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Company hopes to capitalize on rising sea levels in Florida

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (AP) — From the frothy assault of the Atlantic Ocean to the placid trespass of the Lake Worth Lagoon, sea level rise is a mounting concern for South Florida property buyers who are turning to science, and private companies, for guidance.

The three-year-old startup Coastal Risk Consultants was co-founded by the former director of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies, and has amassed an advisory board of respected atmosphere experts from the University of Miami, Pennsylvania State University and Florida International University.

Jupiter, a Silicon Valley firm launched this year by entrepreneur Rich Sorkin to analyze the effects of climate change on individual properties, includes a Nobel Prize winner, a former leader at the National Science Foundation, and Todd Stern, the chief negotiator for the U.S. on the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

The companies see a market in sea level rise consultation, but also other climate change-related challenges that traditional property inspectors and building codes don’t consider – hurricane storm surge, flooding rains and extreme temperature changes.

When seas could rise 10 inches by 2030 and up to 26 inches by 2060 above 1992 levels, the basis of inquiries is often whether buying a beach house will be an asset or liability to future generations.

“I just think as a practical matter, this is something people should do,” said homebuyer Kevin Kennedy, who ordered four reports from Coastal Risk Consulting on Palm Beach County properties along the Intracoastal and on the ocean. “The results discouraged me from purchasing two of them.”

Kennedy said he was surprised to learn the Intracoastal homes were more vulnerable to sea level rise than a condominium he liked on the ocean.

“My instinct was absolutely wrong,” he said. “I started looking at properties on the ocean and I and got the same report done. Believe it or not, the prognosis was dramatically better.”

He bought the oceanfront condo.

Coastal Risk Consultants, which raised $2 million to develop software to evaluate individual parcels for flooding, is on the cusp of profitability, said President Albert Slap.

The Plantation-based firm has counseled myriad interests from individual homebuyers to well-heeled island developers and entire towns. Property fixes can be as simple as self-inflating barriers available at home improvement stores to pricey permanent blockades against rising tides.

“Something like raising your crawl space vents could buy you another 15 years,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research assistant at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Atmospheric Science, who is an unpaid advisor to Coastal Risk Consultants. “They try to give clients an idea of possible fixes, high-priority items, and recognize people don’t have an endless supply of money.”

Some, however, have more wherewithal than others. The solution for one coastal homeowner was an elevated, curved sea wall hidden in landscaping that she insisted not obstruct the view from her infinity-edge pool.

“There’s no one size fits all,” Slap said. “What one home needs may be very different than what the house right next door needs.”

Homebuyers trying to do their own research can find it confusing. FEMA flood maps are based on historical data and don’t consider sea level rise. Online tools from federal and private groups can paint a wide swath, but not combine multiple event models for individual properties.

Fine tuning the details to focus on single parcels will be one of the nascent industry’s challenges, said Jayantha Obeysekera, director of Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center.

“I think it’s a viable business, but the key is to get to the scale needed to give residents the right assistance,” Obeysekera said. “To do that, they need some fairly sophisticated tools.”

On June 18, the Union for Concerned Scientists released a sea level rise report targeting properties that could see increased tidal flooding under the worse-case scenario presented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

What it found was 2,400 Palm Beach County homes could face a month’s worth of tidal flooding each year by 2045. That balloons to 60,026 properties worth a staggering $36.2 billion in today’s dollars by 2100.

Statewide, about 64,000 homes are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045. The report defines chronic flooding as an average of 26 flood events or more per year, even in the absence of major storms.

By 2100, that report says 1 million Florida homes will be at risk. That’s about 10 percent of the state’s current residential properties and 40 percent of the homes at risk nationally.

Florida Climatologist David Zierden emphasizes the report is the most dire forecast, seven times higher than the global rate of sea level rise of 3 mm per year.

Still, the Southeast Florida Regional Compact on Climate Change says South Florida’s sea level rise could be faster than the global rate because of changes in the Gulf Stream current.

The compact is projecting 6 to 10 inches of sea level rise by 2030 and 14 to 26 inches by 2060 (above the 1992 mean sea level).

In the long term, the compact projects 31 to 61 inches of sea level rise by 2100, and cautions that long-term construction projects with lifespans of 50 or more years should be built based on the upper curve of predictions.

“We just think the prudent thing to do is build to higher elevations,” said Cody Crowell, managing director for the Palm Beach-based Frisbie Group, which is a client of Coastal Risk Consulting. “Some of the buildings we spend a lot of time, money and energy working on, we hope will be around for the next 100 years.”

But building to a higher elevation means taller buildings, which doesn’t always sit well with neighbors or planning boards.

South Florida cities have spent tens of millions of dollars in planning and construction efforts to keep the sea at bay.

Miami Beach’s ambitious plan to raise roads, install pumps and redo water mains gained international attention for its bullish approach to combat flooding tides. But just last month, a community slated for the next elevated road project had the plan sacked.

Some neighbors told Miami Beach commissioners they didn’t need the modification and were concerned about whether water from a higher road would flood their homes.

“We’re seeing very, very different approaches from just ignoring it and thinking maybe it will go away to some places that are being very proactive wanting to confront it,” said David Titley, a meteorology professor at Pennsylvania State University and an unpaid advisor for Coastal. “We have big challenges as a nation, but they can be addressed.”

Coastal Risk Consultants charges $199 for a basic assessment of a single-family home. A commercial building costs $499. From that initial report, clients can choose to go more in depth for higher fees.

This week, Coastal Senior Staff Scientist Hilary Stevens visited the former Charleys Crab restaurant on Palm Beach that was bought in April by the Frisbie Group. Crowell said the company wants to put five homes on the oceanfront land and is working with Coastal on a detailed review.

“The demand is so powerful to be on the water,” Stevens said looking out to an Atlantic the color of jade and turquoise. “But this is a classic situation where when this area was designed it was not built to handle what we are likely to see 30, 40, 50 years from now.”

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