Florida has more to lose with sea rise than anywhere else in the U.S., new study says

Two weeks after a king tide flooded parts of Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, a heavy rain flooded this Miami neighborhood near Coral Way and Southwest 23rd Street on Oct. 6.
Two weeks after a king tide flooded parts of Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, a heavy rain flooded this Miami neighborhood near Coral Way and Southwest 23rd Street on Oct. 6. Miami Herald Staff

Florida stands to lose more homes — and real estate value — to sea level rise damage than any other state in the nation this century, according to a new study.

By 2045, nearly 64,000 homes in Florida face flooding every other week. Half of those are in South Florida.

If you buy a house now, before your new mortgage is paid you might have to regularly do the rolled-up-pants, shoes-in-hand commute that has become an enduring image of sea rise.

These numbers, released in a report compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists, used housing information from Zillow and a flood model from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that predicts 6 1/2 feet of sea rise by the end of the century.

Former studies of Zillow data showed Florida has hundreds of thousands of homes worth billions of dollars with the risk of being permanently drenched with six feet of sea rise.

This report, said one of its authors, Rachel Cleetus, talks about “a looming threat flying completely under the radar” — regular flooding.

“Well before homes go under water we’ll start to see chronic inundation that affects home value,” she said.

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By the end of the century, Florida’s number of at-risk homes jump from 64,000 to a million. In 2100, the report said, about 1 in 10 homes in Florida will face flooding every other week. That puts the Sunshine State at the top of the list nationwide for homes at risk.

The report underlines the domino effect these repetitive floods could have on a community if nothing is done.

As these floods grow more frequent and more intense, they’ll start chipping away at the value of coastal homes, something initial research shows is happening in Miami-Dade and beyond. As these waterlogged homes lose value, their owners may decide that it’s easier to abandon them to foreclosure rather than pay a mortgage worth more than the house.

The authors of the report note that this kind of housing crisis would be more severe than any the U.S. has faced before. Unlike housing market crashes, where property values usually bounce back, these homes will be unusable (and unsellable) forever.

Federally backed mortgage buyer Freddie Mac wrote in a 2016 report that the resulting social and economic impacts of climate change are likely to be “greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”

The dark possibility hinted at in these numbers also underlines the potential unsteady future of one of the main sources of revenue for the kinds of projects that save communities from the worst effects of flooding — a city’s tax base.

That’s especially visible in Miami Beach, one of South Florida’s most vulnerable communities. By 2030, Miami Beach homes paying $17 million in property taxes face regular flooding. By 2100, that jumps to more than $760 million.

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Keeping a city dry as seas rise isn’t cheap, but some Miami communities are investing in solutions. Miami Beach raised stormwater fees to fund $500 million in street raising and pump installation projects. Miami’s “Forever Bond” was highlighted in the report as a positive story of a community taxing itself to pay for these projects.

The report made clear that the kind of action South Florida cities are taking right now is important. If other communities don’t start soon, it will be even harder for them to react to the threat in the future, said Joyce Coffee, president of Climate Resilient Consulting.

“If you don’t have these two things — a tax base and existing momentum — you’re on the losing side of history,” she said.

The report did suggest one solution that radically changes the number of homes at risk. If the world keeps fossil fuel emissions low, like the standards decided upon in the Paris Agreement, and ice melt is kept to a minimum, most sea rise damage could be averted. The authors said that would save 93 percent of Florida’s at-risk homes by the end of the century.

The report — and that 93 percent number — was compiled just before a new study from 80 Antarctic scientists showed that arctic ice melting has tripled in a decade. The work suggests the world has an even smaller window of time to act to stall the worst effects of climate change.

“We have to radically cut carbon emissions,” said Cleetus, author of the real estate risk study. “We have to prepare for the worst case scenario.”