raise the design criteria for buildings and infrastructure has several virtues.
With the vast property of the federal government, raising elevations in flood zones can reduce the flooding potential, damages and recovery expenses, and result in fewer lives lost.
Perhaps as important, such a leadership policy sets an example for all the states, municipalities and private companies to emulate.
Just the idea of following “best practices” would help professions such as architecture, engineering and planning.
Presidential executive orders to raise the design criteria for federal buildings and infrastructure are perhaps the simplest way to reduce flooding, with the potential for the orders to make an impact for decades and centuries.
However, a weakness to executive orders is that another administration can reverse them: Obama’s 2015 Executive Order 13690 was rescinded by Trump’s Executive Order 13807 just two years later.
I think it’s reasonable to expect many executive orders under the new administration.
John Englander is an oceanographer and author of “High Tide On Main Street.” He is also president of the Rising Seas Institute, a nonprofit think tank and policy center.
Started in May 2018 by the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post, with assistance from WLRN Public Media, the project now encompasses 25 Florida newspapers, including The Coastal Star.