“Honey,” I announced, “we’re selling the house.”
My spouse was flabbergasted — until I explained. I had just opened an envelope containing the 2016 renewal notice for our flood insurance. The premium was over $4,000.
We bought the house in 1986. It was on South Bayshore Drive in the Coconut Grove section of Miami, Fla. Our flood-insurance premium then was just $1,200 — an amount we considered acceptable, especially given our location across the street from a park on the shore of Biscayne Bay.
Six years later, in 1992, the infamous Hurricane Andrew blew through. We had some water damage inside the house. After Andrew, we listed the house for sale. So did practically everyone else on South Bayshore Drive. After six months with no nibbles, we delisted the house and began focusing on repairs.
Months later still, we met with our contractor and the claims adjusters for the homeowners’ and flood insurance. We had a list and wanted to know who would pay for what.
The session took all day. Everyone threatened to sue everyone else. Then we got down to business and began apportioning responsibilities. Flood insurance paid a significant part of that claim.
Fast forward through Hurricane Georges in 1998, Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, Hurricane Isaac in 2012, and a variety of other hurricanes and tropical storms in other years. Through these years, I watched our flood-insurance premium rise — and something else was rising, too. Call it “sunny-day flooding.”
I owe my awareness of this phenomenon to Max, my dog. He’s an abandoned puppy whom I rescued in 2012. We began taking daily walks in the park. As we crossed the street at the storm-drain grate, we would speculate together about the origin and growing frequency of water puddling in the street on days with no storm in sight.
That grate is part of a drainage system collecting rainwater from the streets on the bluff behind our house. It empties into a mangrove swamp dividing the park in two. A long-time resident of the area told me the park had been built decades before on filled land.
Now the sea is trying to reclaim that land. For several days each month, water spills out of the swamp and backs up into the storm drain to inundate portions of South Bayshore Drive. The worst sunny-day flooding occurs in the fall when the sun and moon align to amplify their gravitational pull, creating what has come to be called “king tides.” At those times, the City of Miami puts out portable signs to warn hapless motorists of street flooding ahead.
We began interviewing Realtors and were met with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The house was more than 60 years old, needed some work, and — the biggest drawback of all — everyone could see where it was located. Proximity to Biscayne Bay was an asset when we bought in the 1980s; by the 2010s, it had become a liability.
Finally, we found a willing Realtor, who happened also to be a dog-park friend. She listed the house, periodically tweaking the price down to refresh the listing. Finding a committed buyer at an acceptable price took over a year. We signed a contract, began house-hunting, and started to pack.
Then Hurricane Irma came to call, striking south Florida on the morning of Sept. 10, 2017. We evacuated to ride out the storm with friends who lived up on the bluff, out of the flood zone. When we returned, we found the house dry, with debris piled knee-high in our driveway.
A team of enterprising and well-equipped college students arrived soon after, offering to clean up the mess for a budget-busting but appropriate fee. Of more concern was the status of our contract, which the buyer could have canceled without penalty due to the hurricane. He opted not to do so. We breathed a sigh of relief and resumed house-hunting and packing.
The contract provided that after the buyer closed on our house, we could rent it on a nominal per diem basis until we found a new one. The catch was that after 60 days, the per diem escalated sharply. Desperation was beginning to set in.
We had told our Realtor not to show us any house that would require us to buy flood insurance to qualify for a mortgage. That greatly limited our potential housing stock. So did the age of dwellings in our price range, and the quality of the city neighborhoods from which we could choose without fleeing Miami for a distant suburb.
We looked north to neighboring Broward County. A work friend had told me nice things about the Hollywood Hills section of Hollywood, Fla., a city of about 155,000 population. We concentrated our efforts there, south of Ft. Lauderdale and about 25 miles north of Miami, only to find that portions of Hollywood Hills were close enough to sea level to require flood insurance. We spent a frantic month searching, found, and bought a house that met our requirements and budget and spent a month moving, finally turning over the keys to the Miami house just before New Year’s Eve of 2017 — and just before our 60-day rent deadline.
Our new Hollywood Hills home is five miles from the ocean and nine feet above sea level. Although not in mountainous terrain, it’s outside the flood zone. As I’ve learned more about my new hometown, I realize that my Realtor chose well on my behalf. Closer to the coast, portions of Hollywood are more imperiled by sea-level rise than most of Miami.
In particular, consider the Hollywood Lakes neighborhood. There the lakes are tidal, connected to the Intracoastal Waterway, which leads to the Atlantic Ocean. City officials have installed pumps to suck water from the streets back into the lakes – truly an exercise in futility.
An annual King Tide Event on the Sunday in October that is closest to the full moon attracts participants to Hollywood Lakes to hear speakers discuss climate change and sea-level rise, and to slosh around in streets flooded to knee height on the lakes’ margins.
In 2020, due to COVID-19, the event will be virtual – but the flooding will be real, as the September highest tides already have demonstrated.
Several months ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that it had redrawn the flood maps for portions of Hollywood, and invited residents to an open house at a local nature center to see the results. My daughter and I went. We learned to our great relief that our status was unchanged and we still wouldn’t need flood insurance. For those who learned otherwise, I offer sympathy.
Since I stopped buying flood insurance in Miami, the program has created a new rate structure, Risk Rating 2.0, and postponed its implementation. It was supposed to take effect this past April but is now scheduled for October of 2021.
The delay is another round in FEMA’s long-running boxing match with the U.S. Congress. The lawmakers want FEMA to set flood-insurance premiums high enough to recoup the agency’s massive outstanding debt and cover new claims going forward, but every time FEMA tries to raise the premiums, constituents clamor for relief and Congress spits out the bullet instead of biting it.
While FEMA takes the extra time to fine-tune Risk Rating 2.0 before applying it, FEMA’s 2020 premiums have gone up by a nationwide average of 11.3 percent. That average, however, hides a wide range of variability.
As FEMA pursues its seemingly perpetual task of mapping flood risk, boundaries are being adjusted to reflect more precise mapping techniques, and also changes in the landscape as construction reduces the availability of wetlands to contain large volumes of water. Some property owners who didn’t previously need flood insurance now find themselves in a zone where lenders require mandatory coverage.
Meanwhile, critics continue to complain that FEMA still draws maps by looking over its collective shoulder at past flooding events, without factoring into its models any future predictions of sea-level rise and king-tide flooding that might bring unanticipated inundation to properties officially designated as high and dry.
Climate change and sea-level rise aren’t confined to South Florida.
The low-lying tropical Pacific island nations of Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu risk vanishing beneath the waves, as do inhabited islands in the Gulf of Alaska. Residents of these areas are becoming refugees, too, abandoning their historic communities and losing touch with their cultures as they relocate. Other low-lying coastal areas on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Indian Ocean also are at risk.
Although most of the world’s seacoasts are subject to some degree of sea-level rise, the sea level in the Gulf of Bothnia between eastern Sweden and western Finland seems to be falling because the land is rising faster. Since the last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, this post-glacial uplift has been adding land to the margins of shorelines and forcing the relocation of docks and piers as the onshore waters become shallower.
If you want to avoid sea-level rise, this is the place to go — but no palm trees grow there. You can’t have everything.