High-tide floods are becoming more common, and it's costing businesses

Stores can't operate with inches of water inside them, but climate change is making these sunny day floods far more frequent.

flooding annapolis
Flooding in Annapolis, Maryland, December, 2012.Forsaken Fotos

Ryan Lamy began his restaurant career selling hot dogs from a cart in Pasadena, Maryland. But all the while, he longed to open a real café. In 2009, his dream came true when he found a small space to rent on the Annapolis waterfront and turned it into Pip's Dock Street Dogs, one of the many shops and restaurants in the trendy area known as City Dock. Pip's offers multiple varieties of dogs and burgers, and — he boasts — the best cheesesteak outside of Philly.

People flock to Pip's every day, especially on weekends. That is, unless they have to slosh through a foot of water to get there.

"The water can be anywhere from a couple of inches to a foot," Lamy said. "It's always been like this, but it's steadily getting worse. When I first opened, we would flood a few times out of the year. Now, it seems like it's three to five times a month on a regular basis. This past fall, we were flooding two days out of each week."

pip's dock stree dogs
Flooding outside Pip's Dock Street Dogs in Annapolis, Maryland, September, 2018.Pip's Dock Street Dogs

Most of the time, it's "nuisance flooding," which occurs at high tide when ocean waters breach barriers and inundate parking lots and sidewalks, close roads and overwhelm drainage systems. To make matters worse, Pip's is level with the sidewalk, so when the sidewalk floods, the water seeps into the shop. Sandbags don't help much. "We tried using them, and all they do is keep the water inside," Lamy says.

Flooding is costing him a lot of money. If he's forced to close on a weekday, he can lose as much as $1,000. On weekends, the figure rises to $1,500. "Multiply that by ten times a month," he says. "That's a lot of money. Once the water breaches our doorway, we have to shut down - although I've had people sitting at the tables outside in ankle-deep water eating their lunch."

This is the price of high-tide flooding, one of the consequences of climate change-driven sea-level rise. Nuisance flooding, also known as "sunny day" flooding, increases travel time, causes people to miss work, damages infrastructure, and discourages people from shopping and dining out.

flooding annapolis
Flooding in Annapolis, Maryland, January, 2010.Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

"While most studies of climate change focus on extreme events like wildfires and hurricanes, climate change also affects daily life through impacts like high-tide flooding," says Miyuki Hino, a Stanford University doctoral student who led new research analyzing the fiscal impact of nuisance flooding by focusing on the experiences of a single coastal city, Annapolis, Maryland's state capital. "These floods are tangible, annoying, and they happen all the time in some communities. We wanted to evaluate the impacts of high-tide flooding because it connects these slow-moving, global changes to people's lived experiences."

Regular coastal flooding has become a persistent and costly problem across the United States, and is expected to worsen as sea levels rise. According to a recent report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, coastal communities —Miami and Norfolk among them -—are coping with a record number of high-tide events. One study concluded that the number of coastal flood days in 27 U.S. locations has increased from an average of 2.1 days between 1956 and 1960, to 11.8 between 2006 and 2010.

Annapolis, located on the Chesapeake Bay and home to the U.S. Naval Academy, experienced 63 high-tide floods in 2017, compared with about four in the early 1960s, according to the Stanford study. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that the frequent flooding in Annapolis resulted in 3,000 fewer visits to its downtown in 2017, and between $86,000 and $172,000 in lost revenue.

flooding annapolis
Flooding in Annapolis, Maryland, January, 2010.Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

"These floods might look like big harmless puddles, but the impacts really add up when you have 50 days of flooding every year," Hino says. "It's not just about businesses, either. These floods make it harder for people to get to work, for kids to get to school, for ambulances to get to people in need. Climate change is already harming communities. It's not a problem for future generations. It's a problem right now. And, it's not just about extreme weather. It's also about these slow-moving, gradual changes that affect us."

The scientists used data from parking meters - receipts provided by the Annapolis city government - satellite images and in-person interviews with business people to determine the extent to which Annapolis visitors avoided City Dock during floods. They found that customers weren't willing to park nearby and wade through water to reach shops or restaurants. They also found that customers didn't return once the water ebbed.

"We don't know a lot about high-tide flooding, in part because it's very much an emerging climate change impact, and in part because it's pretty hard to study," says Hino, of the university's Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). "They're hard to study because they typically last for a few hours at a time, and they don't leave long-lasting infrastructure damage —the impacts only last as long as the floods do. So, we don't have a good record of what is flooding and when."

flooding annapolis
Flooding in Annapolis, Maryland, January, 2010.Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

The team also included Samanthe Belanger, a graduate of E-IPER and the university's graduate school of business; Alexander Davies, instructor of practical applications in oceanography at the United States Naval Academy; Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; and Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

The researchers considered several locations for the study, all on the East Coast, which Hino says is currently experiencing more high-tide flooding than the West Coast.

"Annapolis ended up being the perfect place for multiple reasons," she says. "The local government there is really on top of this issue and were fantastic partners. The location that floods in Annapolis - City Dock - is well-documented because it's part of the historic tourist district. And the place that floods is a parking lot that records transactions down to the minute, which gave us the high-frequency measurement we needed. By measuring the impacts, whether it's on business revenue or public health or traffic congestion, we can make evidence-based decisions about where and how to invest."

For his part, Pip's owner Lamy loves the waterfront —"it's gorgeous, when it's not flooding" —and says there is no deluge that could ever drive him away. "At this point, it's part of doing business," he says. "Once the tide is out, we just mop the floors and go back to work."

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.