Sunday Conversation: Engineer Holly Kremers looks to build resilience against sea-level rise

Published July 5 2018
Updated July 8 2018

Like every other Tampa Bay resident, Holly Kremers paid close attention as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida last September. ē Kremers, however, also spent a good deal of time glued to the telephone with officials in Miami Beach. ē You see, the storm tested Kremersí newly-minted engineering work in Miami Beach. The Wade Trim engineering senior vice president helped craft a plan to make the roads and infrastructure more resilient to flooding and sea level rise, and Irma provided the first measure of its effectiveness.

Did it work? Yes. While Kremers stayed dry in Tampa, the efforts of her three-year project helped Miami Beach also survive.

Now Kremers has assumed the title of corporate resiliency practice lead, and the measures used in Miami Beach will help guide the firmís efforts around the state as coastal cities begin to gird against sea level rise.

Kremers recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about resiliency, sea level rise and why she never shied away from pursuing a career in a male-dominated field.

Tell me about the project in Miami Beach.

In the city of Miami Beach, they have sea level rise issues going on just like everybody else in coastal Florida. The difference there is all the infrastructure, all the roads are built on porous limestone filled with groundwater. Not only do they have rising tides, they also have rising groundwater. Theyíve experienced sunny day flooding where the roads would flood on a sunny day from the ground up.

How did you come up with a solution?

We looked at different solutions cities around the world have used to protect buildings and infrastructure from flooding. A lot of places have built berms, dykes and levies to hold back the water, but when you have water rising from underneath the ground, those things donít work. We realized we needed a more unique approach, so we literally decided to raise the city, starting with the roads. We picked an elevation for the new roads so even when the ground water would rise up, it would be lower than the sub-base of the road. In our pilot neighborhood, which was called Sunset Harbor, we raised the roads 2 1/2 feet. We also installed stormwater pump stations to ensure the elevated roads wouldnít push water onto private property and protect the buildings from flooding. Most importantly, because Miami Beach is basically an island, we had to make sure the roads would be higher than the highest tide, even during a storm, so people could get off the island.

So the neighborhood remained dry during the hurricane. What was the emotion to see your efforts work?

It was nervousness until we saw that it worked. After that, itís really something that weíre proud of and Iím personally proud of. I mean, itís my PE (professional engineer) seal on the project as the engineer of record. Weíre setting the precedent for how sea level rise projects will be done throughout the city, and itís a strategy that we see being replicated throughout the state.

I spoke to a group of scientists earlier this year, and they have models predicting sunny day flooding for a lot of coastal areas in 2030, 2035 and 2040. Whatís your perspective?

Iíve seen a lot of different estimates taking it out to a number of years. I consider myself a scientist, but Iím also an engineer, so I like to see data about whatís happened in the past. By looking at whatís already happened, we can see that sea level is rising. What we need to do is look at patterns to establish what has been happening and prepare for what could happen. Here in the Tampa Bay area, where weíre surrounded by water everywhere, we should be looking at raising infrastructure as well as looking at creating controlled flooding areas. We have to control it and give the water a place to go. If we do that, we can keep our properties, our people and our roadways safe.

Some say give climate change a high priority, others donít believe. It sounds like youíre in the middle. Where are you on that spectrum?

My career path has led to me looking at resilient solutions, sustainabilty solutions. I try to keep the politics and the opinions out of it. I look at data. We know climate change is happening, sea level rise is happening, but in terms of where weíre going and how bad it will be, we donít know. Weíre looking at coming up with resilient solutions that can help us now, and be modified 30 years down the road when we have another 30 years of data and new information.

Looking at Tampa Bay, are our communities doing enough?

A lot of the communities that we talk to, they do have plans in place. Theyíre doing sea level rise vulnerability studies, and then incorporating the information into their capital improvement plans; their plans for utility projects and roadway projects. Weíre on the right path. We just need to figure out now what we need to do to put those plans into action, and start doing projects to prepare for what will be happening. Iím looking forward to seeing the next step and working with communities to get projects funded.

Growing up, did anyone ever make you feel like engineering is a "guys thing?"

I guess if they did, I didnít notice. My mother has a math degree and I grew up with her teaching, so it never seemed odd to me to be around women who were good at science and math. In my engineering school (Michigan Technical University), it was 3 males to 1 female. But once you get over that fact and start applying yourself and doing your work, itís something I never really noticed much.

What does it mean to be the resiliency practice lead at Wade Trim?

Itís something that we started six months ago. In doing this work, we realize thereís a place for it, not only in Florida, but across our 20 offices nationwide. Thereís a place to look at resiliency and different kinds of changes in every project we do across the market. Itís the coolest job Iíve had in my 20 years of doing this.

Contact Ernest Hooper at [email protected] Follow him at @hoop4you.