Can Nature Help Defend Florida Against Future Natural Disasters?

The highest point in all of Florida is a hill that tops out at 345 feet above sea level, just south of the Alabama border. Much of the rest of the state lies far, far below that—like, 340 feet below—a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean around the same height as the Caribbean. It’s the last place you’d pick to ride out a hurricane, given the choice.But that’s the choice Florida’s 20 million residents had to reckon with last week, as Hurricane Irma barreled toward the state, breaking records and flattening towns across the Caribbean. Many expected it to be the costliest disaster in U.S. history—not just because of the Irma’s towering strength.

Florida is seemingly made for disaster. Its sprawling cities have been built up quickly and extensively, at the expense of the ecosystems that act as a natural defense against the worst of a hurricane’s blow. There’s nothing to stop a hurricane like Irma from wreaking havoc wherever it goes, but dunes, wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs can all play an important role in absorbing some of the destructive energy of a storm. Unfortunately, over the past century, the Sunshine State has lost the majority of all these natural shock absorbers, trading them for arable land and new developments.

As Florida and Texas start to rebuild from the blows dealt by Irma and Harvey, many are weighing how best to fortify vulnerable coastal cities, even as rising sea level brings the threat of flooding closer and closer.

There’s nothing to stop a hurricane like Irma from wreaking havoc, but dunes, wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs can all play an important role in absorbing some of the destructive energy.

“If you live near the water, the difference between a crashing wave and a slowly moving chop against the walls of your home can be everything,” says Rob Nowicki, a post-doctoral researcher at Florida’s Mote Marine Lab.

Houston’s mayor made a plea for funding to construct a massive sea wall, or “coastal spine,” to protect the region from dangerous storm surges in the future. “We cannot talk about rebuilding” he said, “if we do not build the coastal spine.”

This bunker-building approach to natural disaster—which Nathanael Johnson wrote about in Houston’s struggle to control floodwater—is prone to occasional, catastrophic failure, especially as climate change continues to shift the baseline on our expectations of what a storm can do. The problem is, for Florida, these kinds of concrete-heavy projects aren’t really an option.

“What distinguishes all of South Florida is that it’s got this porous limestone base,” says Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities. No matter what barriers you put between yourself and the sea, water will be able to seep around it. In Miami Beach, king tides regularly flood up through the city’s storm drains, hurricane or no. At the most dire moments before Irma made landfall, Miami—with an average elevation of 6 feet above sea level—was predicted to see as much as 10 feet of storm surge.

When Irma made a last-minute swerve inland, pushing the storm surge away from populated coastal cities, much of the predicted damage was avoided. Still, Miami and Jacksonville saw several feet of flooding, power outages, and overwhelmed infrastructure.

Other cities, like Tampa and Sarasota, remain especially vulnerable because they sit on the on the edge of very shallow seas, Dawson says. That means when storms sweep in from deeper ocean they pile up some extremely high, extremely powerful waves ahead of them. Although Tampa only ended up with a couple of feet of storm surge from Irma, initial forecasts were chilling; if the storm had veered a different way, nine to 15 feet of surge might have slammed into the city.Shoreline habitats like dunes and wetlands can block storm surge, usually the deadliest part of a major hurricane, because they slow down dangerous waves and prevent water from moving as far inland as it would without them.A recent study in Nature’s online journal calculated that wetlands saved New York $625 million in flooding damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, by absorbing both storm surge and rain.“As a rule of thumb, you can expect larger and more prominent ecosystems to provide more protection,” says Nowicki.The same swamps and mangroves that would help protect Florida from storms are also what helped keep people and development out of the sparsely populated state until the 20th century.

To make South Florida habitable, the Army Corps of Engineers dug 2,000 miles of canals and levees starting in the 1930s. Beaches were bulwarked, channels were dredged, subdivisions snaked their way into former marshland, and Disney World appeared in a puff of pink smoke (I assume). Along the way, Florida’s natural wetlands receded and its once-stunning coral reefs all but disappeared. Florida is now the third most populous state, behind California and Texas.

