JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – We’ve all notice that weather in recent years seems unprecedented in our lifetimes. That includes major hurricanes to impact Jacksonville. And you probably recall the major freeze in Texas earlier this year. Climatologists tell News4Jax they’re not surprised and say it’s evidence of a shifting climate that much of our infrastructure isn’t prepared for.
We sat down with two coastal engineering experts at the University of North Florida.
Dr. Don Resio, a professor emeritus and former director of the Taylor Engineering Research Institute, has been studying climate change “since the late 60s.”
We also spoke with Dr. Bill Dally, who’s a professor of coastal engineering at UNF, who said the February ice storm in Texas that crippled the electrical grid for days didn’t surprise him “in the least.”
The two pointed to vulnerable spots in Northeast Florida that could be affected by rising sea levels. The primary spots they mentioned were St. Johns County beaches, St. Augustine and downtown Jacksonville.
“You have what’s called a nuisance flood(ing) all the time and it’s only going to get worse,” Resio said. “The problem is we’re running out of sand. There’s not an infinite amount of sand off the coast, so we need to think beyond sand and saw what can we do to make our coast resilient.”
Dally said in the coming decades, some coastal residents could face a harsh reality if sea levels rise.
“There’s one option that we haven’t talked about and it’s an option we haven’t talked about is retreat,” Dally said.
Residents in St. Augustine Beach said that’s not something many people who live in the area would support.
“No, no -- they won’t want to at all. They want to be able to be right on the ocean, looking at the ocean,” said Pamela Kenyon, who’s lived in the town for 56 years.
Kenyon said there need to be drainage improvements.
“Oh yeah, it’s going to flood the streets. They need to reinforce the drainage out on the island. Streets. Everything. Makes a big difference.”
The two scientists said a major hotel project that goes out onto the sand has negatively impacted the flow of sand down the coast and is contributing to climate change effects.
The two also talked about flooding in downtown Jacksonville. That became most noticeable in 2017 when Hurricane Irma brought major flooding into downtown, San Marco and Riverside.
“(We’re) relying on a gravity-fed drainage system,” said Dally, who believes the floodwaters from the St. Johns River aren’t the cleanest. “The expression was like flushing a toilet.”
Dally said if the water levels continue to rise in the next two to three decades, those floods will become more severe. Especially if there are more hurricanes that hit our area.
“We can get like 2 inches of rain and this whole area will be like a puddle where the sewage is actually supposed to drain,” said San Marco resident Brittney Shears.
WATCH 2017 DOCUMENTARY: The flood and fury of Hurricane Irma
The other primary issue we looked at was the issue of power infrastructure. Texas learned this the hard way when the major ice storm knocked out power to more than 3 million Texans last winter -- one of the coldest ever.
“Tragic does not even begin to describe the devastation and suffering,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the time of the freeze.
The UNF climate experts believe the type of abnormal weather pattern like what happened in Texas could feasibly hit Florida.
“Our trees are kind of conditioned for high winds. The hurricanes that strike us regularly take down weak trees. But none of them have experienced any ice loading, which is totally different in high winds Dally said. “The power lines haven’t experienced those ice loads either.”
We took a trip to Florida Power and Light’s natural gas plant in Cape Canaveral.
“When adverse weather conditions or other things happen in the plant, we know how to react to them. We have specific procedures,” said Peter Holzapfel, regional general manager of the FPL’s facility there.
Holzapfel told News4Jax FPL’s system is set up so that if one plant goes down, they are interconnected and other plants around the state can compensate.
“Florida is a very highly regulated energy market. Unlike Texas,” said FP&L’s Bill Orlove.
But there are multiple power companies around Florida that don’t have that luxury of other plants that can take over. A 2016 annual report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Florida a C- for energy. Texas’ most recent grade was a B+.
The UNF scientists have said more things need to happen to secure the power grid around Florida, including more underground power lines.
“I guess it takes money and commitment to put more power lines underground,” Dally said. “I don’t think anyone has really studied the actual treefall that occurs during a hurricane.”