The risks associated with climate change and catastrophic flooding have not changed how Palm Beach County plans to spend $709 million on upgrades for roads, bridges and buildings over the next decade, interviews with multiple county officials indicate.
Greater Houston’s nightmare — flooded homes and businesses and submerged roadways in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey — has spawned renewed criticism of that city’s zoning free-for-all and led to more questions about the nation’s decaying and inadequate infrastructure.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker said the county is taking note of the disaster in east Texas.
“We’re going to be studying this issue and trying to learn,” she said.
One thing, Baker said, is already clear: no planning or precaution could prevent flooding in Palm Beach County if a storm the size and power of Harvey comes ashore here and lingers.
“No one could have anticipated that amount of rainfall in such a short period of time,” she said.
The Category 4 storm — the first major hurricane to strike the United States since Wilma hit Florida in 2005 — dumped an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water on greater Houston, according to an atmospheric scientist reporting for The Washington Post. That’s 19 times as much water as Lake Okeechobee.
In 2015, Palm Beach County hired a climate change and sustainability coordinator, making the county one of only a handful in the state to have such a position.
Baker said the coordinator, Natalie Schneider, did review the county’s list of infrastructure projects, which will be paid for by a voter-approved increase in the sales tax.
Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney for the Everglades Law Center, said the county is not taking clear, concrete steps to limit its vulnerability to climate change.
“Unfortunately, the threat of flooding or impacts from climate change have historically not been on the radar of County Commissioners as they consider new proposals for development,” Interlandi said. “One way the county can increase its resiliency is by maintaining protections for agricultural and preserve lands, so that we are not faced with the same concrete jungle scenario that is playing out right now in Houston.”
Unlike Houston, Palm Beach County does have an extensive set of zoning regulations. Developers must demonstrate that their projects will not cause runoff or flooding to nearby property.
Developers often attempt to boost the chances their projects will win county approval by donating land for water storage.
GL Homes, for example, has earned some support for its plan to build more in the county’s Agricultural Reserve — a 22,000-acre farming and conservation zone located west of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach — by promising to donate 640 acres in the northern part of the county for water storage.
The Indian Trail Improvement District plans to build a reservoir on the donated land, hoping it would alleviate flooding problems in The Acreage, where the district provides road, drainage and water services.
Of the $709 million the county will spend to upgrade its infrastructure over the next decade, only $28 million — less than 4 percent of the total — will be spent on drainage.
Baker said that’s because most coastal areas where flooding is a problem fall within city boundaries. Cities, Baker said, are addressing some of those problems with their share of the sales tax increase, which is expected to generate $2.7 billion over the next 10 years.
The School District of Palm Beach County will get half of that money and cities will get 20 percent. That leaves the remaining 30 percent — about $810 million — for county projects.
Those projects won’t reshape the county into a new age place of raised highways and buildings less vulnerable to the more potent storms and catastrophic flooding scientists are warning will come with climate change.
Most of the projects are traditional, according to a report compiled by the county’s Office of Inspector General, which will assist with oversight.
Building replacement and renovation will account for $335 million of the $709 million allocated. Roadway repairs — restriping, resurfacing, bridge repair and replacement and street lighting — will take up another $157 million.
Some of the resurfacing work will last for 15 to 20 years, said George Webb, the county’s recently retired county engineer.
His successor, David Ricks, noted that some of the infrastructure work will include the installation of drainage flap gates that will prevent water from moving from the intracoastal waterway back through drainage pipes and onto local roads after heavy downpours.
The gates, Ricks said, allow water to flow from those roads into the waterway but not the other way around.
As for raising roads, Webb said it is impractical and expensive. Residents would have to alter the slope of their own driveways.
Bottom line, Webb and Ricks said, no system and no upgrades could make a coastal community immune from the havoc Harvey has created in Houston.
“Our systems are not designed for the type of storm that hit Houston,” Webb said.
County Mayor Paulette Burdick noted that flood zones and building standards are pegged to a so-called “100-year flood,” flooding a community has a 1 percent chance of experiencing in any given year over the course of a century.
Harvey, The Washington Post has reported, is the third 500-year flood to hit Houston in the last three years.
“Perhaps the 100-year storm is no longer adequate,” Burdick said. “Perhaps we need to review that.”