Patterns in the sand: Sea level rise forced earlier migrations

Florida has seen inland migrations before, but this time it may come more quickly

By Cindy Swirko,

Published Dec 1, 2017

As coastal Floridians face rising seas, they may repeat the past — 2,000 years past. The current forecasts are for the Atlantic and Gulf to wash over Florida’s shores more rapidly, and with far more people enjoying ocean views from their homes, than during earlier periods of sea level rise.

Still, ancient Floridians had to change their lives because of sea level rise — they moved inland, but not much.

Predictions on the modern displacement forced by sea level rise vary from a trickle to a full-on exodus. Other experts say it’s far too early to tell.

“I jokingly say to my friends that some day I’ll own waterfront property,” said Gainesville resident Ruth Steiner, professor and director of the Center for Health and the Built Environment at the University of Florida. “I’m of the mind that it’s too early to say.”

Archeological studies of the Calusa people of Southwest Florida and Timucuans at Cedar Key show they repeatedly moved farther inland and then back out as sea levels changed during the Roman warm period from 350 BC to 500 AD, the Vandal Minimum cold period from 500 to 850 AD, and again during the Medieval warming.

The Calusa, a tribe of fierce warriors who built elaborate settlements in Southwest Florida, were especially adept at going with the flow. Their history is documented at UF’s Randell Research Center in Pineland.

William Marquardt, curator of South Florida Archaeology and Ethnography Program and director of the research center, said some visitors use the historical rise and ebb of sea levels to downplay the current jump or to deny that current warming is due to human activity.

That would be a mistake, Marquardt said.

“The bottom line is sea level has fluctuated up and down in the past. What’s different is that it is accelerating at an unprecedented rate today,” Marquardt said. “People will have to adapt, and moving away from the water or abandoning properties that are no longer viable is something that Indians had to do and we will have to do as well. This is going to happen.”

It’s coming, but when?

Some Floridians, especially Miami Beach residents, are already dodging flooded streets during high tides while hoping the cost of their homeowners insurance doesn’t rise faster than the water.

Jim Durocher moved inland to DeLand in 2015. Durocher had owned and lived in a set of apartment buildings a block off Cocoa Beach and considered them his retirement investment. But, one of his friends was studying sea level rise in nearby Satellite Beach and he feared it wouldn’t be long before real estate investors’ concerns would bail out and sink property values.

Jim Durocher, holds a large earth flag that flies in front of his DeLand home, Thursday morning November 16, 2017 where he moved after cashing out his real estate investments in Cocoa Beach before rising sea levels discourage real estate investors and property values started sinking. (News-Journal / David Tucker)

“I knew I had to sell before that time came,” Durocher said. “For years I’d been worrying about it, not that seas will come get it, but that people will realize it’s really happening and stop buying stuff at the beach.”

The Atlantic Ocean has “already risen and I think it’s going to come up a lot more. It’s going to be exponential,” Durocher said. Coastal property values “have been going up faster than any other properties for the last 50 years with people wanting to be on the water but I think that’s going to change.”

“Eventually property values are going to decrease anywhere near the water,” Durocher said. “I thought I just can’t wait any longer, I’d better go ahead and sell it.”

Then, his father died, leaving a vacant house in DeLand. So, in 2015, Durocher sold the apartments and he and his wife moved to DeLand, inland and higher.

Dick Shaw counts himself among the early wave of people fleeing Florida’s perilous coast. He left Madeira Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast 15 years ago, selling the family’s home of 25 years and moving to Tallahassee in 2001.

In Madeira Beach, they’d lived in a “funky little community about three minutes from the Gulf by boat and five minutes if you walked up the street,” he said. “If the kids wanted to take the sailboat they could sail down the canal and under the bridge and into the Gulf.”

“It was sort of what people think Florida is like,” he said. “It was a great place to raise kids.”

The canal-front house flooded once in the 1980s, he said. His wife suffered depression when they returned to the house “and realized the first thing you had to do was tear up the carpet and throw it out in the street.”

“We’d get flooded quite often because the back of our house was like 14 inches above the top of the seawall,” he said. “The water would come over the seawall if you got a storm with high tides.”

Over time, it seemed to Shaw the storms and higher tides began to arrive more often. “It doesn’t have to be a hurricane, we’d get high tides when the moon was right,” he said. “It was a lot of apprehension, a lot of concern, a lot of worrying.”

Their insurance costs tripled.

With one storm, as they watched the wind blow rising water up between the boards of their deck, they sat there and wondered, “What are we doing here? If we wait a little longer, it’s going to start coming in the house more often,” he said. “At that point, I’m just saying it’s fine if you’re some basketball player who makes $30 million a year and you leave before the storm comes and come back after it’s all cleaned up. The average person, you can’t do that.”

Floridians may move, but not leave

How many others like Durocher and Shaw will eventually move, and where they will move to, is anyone’s guess.

