South Florida sea level rise needs urgent action: task force

MIAMI Tue Jul 1, 2014 5:27pm EDT

MIAMI (Reuters) - South Florida's coastal real estate may become uninsurable as the sea level rises unless Miami's county government takes urgent action, a task force said on Tuesday.

"We believe that without a professionally well thought out adaptation plan in place, we risk losing insurability and financial support for our future," the Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force concluded in a report.

Sea level rise is "a measurable, trackable and relentless reality," task force Chairman Harvey Ruvin, a longtime environmentalist and the Miami-Dade county Clerk of the Courts, wrote in the report's introductory letter.

"It's happening, and we are ground zero," he added in an interview, noting the vulnerability to climate change of low-lying southeast Florida, with a population of 5.7 million.

Climate change is already impacting Florida coastal communities, which could see a 2-foot rise in sea level by 2060, the United States Geological Survey has warned.

Florida had recorded 5-8 inches of sea level rise in the last 50 years, a panel of officials and scientists testified at a Senate hearing on Miami Beach in April.

The task force, which submitted its report on Tuesday, was created by the county commission in July 2013 to assess the potential impacts of sea level rise for future development planning.

The task force made six major recommendations for the county, from the hiring of engineers to vet the county's physical structures such as flood control barriers and pump stations, as well as exploring methods to limit flood damage and saltwater intrusion.

The task force also recommended working with the insurance industry to develop long-term risk management solutions.

"We have to bring the insurance industry into the planning process, otherwise the taxes that will be coming will be punitive and prohibitive," said Ruvin, noting that the re-insurance industry is in the process of moving from historical data to predictive data to make its risk calculations.

Using predictive scenarios, the task force noted that the reinsurance firm Swiss Re estimated the expected losses for southeast Florida from severe weather ranged from $17 billion, or 8.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2008, to $33 billion or 10 percent of GDP in 2030.

However, Swiss Re calculated about $30 billion of the total expected loss in 2050 could be avoided if a comprehensive plan for adaptation were implemented, the task force noted.

"This is a call to action," said Nichole Hefty, head of the county's Office of Sustainability. "There is a growing awareness that we need to make our infrastructure more resilient."

Despite the urgency the task force said it was "optimistic" that South Florida has a viable future.

"I don't want to sound Doomsday-ish. We do have time and the human species has a great capacity for adaptation," said Ruvin. "But we need to realize it's happening, we can't bury our heads in the sand, because pretty soon we will be swimming," he added.

(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Richard Chang)