SDG 14: Below Water SDG 6: Water

Acqua alta, indeed

This week's epic flood in Venice is but the latest reminder of the systemic changes needed across the board and around the world, including a new social contract

The Entry

Albert Slap went from meeting to meeting last week as if in a crusade. Well, not as if. I stand corrected. His really is a big-cause mission, the sense of urgency carried as much in his message as in his pace.

In a brisk two-day swing through Puerto Rico, he visited insurance companies, a government official, an NGO, spoke to the press. “There are new solutions available now to guard against severe flooding,” said the co-founder and president of Coastal Risk Consulting, at every stop. “We’re not the bearers of bad news. This is a story of hope.”

Two days later, Slap’s message could be heard 4,800 miles away, when Italy was blasted by a 45 mph windstorm, heavy rainfall and high storm surges that flooded 77% of Venice, some spots hit by 60+ inches of water.

The featured photo above, from this AP story, shows an all too common scene in Floating City, as water gushed into businesses and homes. In this CBS report, you can see how pumps and floodgates helped some shopkeepers. The vast majority, though, are unprotected.


Three weeks ago, almost four now, the United Nations did bear quite a bit of bad news, when it threw in the towel on any realistic hope of solving climate change and pointed to a now-certain future of ever-worsening extreme weather events. The latter are already happening, but will become exponentially more severe once the world surpasses the dreaded 1.5ºC temperature increase over the pre-industrial average as soon as 2030.

That includes, perhaps most ominously, far more frequent and serious flood events. In the United States, according to this recent PEW report, an astonishing 73% of all presidential disaster declarations in the last 10 years were flood-related.

And it happens EVERYWHERE. The report notes that “while flooding in coastal areas draws heavy media coverage, eight of the 10 states that experienced the most flood-related disaster declarations were inland.”

This critical juncture catches flood insurance in a state of crisis. The federal National Flood Insurance Program, created 50 years ago when it became clear that private insurers were finding the coverage unprofitable, is $20 billion in debt (to the U.S. Treasury, which keeps bailing it out of claims) and does little to discourage continued property ownership in high-risk areas, as former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says in this revealing story.

Meanwhile, FEMA flood maps, designed to inform insurance coverage, have become a disaster in their own right, as they fail to match the locations and intensity of today’s, and much less tomorrow’s, flood events. FEMA administers the NFIP.

Insurance carriers, for their part, continue to run away from the practice, as we learn in this Forbes story, with only 12% of Americans covered.

All eyes, therefore, are on pending congressional NFIP reforms. “Pending bills,” says Fugate in his story, “would require sellers to disclose flood risk to homebuyers, require repeatedly flooded communities to develop localized plans to reduce risk, enhance mapping of risk areas, boost investments in resilience — for example, through a revolving loan fund — and engage private insurers.” But it is anyone’s guess when these and other reforms will become law.

Start with a Flood Score

Which brings us back to Albert Slap. In the face of this industry and regulatory gridlock, he suggests what amounts to a new social contract.

“We cannot rely only on top-down solutions,” he told me over coffee in Old San Juan, accompanied by Julie Wagner, his wife and a CRC executive. “The time has come to focus more than ever on the bottom up.”

Albert Slap and Julie Wagner visit a megaresort in Puerto Rico, recently reopened following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. “Investing in flood barriers,” he said, “vastly reduces the cost of recovering from a disaster at large properties like this one.”

That includes property owners taking matters into their own hands. “People can’t wait for solutions to come from government or insurance companies. They’ll be flooded many times before that happens. There are steps they can take today.”

By protecting their properties with modern, affordable flood barriers and other measures, Wagner added, “they’re likely to get better premiums from their insurance companies, which are always happy to reduce their risk.”

It’s as if Slap and Wagner are calling for a new class or category of home and business property improvements in light of the coming wave of natural disasters.

Construction codes force builders to embed protections against such events as fires, floods and strong winds. But they vary greatly by city and generally fail woefully to guard against post 1.5ºC extreme climate.

Needed, then, is a new level of disaster-ready improvements that property owners would package, with the help of relevant engineering and contractor advice, and that banks would finance and insurance companies reward (with lower premiums).

CRC would be one of those providers. The 2015 start-up, Slap explained, is the result of a tech innovation developed by a team of scientists to provide unprecedented modeling of future flood risks, plus such other dangers as wind and droughts, for any given property in the United States, including states and territories. The firm expects to soon extend the solution to Latin America and elsewhere.

“That’s the beauty of it, that we can insert any individual address into the model and have a report in the customer’s hands right away,” said Slap.

The report includes a Flood Score, to gauge the property’s flood risk, and the CRC Help Desk then “prescribes” the customized barriers and equipment that stem from it.

“We act like doctors who evaluate, diagnose and prescribe. There are all kinds of new products and solutions, including some in Europe, that we can bring to a customer’s attention.”

Start now

And not just individual property owners. CRC also advises whole cities on the development of flood policies and infrastructure improvements, and it works with insurance companies and real estate firms on securing entire portfolios of properties.

The real estate industry, in fact, has begun responding to the frightening spike in costly disaster events by weighing adaptation options, as reported in this story by resilience consultant extraordinaire Joyce Coffee.

“Climate [resilience] has become an investment imperative in a sector where such investments often are held for a decade or longer,” writes Coffee, who is also a board member of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP).

At Delray Beach, Florida, City Sustainability Officer Ana Puszkin-Chevlin calls it the new seaconomy, or the sum of solutions likely to generate fresh economic activity and job creation as companies like CRC are formed and older ones hone in on the various business niches related to sea level rise and flood events.

In Venice, acqua alta, or high water, has long created fantastic tourism activity, as visitors flock to picturesque gondolas to ferry ancient canals and permanently flooded streets.

This week’s epic flood, though, served more as a reminder of how vital it has become for people and industry to implement new solutions of their own.

Development of a massive sea barrier called MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) — described in this Fortune article as “one of the world’s most complex, large-scale civil engineering projects ever attempted” — began way back in 1966, with construction finally getting started in 2004, only to be delayed by corruption, with no sign of life at the moment.

So, yeah. May the new social contract begin.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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