The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season broke the record for the number of storms big enough to be given a name, exhausting the 2020 name list from the National Hurricane Center and requiring nine letters of the Greek alphabet.
Six of the hurricanes in the 2020 season were Category 3 or greater; both a Category 4 and a Category 5 hurricane made landfall in Nicaragua within less than two weeks. Prior to this, only five storms of this magnitude had made landfall in the region since 1941.
The number of storms is a concern, but what matters most for the future of coastal communities is their increasing strength and the speed at which new storms are intensifying, shortening the time available to prepare for their arrival.
According to a new climate risk report from McKinsey and Company, by 2050 the risk of a “one in 500 years” hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast could be twice as great as it was between 1981 and 2000 if carbon emissions are not reduced. Even if progress is made, the authors say, the carbon already in the atmosphere will keep temperatures rising until 2030.
Somehow, despite the record number of storms, coastal communities in the U.S. escaped a Katrina-scale disaster. Nonetheless, the destruction that occurred elsewhere is a warning to government leaders in these areas.
“Nicaragua really got pummeled,” says Jim Kossin, a NOAA scientist who studies extreme storms and their relationship to climate and climate change. “If that was in the contiguous United States it would have been huge news – we’d still be talking about it if New Orleans was hit multiple times this year.”
Bigger Storms with More Rain, Wind
A long period of reduced hurricane activity in the 1970s and 80s led to complacency, says Kossin. The perception that there was no immediate risk, combined with the advent of air conditioning, spurred migration to coastal areas – but storm frequency began to pick up after 1995.
The fact that 2020 was a record-breaking season does not necessarily mean that 2021 will be the same, or worse, he says. But it’s safe to say that in the future there will be more, and stronger, storms on average.
“We’ve raised the speed limit on these storms,” says Kossin. “We are seeing more and more category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes, and it’s just a matter of time before they are stronger than anything we’ve ever measured before.”
Warmer air makes storms more dangerous by increasing the amount of rain that comes from them and causing them to travel more slowly over land, says Kossin. A powerful storm parked over a heavily-populated area, with its strong winds and a torrent of rainfall, can cause enormous damage, as did Hurricane Harvey.
“If Hurricane Dorian, a 2019 Category 5 storm, had stalled over Florida rather than the Bahamas, that would have been close to a worst-case scenario,” he says, “So it was really just a matter of miles.”
The possibility of such an event is heighted by the fact that warmer temperatures are increasing the amount of real estate for storms, creating a “tropical” climate in what have been considered subtropical and middle latitudes. When all the factors at play are considered together, says Kossin, the prospects for future hurricane seasons can be discouraging.
A fair amount of adaptation will be required to deal with this, Kossin says, and the time scale for accomplishing it will vary according to sector. For emergency managers, it might be seasonal or multi-year. City planners will need to look much further into the future.
“We could still have a very quiet year any time,” he says. “The folks who are doing the long-term planning will need to recognize that this is a new normal that we have to adapt to. We don’t expect this to get better, and if anything, it could get worse.”
A Panma City Business gutted by Hurricane Michael. (Photo courtesy of Panama City)
Housing Recovery in Hurricane Country
Mark McQueen, a two-star general, was preparing to retire in 2018 from a 38-year career in the Army when he was asked to take on the role of city manager for Panama City, Fla. He had been on the job two weeks when Hurricane Michael, a category 5 storm, hit the Florida panhandle on October 10. The community's recovery efforts offer an example that could have applications in the aftermath of other kinds of disasters.
Panama City is in Bay County, located in the middle of the panhandle, and the largest city between Tallahassee and Pensacola. In the wake of the hurricane, more than 80 percent of the residential and commercial properties in Panama City were damaged or destroyed. Hundred-year-old oak and pine trees that were even older had been felled, another blow to a city proud of its status as a Tree City USA.
“We had to dig out of 40 years of debris,” says McQueen.
“We knew that if were going to get back on our feet, we had to work on getting housing -- not just housing, but affordable housing -- in play for our citizens,” he says. “That was the long pole in the tent for our recovery.”
City Manager Mark McQueen: “We knew that if were going to get back on our feet, we had to work on getting housing - not just housing, but affordable housing - in play for our citizens."
