After the Storm: Hurricane Irma’s Effects and Insurance, Structural, and Landscaping Strategies to Meet Natural Disasters

Member2Member event hosted by Bilzin Sumberg, October 4, 2017

PANELISTS: CREW-Member Gayle A. Bainbridge, CPCU, ARM, AAI, CRIS, Founding Partner, Global Risk, LLC

Jacqueline Gonzalez Touzet, AIA, LEED®, Structural Architect and Founding Principal, Touzet Studio  

Jennie Rogers, Landscape Architect, LEED® AP, ISA Certified Arborist, Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, Inc. 

Mariana Boldu, Senior Project Manager, RLA, LEED® AP, ASLA, Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, Inc.

During her decades in the insurance business, Gayle Bainbridge has been exposed to multiple storms. Experienced in both commercial and residential insurance, she confirmed that policies have changed since hurricanes Andrew (1992) and Wilma (2005), with deductibles now very high. Some condo and residential policies issued by Florida-approved carriers can be written on a calendar year (rather than per storm) basis. This change resulted from multiple storms striking Florida in a single year, a situation that is likely to continue. She urges property owners to file their Irma claims even if losses don’t reach the deductible, in case another storm occurs.

Gayle addressed policy holders’ varying levels of risk tolerance, and advised people to determine the amount of risk they are comfortable with. A Key Biscayne resident who she knows was OK with losing her entire first floor contents, while another homeowner considered his flooded garage a disaster. She said flood insurance Is not a viable way for homeowners to recoup replacement costs, because payouts for contents are usually low.

Because Gayle is on an electrical grid with nine homes, and has well water, she considers a power loss an inconvenience she can live with, although she would not be comfortable with rising water. She urges homebuyers to get facts about an area’s power grid and to examine the survey with a property’s elevation above sea level before buying. She predicts that insurance is going to get more expensive. The federal government will continue to subsidize flood insurance, but sooner or later all low-lying properties will face problems, particularly those near canals and bodies of water.

Miami-based architect Jacqueline Gonzalez Touzet approaches building design from the standpoint of the people, climate, culture, and history of a place. She cautioned that even if the house you buy is above sea level, someone could build a road or adjacent structure higher than your site and you’d get flooded. “We cannot design buildings to withstand Category 5 storms, so people must decide how much risk they are willing to live with to be here,” she said, emphasizing that we need more accountability from leaders and elected officials, who need to better coordinate their efforts. She said it’s essential to harden the power grid to meet what has become the New Normal affecting all of us. To encourage people to live here, she believes we must step up sustainability and storm-resiliency efforts. That means making leaders answerable and holding utilities accountable for building and maintaining systems that come back faster after storms. A common sense solution she mentioned, already in use elsewhere, is solar-powered traffic lights.

Although some see the elimination of all trees along powerlines as a partial solution to power outages, Jackie noted that a dense tree canopy is desirable. “We can have livable cities and we need trees, but must be sophisticated in our approach.” Underground power lines are viable in some areas, but digging trenches for them can damage tree roots. She advocates for having landscape architects involved in all development planning, because businesses, livelihoods, and lives are affected.

Sustainability professional Mariana Boldu, a landscape architect and designer with Curtis + Rogers, said that “given the giant aquifer under us, most of Florida’s land area will inevitably be inundated; king tides and hurricanes add to the situation, and every building at grade is vulnerable.” Turning her remarks to trees, she said that equal in importance to planting the right tree in the right place is allowing trees adequate space and depth to grow properly. Trees that are storm-resilient in their normal habitats cannot generate sound root systems in the too-shallow urban spaces where they are often placed. It’s difficult for sidewalk plants to flourish in too-small spaces, she said, because for maximum stability, a healthy tree’s root system and its crown should be of equal size. She pointed out that buildings like those on Brickell create wind tunnels that magnify wind speeds and increase the probability of damage. Because scientists’ findings indicate that storm intensity is on the rise, it’s critical that residents urge officials to address the situation now.

Landscape architect and certified arborist Jennie Rogers is working on the Flagler Street project, where oaks are being planted with underground space for roots. “Our shallow soils are over rock, and roots need horizontal space because they cannot grow downward. FDOT has recognized this and uses the correct planting systems.” She added that non-native species are not engineered to withstand hurricanes, and even the best species will fall over when the soil is saturated. Among the Coral Gables resident’s clients are FPL and the City of Coral Gables. She showed a chart of trees recommended to homeowners by FPL because they grow safely below power lines. Although FPL owns the land beneath its poles, she said many homeowners don’t allow FPL to trim private trees, and  this leads to current power-loss problems.

Not all tree trimmers are expert arborists, Jennie cautioned, and poor pruning jobs can make trees even more dangerous, so always hire someone with an ISA (International Society of Arborists) license. Preventive pruning is recommended prior to storms, and afterwards fallen trees should be kept wet and stood back up. She advises careful pruning of palms, leaving brown or bent fronds in place until they are ready to drop. Most palms recover after storms, and a green spike emerging vertically from the top is a sign that the tree is alive and growing. “Global warming heats oceans and hot oceans feed hurricanes. Trees feed on carbon, so more trees means reduced carbon in the atmosphere,” Jennie said. “So planting more trees with the correct methods could reduce the number of storms,”

—Susan Cumins, CREW-Miami member since 1998