Our Town with William Kelly: Town’s lakeside shore poses greatest challenge to flood defense, expert says

William Kelly  |  Civic Association  |  Our Environment  |  Our Town  |  November 9, 2021

PALM BEACH CIVIC ASSOCIATION FORUM

Palm Beach’s scenic and serene but low-lying Lake Worth shoreline is where it is most vulnerable to flooding associated with sea level rise, a coastal engineering consultant said Monday.

“If [a strong] hurricane comes with a storm surge – the truth is, that is a big risk this community faces right now,” said Bob Hamilton, president of Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Group.

Hamilton was speaking to an audience of around 150 people at the Palm Beach Civic Association’s first community forum of the 2021-22 season at the Royal Poinciana Chapel.

Woods Hole assessed the town’s coastal vulnerabilities in 2019. This year the firm returned with “Level Up Palm Beach” – a report with short-term and long-term recommendations for strengthening the town’s coastal resilience as it wades into an era of rising sea levels.

Woods Hole suggested the town ask the federal government to investigate the cost and feasibility of installing flood gates at the Palm Beach Inlet to protect against potentially massive flood damage during a major storm.

“This is a multi-stakeholder project,” Hamilton said. “This isn’t something you just go and build.” But he said the town should consider the surge barrier concept “sooner rather than later.”

Other recommendations include elevating the height of seawalls along the Lake Worth shoreline by around two to three feet.

The renovated Town Marina, which reopened Nov. 1, is a perfect example of building coastal resilience into town infrastructure, Hamilton said. The seawall there has been rebuilt 2.5 feet taller, with a foundation that allows it to be raised even higher in the future.

A large-scale seawall elevation initiative along the Lake Worth Lagoon would be complicated, involving not only the town but multiple private property owners.

Any chain of seawalls along the lake shoreline will only be as strong as its weakest link, said Reuben B. Johnson III, vice chairman of the town’s Shore Protection Board, during a question-and-answer session with Hamilton.

“How do we get everyone to build their walls higher?” Johnson asked. “ … If there is a weak link, all that we do to protect our town property will be endangered.”

Hamilton responded, “You’re right. There are decisions to be made.” He said Woods Hole is suggesting the town adopt policy changes “that would, over time, create more of a global impact.”

Mayor Danielle Moore and the Town Council will consider Woods Hole’s recommendations this season when the council plans to develop and adopt a coastal resilience plan for the town.

The seawall issue will be a major challenge and could prove to be controversial, town officials have said. One big question facing coastal communities is how local governments should promote flood resilience on private properties – whether through mandates or incentives, for example. The timeline for implementing any changes is another question.

In its report, Woods Hole suggested the town designate up to 13 neighborhood-scale coastal flood control systems so there would be a unified and consistence effort to raise and maintain seawalls and bulkheads facing the lake.

New buildings and buildings undergoing major renovations throughout town also need to be elevated, Woods Hole said. It recommends raising the ground-floor elevation requirement for new buildings up to three feet higher than the existing building code mandate of 7 feet.

The town is taking a proactive approach to coastal resilience, Hamilton said. That includes the existence of a mature coastal protection program that has rebuilt beaches on the town’s Atlantic shore through periodic sand nourishments and dune restorations. Town legislation and public works policies are already in play to protect public infrastructure such as stormwater pump stations from flooding.

But there’s no question that sea levels are continuing to rise, Hamilton said. Sunny-day flooding along the Lake Trail is becoming more and more common during high tides.

Resilience means taking tangible steps now while remaining adaptable and flexible, he said.

“Resilience, in the context of coastal flooding, means being able to anticipate what the future risk might be and put yourself into a position where you are prepared to recover,” Hamilton said. “You don’t lose your critical infrastructure.”

No one knows when or if the worst-case scenario – a direct strike from a powerful hurricane with a massive storm surge – will happen, he said.

“We have to recognize that there is uncertainty in all of this, which is why we are doing this work for you,” Hamilton said.

Resident Katie Carpenter asked what homeowners can do to prepare for the changes.

Hamilton said private owners can start by learning if the Woods Hole vulnerability assessment of the town places their property within a flood pathway. From there, there are other information sources to turn to.

“I would arm myself with information and make a decision about my own risk tolerance,” he said.

Monday’s educational forum was sponsored by the Stanley M. Rumbough Jr. Legacy Society, named in honor of the longtime Civic Association director, and former co-chairman and chief executive officer, who died in September 2017.

Mary Robosson, president of the Civic Association, thanked the Rumbough family and expressed her gratitude to the late Cynthia Van Buren, who left a significant bequest to the organization upon her death in May.

“The remarkable generosity demonstrated by Stan Rumbough and his family and from Ms. Cynthia Van Buren enables the Civic Association to carry the torch of community service forward in even greater ways,” Robosson said.

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