Emily Atkin is a staff writer at the New Republic, covering science and environmental politics.
Taking stock of the damage left behind by hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria shows that man-made defenses can fail often—and hugely.
In southwest Florida’s Lee County, hundreds of seawalls built to keep the ocean at bay have crumbled. During Hurricane Irma, high winds rapidly sucked the seawater away from the structures, leaving them exposed on the ocean side. Simultaneously, heavy rains caused flooding on land, which drained toward the walls. Without the ocean to support them, they buckled under pressure from the rushing floodwater. Soon after, an intense storm surge sent seawater roaring back toward the land—right over the crumbled walls. Properties that had been protected suddenly were not.
Hundreds of seawalls in Florida were breached, posing challenges for local governments. “The city does not have the necessary manpower or materials to address all of these failures,” the city of Punta Gorda said in a press release. The city is seeking contractors to repair the walls, but not many such companies exist and those that do are stretched thin after Irma. One company reported getting 200 to 400 calls per day. “We were busy before this with new construction,” Melanie Williamson, of Williamson & Sons Marine Construction in Cape Coral, Florida, told the local News-Press. “We came in this morning and had another 50 message on the phone and it just doesn’t stop. So it’s a pretty serious situation.”
Seawalls are perhaps the most well-known line of defense from sea-level rise. And yet they were not enough to protect some coastal communities in Florida this month. The Trump administration, though it does not accept that human-caused climate change is real, has said it does want to defend against its impacts: rising oceans, more intense rainfall, and bigger storm surges. “We continue to take seriously the climate change—not the cause of it, but the things that we observe,” White House national security adviser Tom Bossert said earlier this month. In other words, we’ll prepare for the result (destruction), but not address the cause (carbon emissions).
But as climate change worsens, and thus brings even more rain and higher seas, will mere adaptation plans be enough to protect lives and property? Let’s consider howexisting adaptation measures fared against hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria.
Lee County was not the only place where man-made defenses against major hurricanes went awry. In Brevard County, water pumps were installed to reduce flooding and flooding during storms. They’re working, but not well enough; floodwaters were still standing in some places more than a week after the storm. In Miami Beach, an $11.5 million beach widening project was undertaken to protect the island from hurricane storm surge. It was completed six months ago, but Irma blew away massive chunks of sand and narrowed it back down. Storm surge still wound up inundating the streets. Miami Beach also recently raised 105 miles of roads in an attempt to prevent flooding, but according to the Miami Herald, the area “saw its streets near the Venetian Causeway turn into, well, Little Venice.”
Considering the catastrophic and widespread damage Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico, it’s clear that any climate adaptation plans they undertook were not enough. And the island did undertake adaptation plans: In 2015, for example, a U.S. government report praised Puerto Rico specifically for being “a leader in bringing organizations and people together” to address vulnerabilities. “The [Puerto Rico Climate Change Council] has conducted an island-wide vulnerability assessment that resulted in several executive orders to further plan for climate adaptation and mitigation,” the report said. “The coastal program is also successfully supporting the incorporation of climate resilience into municipal planning processes.”
But these municipal planning processes did not prevent catastrophe. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) completed an adaptation plan for its entire potable water and sewage infrastructure. But following Maria, PRASA suffered “serious damage,” the extent of which is not yet known because the agency’s communications systems are down. In 2015, the island’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources released an extensive study calling out the island’s power authority, saying 94 percent of its capacity was vulnerable to rising oceans, the report said. It’s not clear yet whether storm surge compromised Puerto Rico’s power plants, but many of them are very close to the shoreline; 100 percent of power is out on the island.
Money spent on adaptation measures is wasted if disasters keep getting worse. And Puerto Rico has been given hundreds of millions of dollars from FEMA to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters. According to environmental organization NRDC, “Puerto Rico has received an enormous amount of money through FEMA’s hazard mitigation grant programs: almost $300 million. This is more than any other jurisdictions updating their plans this year have received. The bulk of this—which is contingent upon Puerto Rico having an approved hazard mitigation plan—came in the form of one $190 million grant in 1999, which was used to rebuild homes damaged during Hurricane Georges, making them more resistant to future storms.” The future storms imagined in 1999 were not the storms we have today.
This is not to say that adaptation is useless. Houston, Texas would have fared far better from Hurricane Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall if its officials hadn’t ignored scientists’ warnings about how vulnerable the area is to flooding. The city refused to adapt—in fact, it did the opposite, replacing prairie and green spaces (which absorb floodwater) with concrete and pavement, and building within FEMA’s 100-year and 500-year floodplains. As a result, floodwater stood stagnant in parts of the city for more than a week after the storm hit, far longer that it would have otherwise. Meanwhile, some adaptation measures undertaken by Florida appear to have been successful. After 2012’s Tropical Storm Sandy caused extensive flooding on State Road A1A in Fort Lauderdale, officials decided to rebuild it to withstand increased flooding. After Irma, there is a lot of sand on some parts of the roadway, but no flooding.
What this does demonstrate, however, is that adaptation measures will inevitably fail to provide full protection. And that’s always been true: With seawalls, for example, it’s expected that they will sometimes break. Without mitigation—that is, without reducing the intensity of storms by reducing greenhouse gas emissions—there is no backup plan for those failures. It takes a long time to build and rebuild structures like seawalls, and as this year showed, major natural disasters can happen one after the other. “I predict we’ll be doing seawall repairs well into 2018, no if’s, and’s or but’s about it,” one contractor told the Cape Coral Daily Breeze after Irma. It’s still hurricane season, and will be for another two months. If another storm hits southwest Florida, many areas that lost their seawalls during Irma will be dangerously exposed.
What these recent adaption failures prove is that adaptation alone is insufficient to prevent severe economic damage and loss of human life. That’s important, because even moderate Republicans who accept the reality of climate change tend to advocate only for adaptation policies; reducing the force of these disasters by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is almost never on the table. As Jack Moore wrote recently in GQ, ignoring the cause of climate change while treating only the effects is “like if you had brain cancer and you went to the doctor and all he wanted to do was treat those pesky headaches you’ve been having.” Climate change is a curable cancer, but only if we undergo the full treatment.
Sharon Zhang contributed reporting.