Pretty much any longtime resident has an anecdote to share about floods they’ve encountered, during hurricane season, heavy summer storms or when strong “king” tides send growing volumes of water surging across parts of the city.
Miami Beach, the U.S. city that stands to lose the most from sea level rise, is spending $500 million to raise more than 100 miles of roads, install dozens of pumps, build higher sea walls and revamp drainage systems in a fight to keep ultra-valuable real estate dry.
Mayor Philip Levine, who was elected on his promises to protect Miami Beach from rising waters, says the city will invest even more if necessary in adaptation strategies to protect more than $40 billion worth of properties.
But on the other side of Biscayne Bay, in Miami’s Shorecrest neighborhood, a novel idea is taking shape: Instead of trying to keep the water out of the notoriously flood-prone area, officials are considering surrendering some developed land to nature, to accommodate inevitably rising seas.
The idea is controversial and expensive, as it involves demolishing properties and moving people and businesses away. But officials say it’s a long-term solution, unlike Miami Beach’s temporary remediation efforts.
“Climate change is the biggest challenge for Miami and we need to think outside the box, to come up with innovative solutions that may not be so obvious at first,” said Tomás Regalado, the Miami city mayor. “But how do you tell people they have to leave their homes? They tell me ‘I pay taxes. You fix my problem’, so it will take some convincing.”
Too Little, Too Late?
The consequences of sea level rise are worsening all over Miami but the city is still caught in a debate between two extremes: climate-change deniers and developers who keep building ever-higher luxury condos, and climate experts who say that whatever the city is doing now to alleviate flooding may be too little too late with sea level rising faster than originally anticipated.
Sea level rise in South Florida has accelerated over the past 10 years, studies show. A 2016 University of Miami study found that the average rate of sea level rise was about 3 millimeters a year before 2006, and then rose to 9 millimeters a year on average after 2006.
Some researchers say the increase may be linked to the weakening of two Atlantic Ocean currents, the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, as ice melts more quickly in places like Greenland, sending more fresh water into salty seas.
South Florida’s flat topography, made up of the Everglades wetlands and a porous limestone plateau, only increases the risk of flooding and poses more challenges to climate adaptation efforts.
Most of Miami is barely five feet (1.5 meters) above sea level. Basements and underground garages are extremely rare because the water table is so high. Just a century ago, Miami Beach was just a sandbar, with the ocean on one side and mangroves and swamps on the other. It was filled in during the early 20th century to make the area livable.
Shorecrest, a residential and commercial area on the mainland and right on the waters of Biscayne Bay, is among Miami’s lowest-lying neighborhoods, making it a good first candidate for a climate-ready makeover. Residents say the water is rising higher, and flooding is more frequent, every year. There are puddles on street corners on most days, even without any rain. High tides regularly flood roads and intersections.
An online data visualization developed at Florida International University, called “Eyes on the Rise“, shows that NE Little River Drive, a street in Shorecrest with million-dollar waterfront homes on one side and middle-class properties on the other, is just 2.3 feet (0.7 meters) above sea level.
Maps produced by the online app show what streets would look like with 1, 2 or 3 or more feet of sea level rise. With just 1.5 feet (about 0.5 meters), Little River Dr. would be almost completely submerged. Already, flood marks are visible in many homes and buildings in Shorecrest.
“Sometimes we can’t tell where the water is coming from, and streets will flood really fast. One day I went out for a couple of hours and when I got back, there was a huge lake right here,” said Angelica Medina, a student who lives with her mother in an apartment complex on a low-lying corner. “When we call the city to complain, they say it’s the tides, there is nothing they can do.”
Cheikh Robertson, an accountant who recently moved into a rental apartment in a building by the water, said he’s heard horror stories from his Shorecrest neighbors.
“What I hear most frequently is people saying they want to move out, sell their houses and leave this place. I’m glad I’m only here temporarily,” Robertson said.
Moving For Good
That might be true of all of Robertson’s neighbors. Mayor Regalado, along with other officials, climate scientists and urban planners in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, is working on a proposal that would remove all development from that corner of Shorecrest, allowing the area to flood.
Properties would be purchased by the government and turned into parks and retention basis to hold back rising water. The plan would rely on owners voluntarily selling their homes. Main roads would be raised, and new drainage systems installed. Zoning and building regulations would be altered to encourage development on higher land.
Financing would come in part from a proposed $275 million “Miami Forever” global obligation bond that will be voted on in a referendum in November, alongside municipal elections.
Jane Gilbert, who was appointed Miami’s first chief resilience officer in October, says cities in South Florida must look for more “holistic” and integrated solutions to prepare for the shocks that will likely worsen in the 21st century.
Gilbert, Miami Beach’s chief resilience officer Susanne Torriente, and Jim Murley, who holds the same job for Miami-Dade County, are together devising an integrated plan to help Miami adapt to sea level rise and other challenges.
“We need a smart, cost-effective, forward-thinking plan that integrates efforts by city governments, the private sector and community groups,” Gilbert said.