State of Florida

When it comes to total number of hotel rooms, Orlando is second worldwide only to Las Vegas, with some reports putting the central Florida city’s count well over 140,000. And those rooms are put to use: The city is a frequent destination for conventions (such as the AIA Conference on Architecture), and the tourism industry— led by the Disney and Universal theme parks, the nearby Kennedy Space Center, and more— continues to boom. Last October, however, Orlando’s hotel rooms filled for another more dire reason: evacuation.

Hurricane Matthew was a Category 5 storm that caused extensive damage and loss of life from the moment it made landfall over Haiti and Cuba on Oct. 4. The eye of the storm hovered just off the Florida coast as it moved northward, where it made landfall again in South Carolina before twisting out to sea off of Cape Hatteras. As the storm bore down, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s message to coastal residents was unequivocal: “Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate. Time is running out.” Many heeded the message. Hotels in Orlando filled to capacity almost overnight, with some enterprising hoteliers even offering “distress rates” for people fleeing the storm.

Inland cities might not have the same pressing concerns about sea level rise and disaster relief and recovery as coastal cities do, but their important roles as intake points for coastal evacuees means they must be able to absorb huge numbers of people under duress (and do so without compromising their own systems—power, water, transportation, and communications).

“In a situation like Hurricane Matthew, even though we were not going to be directly hit, we were going to get a lot of people staying in hotels, coming inland, trying to ride the storm out,” says Fernando Rivera, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and the co-author, with Naim Kapucu, of Disaster Vulnerability, Hazards and Resilience: Perspectives from Florida (Springer International Publishing, 2015). “We need to be sure that we have the resources, the capacity, the command center, and that our major institutions, such as the airport, are up and running.”

Alternatives and Benchmarks

The Center for Resilience at Ohio State University defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of unforeseen changes, even catastrophic incidents.” The term has helped steer action toward not just creating environmentally sound buildings, but developing cities, towns, and major infrastructure that can withstand or adapt to the potential effects of climate change and even terrorist attacks.

In Florida, not surprisingly, the coast gets the most attention when it comes to resilience. According to the organization Resilient Miami, that city ranks first in the nation in terms of potential exposure to coastal flooding. South Florida, the organization states, has experienced about 12 inches of sea level rise since 1880. Global sea level, on average, has risen 8 inches during the same time, meaning that Florida’s unique geography makes the potential for flooding far more pressing than it is elsewhere.

And yet the debate over climate change and what, if anything, to do about it, rages on. On the coast, residents might have an easier time convincing government officials that resilience measures are necessary, but inland that conversation is more abstract. Orlando, however, has taken an important leadership role in the state by showing how an inland government can be committed to improving resilience and sustainability both in terms of its own municipal operations and in the broader region. Initiatives include requiring all new municipal construction to be LEED-certified, retrofitting the most inefficient “energy hog” older buildings, transitioning the municipal fleet to 100 percent alternative fuels, and committing to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy sources (such as solar) by 2030.

Orlando is also the first city in the state to adopt a benchmarking statute, which will have direct implications for the construction industry. As of press time, this much is true: Starting in May 2018, any commercial or multifamily building larger than 50,000 gross square feet, and any city-owned building larger than 10,000 gross square feet, will be required to use the Energy Star Portfolio Manager to obtain their energy benchmarking score on a scale of one to 100. Building owners will be required to report that score to the city, and it will be posted on real estate databases and publicly available.

With benchmarking, “architects will have a whole new market to reach,” says Chris Castro, Orlando’s sustainability director. “We’re creating a marketplace for architects in helping us to make the city more efficient and resilient.”

Communication and Coordination

As coastal cities become more vulnerable, it’s possible that overall settlement patterns could change, and places like central Florida—already a burgeoning area—could swell further. This could put even greater demands on inland cities to be environmentally and economically sustainable.

Communication and coordination are key. “Orlando is trying to take the lead on sustainability in the Southeast along with Atlanta,” says Kristopher Stenger, AIA, building and sustainability manager for Winter Park, a suburban city within the Orlando metro area. “We have a pretty good network in Florida of sustainability directors, and we all stay in touch on calls and discuss topics here in the state.”

The AIA, for its part, has made resilience a priority, holding a Resilience Summit in 2015 and including a series of resources on its website. The association is also planning to roll out a resilience curriculum this year that will address vulnerability assessment, hazard mitigation, and design adaptation tools to help architects work with communities— inland and otherwise—to be ready for anything.”