According to a new report from Climate Central and Zillow, 2,659 homes (at a value of $871.9 million) in Duval County are at risk of coastal flooding by the year 2050 under an unchecked pollution scenario and 19,121 ($7.2 billion) could be underwater by 2100.
“By 2050, more than 386,000 existing homes in the U.S. are going to be at likely risk of permanent inundation from sea level rise or chronic flooding,” said Skylar Olsen, Director of Economic Research and Outreach at Zillow, an online real estate database company. “That amounts to over $209 billion.”
Statewide, that number is 51,137, or 1 percent of all Florida homes, at a value of $26.9 billion.
All of those numbers are in the scenario of unchecked emissions, which, according to Olsen, is our likely future right now.
Moderate emissions cuts, as outlined in the Paris agreement on climate, could reduce the 2050 number of houses at risk nationwide to a little more than 348,000, in Florida to just over 41,000 and in Jacksonville to about 2,300.
Those differences may seem marginal, but when you project to the year 2100 they’re stark.
With unchecked emissions, more than 2.5 million homes in the U.S. could be at risk by 2100, nearly 1.1 million could be at risk in Florida (far more than any other state) and, as mentioned earlier, more than 19,000 in Duval County.
But with moderate emission cuts, by 2100 those numbers fall to 1.3 million nationwide, 365,000 in Florida and 9,300 in Jacksonville.
Despite these risks, the percentage growth rate of new homes being built in America’s highest coastal flood-risk zones is outpacing the percentage growth rate outside of those areas in more than half of the country’s coastal states, according to Ocean At The Door: New Homes And The Rising Sea, a research report from Climate Central and Zillow.
A risk zone, according to Climate Central and Zillow, is an area exposed to, on average, at least one coastal flood per year in 2050 under moderate emissions cuts, known technically as Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5, and under the median projections for sea-level rise associated with these emissions levels as described in the research article Evolving Understanding of Antarctic Ice-Sheet Physics and Ambiguity in Probabilistic Sea-Level Projections.
New homes refers to currently existing structures built after 2009 and before 2017 (or before 2016 in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and New York).
In Florida, the recent risk zone growth rate is about the same as the growth rate in safer areas. The study finds 908 new homes (51 of those in Jacksonville) are in areas at risk of flooding at least once a year by 2050 under moderate emissions cuts.
“But Florida also has the largest number of homes and the greatest value of homes in risky coastal areas, just because the state is so low and there’s so much concentration of real estate and value in those low zones,” said Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist at Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science.
“There’s just a lot of the state that is at particular risk to sea level rise,” said Olsen. “We project this out to 2050, but there are cities already that have seawalls and other plans that are implemented to kind of defend against the kind of chronic flooding that already exists. Think about Miami where there are massive, massive expensive investments being made in order to protect the city.”
So the question is, why would anyone build new homes in areas that are at risk of flooding?
“I think it’s hard to combat against the desire to live in a beautiful place like on the coast,” said Olsen. “Consumers are still willing to buy in these areas.”
“Until we really start to see the impacts I think it’s hard to think that people start to change their behavior,” she went on to say. “Which is a shame, because as soon as we start to see the impacts, when we start to see homes be taken by the sea, be taken by chronic flooding - more and more of them, billions of dollars lost - by that time it’s a hard thing to reverse.”
Some homeowners are already feeling the impact, whether they know it or not.
“Research shows that home values in the lowest coastal areas in the United States, including Florida, are already lower than they should be because of sea level rise and those values are simply going to continue to depress, relative to where they should be,” said Strauss. “It’s not a long term investment, building in the low coastal zone today.”
Additionally, insurance is already a lot more expensive in some of these coastal areas that are at risk of flooding and those costs are only going to continue to rise as flooding becomes more frequent and more intense.
There are also more visible examples, such as the historic flooding brought on by Hurricane Irma in 2017. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that wind and water damage in the U.S. caused by Irma totaled $50 billion, making it the fifth-costliest hurricane to affect the nation, behind Katrina (2005), Harvey (2017), Maria (2017) and Sandy (2012).
Strauss believes most people understand the climate is changing. He said the issue is that some elected representatives seem to have trouble admitting it’s happening.
“I think, even if in our different political tribes we’re supposed to say certain things in the public square, you’ve got to take this research seriously in the quiet of your study,” he said. “After all, all you have to do is put a stick in the ground by the coast - that’s basically what we do - and see that the water is getting higher and higher.”
“People know it! They see floods coming into their yards. They see the water in places it didn’t used to be,” he went on to say. “It’s worse in Southern Florida than it is in the Jacksonville area, but it’s progressing in Jacksonville too. And when it’s that plain to see you’ve got to understand this is a real risk. Even if you don’t feel attached to any particular explanation, there’s obviously a trend, there’s obviously a change. And honestly, the whole scientific establishment is behind one explanation. I think that’s got to register.”
While elected officials and policy makers continue to argue over the issue, there are things individuals can do to protect themselves and their investments.
Olsen and Strauss said the first thing homebuyers should do is research. ClimateCentral.org is a great resource to look at future sea level rise scenarios.
Most people buy homes to live in long term. For it to be a viable financial investment, homebuyers need to make sure the area will be safe 20 to 30 years down the road. If it’s not, homebuyers should ask themselves: is it worth living in an area if your home is at risk of frequent or chronic damage?
Insurance costs should also be a factor. “You have to really consider, ‘can I afford the flood insurance on top of this property?’ That can be, in some of these places, a big additional hit,” Olsen said.
When it comes to people who already own homes in areas that are at risk of flooding, Olsen and Strauss agree they should educate themselves and then organize.
“There are many measures that individuals can take to help harden their homes against flood damage,” Strauss said. “I think, though, most homeowners will find that the real protection comes either from organizing together to get their municipality or state to help protect the neighborhood and build resilience, or, they may want to consider carefully, whether and how long they want to stay.”
“Levies, seawalls... those are things that can be funded by the municipality, if the municipality can afford it or chooses to do it,” Olsen said. “But it won’t happen unless there’s buy in that it needs to happen. The first step is, of course, raising the issue and then collecting together similarly minded people to really bring it to the forefront. That could help defend your home into the future.”
Olsen said owners should also figure out ahead of time what they would do if their home is damaged or destroyed in the future.
“I think what we’ve seen over the past year is that damage from natural events, whether they’re wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes… these are becoming more expensive, they’re becoming more frequent, they’re becoming larger,” she said. “What we’ve done research to show is when that does happen, rent spikes in the area, it becomes much harder to find a place.”
“If your home is destroyed, what is your alternative?” she asked. “Knowing what those alternatives are, knowing them ahead of time, is really going to help you weather the storm, in a very literal sense, and make it out on the other side with your investments intact or your cherished items intact.”
The most important thing individuals, communities and governments can do, according to Strauss, is start preparing for future flooding as soon as possible.
“If a hurricane is coming, every day of forecast you have makes a big difference in lives and dollars protected,” he said. “Sea level rise is like a giant, slow hurricane coming, relentlessly, toward Florida and it’s not going away.”
“Every decade of warning that we have gives us a little bit more time to get out of the way or to prepare and harden our structures and can save a lot of dollars,” he went on to say. “The threat to life isn’t the same. But we’re only going to save those dollars, I think, if we act sooner than later. The more delay, the greater the chance for panic and disruption as sea levels continue to rise.”