Funding from the state’s Hurricane Housing Recovery Program, a total of $28 million for the county and $8 million for the city, provided the necessary support. The challenge was to create a program that could work for residents at every income level, whether they were renters or homeowners.
The program developed by the city, ReHouse Bay, incorporates five key strategies. Assistance was offered to offset the rising costs of rent and deposits in a market where demand far exceeded supply. Funds were made available to homeowners whose insurance settlements were insufficient to fully cover the costs of rebuilding to current, safer, code standards.
ReHouse Bay also assists low to moderate income families, who might be tempted or forced to leave the community because of economic strains, to purchase homes. It guides residents living in homes passed on to them by family members through the process of title clearance, opening the door to insurance, credit or refinancing. The last strategy is foreclosure prevention, to create a buffer between a disaster-induced loss of income and the permanent loss of a home.
To date, the program has had more than 2,000 applications for these services. “We want our citizens to resume a stable life,” says McQueen. “In the first year after the storm, the school board was reporting that up to 5,000 students were technically homeless, couch surfing or nomadically living with friends or family.”
In addition to the initial funding from the state, ReHouse Bay received $600,000 from Florida’s CARES Act funds. By the time this arrived, Panama City had a well-established program to help residents have a place to shelter.
“We’re all dealing with a national hurricane, and it happens to be called coronavirus,” says McQueen. “We were fortunate to have strategies and mechanisms in place, and similar strategies could be applicable in any community.”
Such resilience is vital for coastal communities. Some are raising the possibility that eventually, survival for some may also require other, more disruptive forms of adaptation.
A house on stilts in coastal Louisiana. "People do not want to move," says architect Steven Bingler. (Photo courtesy of Steven Bingler.)
Housing's Future Along the Coast
Architect Steven Bingler, whose firm Concordia led the city of New Orleans’ post-Katrina planning process, knows what it takes to attempt to outsmart nature and envision what “resilience” might mean in a region with a high risk for severe climate impacts. He’s also willing to consider the possibility that some battles can’t be won.
Bingler and his colleague, the writer, editor and critic Martin Pedersen, are co-founders of Common Edge, a non-profit with the mission of “reconnecting architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve.” They argue that the time has come for resilience planning to include another concept: “retreat.”
“Our profession has been focused on resilience and everybody else is focused on denial, including our government,” says Bingler. “Martin and I have come to the conclusion that it’s time to ring the bell and call the alarm and say it’s not going to get any better.”
Torrential rain from a slow-moving hurricane can devastate coastal cities, but that’s an acute climate impact. Bingler points to projections that rising sea levels could displace 300 million people by 2050. While the majority of the people affected live in Asia, it’s been estimated that 13 million coastal residents in the U.S. will be displaced by 2100.
Planning for resilience has been based on an estimated two feet of sea level rise, says Bingler, but the new worst-case estimates are between six and eight and a half feet. “Where are people going to go?,” he asks. “If you look at the East Coast, it is almost one city that starts in Miami and goes all the way to New York.”
Lost housing is not the only concern. There’s also the prospect of infrastructure buried underwater. For example, there are some predictions that the Atlantic Ocean could reach Richmond, Virginia, says Bingler.
“Imagine standing on the beach in Richmond, Virginia, and looking out at the remains of all of that infrastructure,” he says. "Think about all of those underground utilities that are going to be submerged, think about the toxic soup that's left.”
Bingler has found that progress of any sort starts by engaging those who live in the communities that are at risk. People do not want to move, he says, as evidenced by houses in coastal Louisiana that are jacked up 30 feet in the air, whose owners would rather experience whatever comes than leave their homes.
“If I were the mayor of a coastal city, I’d set up a planning commission,” says Bingler. "I’d pull in my planning department, universities, business leaders and do a worst-case scenario to at least envision what challenges might be ahead.”
Bingler acknowledges that many coastal cities are investing in resilience planning, developing sophisticated strategies. He’s convinced that this planning must include more conversations about retreat.
“Our take isn’t fatalistic or defeatist,” says Martin Pedersen. “It really is about continuing to hope for the best, but plan for the worst, because not to do that just feels irresponsible.”