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Climate Change: This Florida Business Is Front And Center In Fighting Flooding

Austin Masiarczyk cleans a flood-control panel at Savannah Trims on Nov. 13, 2019, in Lake Park. Savannah Trims makes flood-control gates for businesses to protect from storm surge and tidal flooding. GREG LOVETT/palmbeachpost.com

Engineers are designing for an increasingly soggy future in a rough industrial bay west of Riviera Beach, building Erector set-style defenses to keep out a wily intruder — water.

Savannah Trims, a decades-old company based in Lake Park, has seen a boost in recent years for requests to waterproof buildings against coastal assaults from violent hurricane storm surge to gurgling high tide flooding.

Led by former Army combat engineer Gene Kennedy, who took over the firm in 2016, the burgeoning business also is getting requests from building owners in land-locked states where flash floods, swelling rivers and even melting snow can cause costly breaches.

The company’s products range from hurricane shutter-like removable flood barriers that create a dry moat around businesses, to watertight doors and special glass that repels water and the barreling debris that gets caught in it.

“The projects are getting larger and more complicated,” Kennedy said. “There is a fear of water now. When Sandy hit, everything went crazy.”

Hurricane Sandy, a massive 2012 cyclone that was designated post-tropical before making landfall Oct. 29 along the coast of southern New Jersey, sent saltwater rushing inland, flooding the New York City subway system, and all of the tunnels into Manhattan except the Lincoln Tunnel.

More recent storms — 2018′s Cat 5 Michael, which wiped out Mexico Beach, Fla. with a 14-foot storm surge, and the more than 5-feet of rain dropped in Texas by 2017′s Hurricane Harvey — only upped the angst of property owners, said Bill Coulbourne, a consulting structural engineer and member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“It’s primarily big buildings or critical facilities wanting to install these kinds of flood gates and barriers because of what has occurred in past storms,” said Coulbourne, who has more than 20 years’ experience working with FEMA’s flood insurance program. “It’s driven by the number of storms that have affected people and because people are getting tired of getting wet.”

Coulbourne notes that the type of flood protection provided by Savannah Trims is for commercial buildings or the lobby areas of residential structures such as condominiums.

The National Flood Insurance Program provides insurance for new and remodeled construction that have flood-proofed the space below the base flood elevation to meet established criteria. The flood-proofed area must be certified to meet the criteria by a design professional.

“If there are enough situations where people are affected by nuisance flooding with king tides, we might see more homes have an interest in this type of flood proofing,” he said.

Some experts hope it will go further than what FEMA requires, which is based on its measurement of base flood elevation.

‘We’re seeing just the beginning of flood hardening’

Albert Slap, president of Coastal Risk Consulting, said FEMA flood maps don’t accurately reflect what can happen during storm-surge flooding.

His firm, based in Plantation, assesses individual properties for flood risks, including sea level rise, using measurements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The FEMA flood maps are failing spectacularly all over the place because they aren’t based on science,” Slap said.

Still, he said any flood-proofing is better than nothing.

“I think we are seeing just the beginning of flood hardening,” Slap said.

Savannah Trims has built removable flood barriers for stores on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach that are vulnerable to high-tide flooding and schools in New Jersey that were awash in ocean water after Sandy.

Every job is different, Kennedy said.

They built a sliding gate for a power plant in American Samoa

Arizona State University recently needed a watertight lobby in a student housing complex that could withstand a flash flood. Savannah Trims used a new glass and laminate construction to create an inconspicuous clear flood barrier that is a permanent part of the building.

In American Samoa, Savannah Trims built a sliding gate 12-feet wide and 8-feet tall for a power plant that wanted to avoid a repeat of flooding it experienced after a tsunami.

The company designed and installed a flood-proof glass enclosed elevator entrance for the New York City Subway’s Cortlandt station at the World Trade Center.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has used several contractors to flood-proof its systems, and mentions climate change in a recent announcement about closing the Coney Island Yard for upgrades.

“With intense weather events like Superstorm Sandy expected to occur more often, we need to act now to protect this vital part of our system, so we can keep trains running safely,” the announcement stated.

Savannah Trims’ single biggest contract — about $3.2 million — has been protecting train depots and utility rooms for New Jersey Transit.

“There is very little we won’t tackle,” Kennedy said.

High school basement flooded with turtles and fish

Joseph Cahill, director of risk management for the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., said Savannah Trims has done several jobs for him, including flood-proofing a high school that wasn’t in a FEMA flood zone but saw significant Sandy damage.

“The basement and sub-basement were full of water up to about 13 feet,” Cahill said. “There were turtles and fish and everything else under the sun in it.”

Cahill said the diocese considered flood-proofing before Sandy rolled through but “it just wasn’t as high on the priority list as it should have been.”

Climate scientists are predicting the most severe kinds of hurricanes will happen more often as the world warms. That includes storms with flooding rains, escalating intensities and swollen storm surge riding on rising seas.

High-tide records were set in South Florida

Even without a hurricane, coastal tidal flooding is overwhelming streets from Maryland to South Beach when the moon or winds cause higher tides.

At least 10 days in November set high-tide records at Virginia Key near Miami as the full moon and and a nor’easter combined to plump coastal waters, according to Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate for the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“There’s absolutely more awareness to the flooding,” Cahill said.

Only a handful of companies nationwide are in the business of building significant flood control structures, Kennedy said.

One of his competitors, Adam Goldberg of the New Jersey-based Aquafence USA, agreed.

“There are about five of us in the space,” Goldberg said. “Business has definitely grown and changed.”

Kennedy said his business has increased 70 percent since 2018, requiring contracts with three new engineering firms and an increase in space from 4,800 square feet to 23,000.

“This whole thing keeps evolving,” he said. “Every project we do is a new exercise in engineering.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.