An interview with Peter Moore, president and CEO of Chen Moore and Associates
As part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of business men and women throughout the state, The Invading Sea spoke with Peter Moore, president and CEO of Chen Moore and Associates, a civil engineering, landscape architecture, and planning firm based in Fort Lauderdale.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
You work in South Florida and your firm has offices throughout the state, what climate-related changes have you seen during your career in South Florida and elsewhere?
I was born right here in Broward County. I can tell you how much my neighborhood flooded when Hurricane David came through in the late ’70s. I think it’s important to have that context when you’re dealing with localized problems.
And I can tell you right now that the catch basins, the drains that sit in out front of people’s houses, when I was a child, the water really didn’t come up through the grates during king tides and they really do now. We have a very efficient system in South Florida, but obviously we’re still fighting elevation against the seas.
We’ve done some work in Latin America and in the Caribbean. Everyone is studying the idea that the intensity of storms is changing and so that’s requiring more and more mechanical solutions like pumps as opposed to more passive systems like overflow weirs or just canals that drain to an ocean.
What role do civil engineers and planners play in addressing climate challenges?
What I like to say is that we’re leading from behind. You know, the policymakers really and truly set the policies that happen; the regulators set a lot of those things. And my goal as a civil engineer is to balance the public safety, health, and welfare versus all of the various regulatory challenges that we face while still trying to make a cost-effective product for my clients.
We mostly work for government. We’re probably a 70/30 split. Working for the government, we always have the public safety in mind. I really think that a lot of what we do is we design and we’re evaluating fixes for these problems and we’re on the front lines.
What are some of the biggest challenges for civil engineers in Florida with regard to climate change?
There’s a whole lot of them. The South Florida Climate Change Compact did a fantastic job of establishing certain levels and establishing that baseline sea-level rise prediction, because honestly, one of the most difficult things as civil engineers to know is: what am I really facing and what am I really going to be facing in 50, 60, or 70 years?
Because that’s the life of some of the infrastructure that we design. If we’re thinking that the seas are going to be up by two feet, that’s very different than thinking the seas are going to be up by six feet. And so we would have totally different approaches to those.
So while the Climate Change Compact has done a great job, I do know that there’s other municipalities, there’s other agencies that are looking to have even more resiliency built in. There’s a term in my industry called “freeboard,” and that’s that little bit of extra above what’s required by the regulatory authorities.
And so, you know, how much freeboard you build in? I had a friend who is a structural engineer. He called me up and he said “hey, I’m totally tearing this house down to the slab. How much should I raise the slab up?” And I looked at the FEMA maps and I went through and did all that stuff and I said, “honestly, if you raise it by one foot, you’ll meet every projected issue that FEMA is ever going to come up with, but how much more is it to raise it 18 inches? How much more is it to raise it 24 inches?”
I hate to sound so arbitrary about it, but there’s so many things about sea-level rise that we don’t necessarily know yet that could potentially be something that’s a game changer for us. And so again, just preparing that little bit extra is really important.
I think one of the other things that’s been really challenging for us is a lot of the work that we do is based off of the NOAA maps from the 1960s. We’re the stormwater master planners for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. They had a situation in which so much rain came down in three hours that the airport ended up having to shut down.
Now, if you were to look at it based on the maps that we typically work off of, which are 24-hour increments and stuff like that, that wasn’t too much rain to cause a flood. But if all that water comes in three hours, or two hours, or even one hour, then obviously the intensity and the ability for that system to absorb that water becomes impacted. So dealing with the increase in intensity in storms is also very difficult.
What should Florida communities be doing now to better protect themselves from the effects of sea-level rise and climate change?
I think that the first thing that everyone needs to do is to get as educated as possible. Our state has seen an absolute—pardon the pun—sea change in the opinion about the fact that sea-level rise is happening.
I think that some recent policy developments have shown some great initiatives moving forward. I think that House Bill 53 this past year that talks about needing to develop a 20-year needs assessment analysis is incredibly important because that means that every single city is going to have at least some idea what is going on. It’s some idea of a plan to move forward over the next 20 years.
Most of the clients that we work with are very, very forward-thinking. I don’t want anyone to think the government’s just been sitting on its hands; there are some fantastic resiliency plans. There’s some fantastic stormwater visioning plans that have come out. There’s some really unique solutions that are coming out.
But, you know, this forces everybody to be on a level playing field and to take a look at what that 20-year needs analysis is going to do.
What can Florida legislators do to help?
I think the first thing that they needed to do was recognize that there was a problem. I think between all the hard work that’s been done by the South Florida Climate Change Compact locally in Broward County, I think there’s some great things that have come out of these open discussions that have been happening.
The next thing, and I hate to say throw money at a problem, but really and truly we need funding. We need funding for better studies. We need to continue to study what used to be the Central and South Florida Flood Control District. We’re trying to get money from the feds in order for them to do a re-study of that entire system, basically the entire plumbing of South Florida, as far as a stormwater system goes.
That’s a huge deal because the primary canal system for South Florida and the South Florida Water Management District is the tailwater conditions, the water that all the water goes into for almost every municipality. Last but not least, I really think that municipalities, local governments, and Florida legislators in general need to take a look at our adaptive plans.
Kevin Mims, a Florida-based freelance journalist, is the producer of “The Business of Climate Change.” He conducted this interview with Mr Moore.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state.