In the last few years, Florida Governor Rick Scott has overseen large budget cuts to the department in charge of researching and preserving these ecosystems, enabling the kind of risky coastal development that puts people too close to dangerous storms. And President Donald Trump recently reversed an Obama-era mandate that federally funded construction projects abide by a higher flooding standard to take sea level rise into consideration. All of this leaves Florida in a poor position to weather future storms.

Then there’s the question of Florida’s coral reefs. Offshore reefs can’t stop surge from coming inland the way dunes and wetlands can, but they sap energy from the waves washing over them. Coral cover in the Caribbean, including in Florida, has decreased by 80 percent, leaving low-lying shorelines less protected than ever.

Mote Marine Laboratory, where Robert Nowicki works, is focused on research into how to restore Florida’s degraded reefs by growing and planting new coral colonies onto former reef sites.

“While much of our living coral is gone, the skeletons remain,” Nowicki explains. The structure of a reef, even a dead one, will continue to act as a brake on waves for a while, but over time the skeletons break down and, without live coral to rebuild them, turn into rubble.

This kind of outplanting project is based on the way foresters restore damaged forests by raising trees in nurseries and then distributing them into the wild. It’s labor-intensive and slow, yet Nowicki says it’s the best bet for rebuilding these damaged reefs, and their storm-buffering services, before they’re gone for good.

“Getting living coral back on the old skeletons,” he says, “is a kind of race against time.”

It’s Officially Hurricane Season… Here’s Your List of This Year’s Contestants

Some of the most notorious villains in American history are known by only one name. From Betsy and Camille to Katrina, Ike and Sandy, their legacies are so etched into our collective memory that it only takes a few syllables to recall the terrible days these hurricanes made landfall.

But where do hurricane names come from? Why do we give human names to violent, mindless masses of water and wind? And how do we all agree which name to use? The practice dates back to the 1950s, although people have been naming tropical cyclones for centuries.

Before the 1940s, only the worst storms were given names, usually based on the place or time of year they made landfall: There was the Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893, the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, to name a few. Scientists and forecasters often assigned unofficial numbers to tropical cyclones — Tropical Storm One, Hurricane Two, etc. — but the practice of using more memorable and relatable names didn’t begin until 1950.

That was the first year when Atlantic tropical cyclones received official names, although they still weren’t human ones. These initial names were taken from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, so the 1950 season featured such bizarrely named storms as Hurricane Dog, Hurricane Easy, Hurricane Jig, Hurricane Item and Hurricane Love. There was also a Tropical Storm How in early October.

This tradition continued for two years, but it had a glaring flaw: The same list of names was recycled every year, so the 1950-’52 seasons each featured a Hurricane Able through at least Hurricane Fox. That became confusing, so in 1953 the U.S. National Hurricane Center began using female human names, which proved far more successful. Not only did it make storm identification easier, but it helped authorities and news outlets spread warnings — and helped the public pay attention to them.

“[N]ames are presumed to be far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms,” the World Meteorological Organization explains on its website. “Many agree that appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness.”

The first hurricane names were often inspired by forecasters’ wives, but in 1979 men’s names were added to the mix. The WMO now oversees the master list of names, which alternates between male and female; six lists are rotated annually in the Atlantic, so the 2015 names will be used again in 2021. But when a cyclone is bad enough, its name can be retired to honor victims and survivors. Seventy-eight Atlantic hurricane names have been retired since 1954, including 29 since 2000. Among the most infamous retired hurricane names are Audrey (1957), Betsy (1965), Camille (1969), Hugo (1989), Andrew (1992), Ivan (2004), Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012).

Here are the names for the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30:

  • Alex
  • Bonnie
  • Colin
  • Danielle
  • Earl
  • Fiona
  • Gaston
  • Hermine
  • Ian
  • Julia
  • Karl
  • Lisa
  • Matthew
  • Nicole
  • Otto
  • Paula
  • Richard
  • Shary
  • Tobias
  • Virginie
  • Walter

The season for tropical cyclones in the Pacific Ocean is generally the same, although it officially begins May 15 in the Eastern Pacific. Naming Pacific cyclones is often more complex than in the Atlantic, with different lists for the Eastern, Central and Western Pacific, as well as for Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the North Indian Ocean and the Southwest Indian Ocean. See the NHC’s list of Pacific storm names and the WMO’s guide to tropical cyclone naming for more info.