Mathew Hauer, Applied Demographer, University of Georgia (Courtesy photo)

Mathew Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia, has a very educated guess. A widely-cited study by Hauer published by Nature Climate Change in April estimates that 13.1 million people nationwide could be forced to move from coastal areas by 2100.

Florida is forecast to produce the highest number of migrants because it has a lot of coastline and a lot of people living along the water.

Atlanta, Houston and Phoenix were cited in the study as the top destinations for people on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts fleeing sea level rise, Hauer said. Of the 13.1 million who will be forced to move, about half will be Floridians, Hauer said. Miami-Dade County residents account for one-quarter of the total.

A net population loss of 2 million is expected for Florida, he said. That indicates that state residents who do decide to get away from the coast will move inland rather than to another state.

“Or ... relocating into the ‘safe’ parts of coastal areas,” Hauer said. “If you look at Hillsborough County, it’s a big county. Plant City is not going to be affected by sea level rise, so people could still move into these areas. They can relocate into inland parts of the county that won’t be affected.”

Hauer’s modeling envisions migration by 2100. A study by the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, “Sea-level Rise in the Heartland: The Potential for In-migration,” done in 2010, estimates inland growth because of rising sea levels will be minimal by 2060. Counties covered by the planning council are DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee.

The study used hazard modeling software to estimate the acreage of land and number of people that could be affected by a 1-meter rise in sea level and a 100-year storm surge in coastal counties from Pasco to Brevard.

It estimated the potential number of people who would move and how many of them would move to the region’s counties. The result: not many.

“It was determined that a (sea level rise) even of this magnitude would result in the relocation of less than 1 percent additional population ... by 2060,” the report said. “It was determined that the overall amount of resettlement to the Heartland was negligible.”

However, the report indicated high percentages of coastal residents would relocate to counties other than those in the study area. Orange County and others in the greater Orlando area are expected to be among them.

Hauer believes the Orlando area will increasingly be a destination for Florida residents moving inland and for non-Floridians who want to move to the state but not to the Atlantic or Gulf coasts.

With uncertainty, plans develop slowly

Neither Orange County nor Orlando leaders are looking that far ahead, yet.

Orange County spokeswoman Doreen Overstreet said the county is planning right now for a more immediate migration — Puerto Ricans are pouring into the county rather than staying on the island decimated by Hurricane Maria.

Neither the Environmental Protection Division nor the Planning Division has begun to address potential sea level rise migration, Overstreet said. The county relies on population studies from UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research for its planning.

The economic research bureau is projecting considerable growth for Orange County, but its forecasts go only to 2045. By that year, population in all of Florida’s coastal counties is projected to rise — again indicating that, like the state’s earliest residents, people won’t move very far from the coast as the Atlantic and Gulf inch up.

Levy County’s population, now about 40,553, is expected to reach 46,224 in 2045. Okaloosa County is about 192,925 and will reach about 229,671. Sarasota County has about 399,538 residents, expected to swell to 503,650. And Volusia County now has about 517,411 residents and is forecast by UF's economic research bureau to grow to 635,384.

Gainesville is another city along Florida’s spine that could be an attractive destination for coastal residents fleeing rising seas, and the city has started considering the ramifications, Mayor Lauren Poe said.

“It hasn’t really reached the commission level in terms of adapting policies, but when we did the development code update, we did ask questions about it — might we see a greater than expected increase due to migration from sea level rise and climate change?” Poe said. “I think we do believe we are going to see a relocation of people from the coast. We are preparing for that. We would love to have people in our community but we will have to absorb it from a transportation perspective, a utility perspective, a housing perspective.”

UF’s College of Design, Construction and Planning, where Ruth Steiner and Kathryn Frank are professors, has assisted several coastal counties in beginning to plan for rising seas.

University of Florida professors Kathryn Frank, left, and Ruth Steiner are helping coastal counties plan for rising seas. Frank is an associated professor in the College of Design, Construction & Planning, where Steiner is professor and director of the Center for Health and the Built Environment. (Brad McClenny / The Gainesville Sun)

Both Steiner and Frank believe it is too early to predict the potential number of coastal residents who will move because of sea level rise, especially to predict those who will move to Florida’s interior.

The difficulty in forecasting so far out lies in many variables including the speed of sea level rise, the cost of insurance, the potential to elevate homes, job opportunities, coastal and inland housing costs, the adaptations made in cities along the coasts and much more.

Frank has worked with communities from Palm Coast on the Atlantic to Cedar Key on the Gulf and believes the planning that is beginning to be done now will ultimately have a role in how many people move from the coast and to where they relocate.

“We don’t suggest that everybody should move away from the coast, just to be aware of how things may be different and to be aware of the risks and cost benefits to think through whether it’s really worth it,” Frank said. “Once the issues are acknowledged, things may be designed differently. If you think a little bit more about the concerns now and in the future, you may have other ideas about what to do.”

Daytona Beach News-Journal Environment Writer Dinah Voyles Pulver contributed to this story.

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