As families grieve, is Surfside a preview of what is to come?

Guest editorial

David Hunter

Editor’s Note: David Hunter is a long-time resident of Vero Beach. He is a retired US diplomat and author, who currently appears in a podcast interview series on foreign policy and national security affairs entitled, The David Hunter Perspective on Amazon.

We are all no doubt shaken by the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse on June 24. I cannot help but wonder if this is an isolated event, or could it happen again?

David Hunter

The root causes of this devastating collapse will eventually be determined. Residents had been warned for several years about serious problems with the building, but it may take some time before we know the answer. Was it human error? Or was it forces of nature? Or both?

I live here in Vero Beach on the ocean. The old seawall in front of the Reef Ocean Resort/Bobby’s was built of concrete block back in the 1960s, but ocean water never even came close. Then they built another higher seawall behind it in about the 1990s and a third even higher one around 2010. Next door, Vero’s only high-rise tower has a massive cast iron plate seawall to protect against the surging ocean and the beach in front of it has almost disappeared. During storm conditions, ocean waves often break right against the seawall. For long time local residents, it is no secret that our once expansive beaches have gradually receded.

We are all aware that the corrosive effect of saltwater can damage our possessions, even buildings with the sturdiest concrete and iron (Remember the boiler that was once above water east of Humiston Beach?).

In Miami, we have been hearing of rising sea level threatening downtown Miami Beach, and that streets are often flooded w/ ocean water at high tide.  There is even talk about building a massive ‘sea dike’ around Miami beach to protect the oceanfront property there and/or restricting future settlement of oceanside property to create a natural sand dune barrier. Naturally, the real estate development community, with hundreds of billions in oceanfront property at risk, is worried about both scenarios. 

Whether or not you believe global warming is a real threat, you cannot deny that sea levels are rising and we need to do everything possible to prevent a repeat of what happened on June 24, especially in our community.

Despite this being a terrible and tragic situation for the families of those 100-150 souls who may have lost their lives, it may signal that we are facing a much bigger threat from Mother Nature than even super-typhoons – the rapid corrosion of all those sea-side high rises dotting our coastline, making them unsafe to occupy.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose mission includes maintaining waterways and reducing disaster risks, has recently proposed building large and expensive seawalls to protect a number of U.S. cities, neighborhoods and shorelines from coastal storms and rising seas. CharlestonNew York City and the Houston-Galveston metro area are currently considering proposals to build barriers in response to hurricane surges and sea level rise, and the Corps recently published a draft proposal for a seawall in Miami

It includes building a one-mile (1.6-kilometer) sea wall for Miami-Dade estimated to cost $4-6 billion. (It would be 20-feet high in places, ruining ocean views). Construction would not start until 2026 at the earliest.

They have also proposed a six-mile (9.6-kilometer) barrier to shield portions of New York City and New Jersey at an estimated cost of $119 billion. In Galveston, Texas the “Ike Dike” would cost $25-30 billion w/ massive sea gates across the Houston shipping channel. The list goes on and on. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists assessed chronic flooding risks in 52 large coastal cities and found that by 2030, the 30 cities most at risk can expect at least two dozen tidal floods yearly on average. The study defined tidal flooding as seawater encroaching into at least ten percent of a city.  That would produce accelerated corrosion leading to structural weakening of high rise buildings. This flooding will not just become more frequent – it also will become deeper, extend farther inland and last longer as sea levels continue to rise.

Questions about the seawall approach include: How many years of protection might these costly barriers provide? Are they just short-term solutions? Who selects which cities or areas to protect?

Perhaps most importantly, who will pay for the seawalls? Proposing multi-billion dollar walls is one thing, but where will the funds come from to actually construct and maintain these massive structures? Taxpayers? The property owners? 

What might have been a conceptual issue just days ago, is suddenly very real, especially to the families of those who are suffering right now in Surfside.

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