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How Miami Beach Is Keeping the Florida Dream Alive—And Dry

MIAMI BEACH—Dan Kipnis, a retired fishing boat captain who answers to “Captain Dan,” drives along Indian Creek Road, counting off the mansions that he expects one day will vanish under rising seas. This is the road that floods when the tides are high and the waters of the adjoining canal wash over the sea walls, carrying fish, lapping at the gates of travertine palaces, destroying Ferraris, Maseratis and lesser cars. It’s the road that will in a few months carry Kipnis out of town to higher ground.

“It kills me to move away from here,” says Kipnis, who, at 65, with his silver white ponytail and straw hat, is a familiar type in Miami Beach. He pulls into the driveway of his Miami Modern, a classic “MiMo,” airy and elegant, tricked out with marble floors, triple-pane windows and hurricane-impact doors. But it’s the ground outside that tells his story: It has been elevated 2 feet, layered with rock and fill delivered in 2010 by seven dump trucks. Now, when the neighbors’ driveways flood and saltwater pours into the streets, Kipnis’ house stays dry.

Still, it’s not enough. There’s just no getting away from the rising sea. Kipnis’ gym at 14th and Alton has flooded so many times it lost its insurance and had to close. Last October, ocean water bubbled out of a manhole around the corner from his house, endangering the engine of his car.

Such events are commonplace in Miami Beach. The century-old resort city, with its iconic Art Deco architecture and vibrant cultural scene, has chosen to fight rather than flee. Adopting a scaled-up version of Kipnis’ strategy, over the past year the city has elevated eight roads, raised six sea walls and installed 10 massive pumps to push flood waters back into Biscayne Bay. That $100 million investment is the first installment on a $400 million gamble that will, over the next few years, elevate another two miles of street and install 70 more pumps. It has worked so far, sparing residents and visitors the annoyance of wading through flooded streets with bags on their feet. But these engineering fixes are likely just a prelude to bolder innovations: Planners have already proposed radical-sounding ideas like floating personal islands and even waterproofing whole portions of the peninsula. If the gamble pays off, it won’t solve the problems that sea-level rise poses for Miami Beach, but it will buy the city some time.

Across the country, even the world, coastal cities are the front lines of climate-change planning, leap-frogging past the political debate to hatch immediate and often very expensive plans to fight the effects they are already living with. Miami Beach, all seven square miles of it, has placed itself at the leading edge of an existential fight facing the entirety of South Florida—230 miles of coastline running from Key West to Palm Beach. Driven by global warming, the sea level here has risen 9 inches over the past century and is predicted to rise at an accelerating pace by as much as another 6½ feet by 2100. Even the most conservative scientists anticipate a rise of at least 2 feet by 2060.

“There is some real trouble brewing for South Florida,” says Ben Strauss, director of the Program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists based in Princeton, New Jersey. In 2014, he oversaw a report that ranked all 50 states according to their susceptibility to climate change. Florida—with its 20.3 million people, $145 billion of coastal real estate and 2,120 square miles of land lying 3 feet or less above high tide—ranked most vulnerable.

Other cities around the country, including New York, Boston, Norfolk, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C., have recognized the mounting threat posed by sea level rise. But South Florida, the eighth most populous metro area in the United States, faces a uniquely urgent challenge to adapt to a changing environment. The region’s economy, dependent on tourism and population growth, is paradoxically fragile and supercharged. And the development boom, evident in the construction cranes sprouting on the skyline, that is now gripping the region is happening in the very zones most at risk from the rising water. Cities around the country are looking to see Florida to see if it can save itself at the same time as it is making solutions more difficult to achieve.

There are 417 condo towers—a total of 50,060 units—currently under construction from Miami to West Palm Beach. And not one of those towers has been built to plans that take sea level rise into account, say land-use attorneys, politicians and other authorities. When the Federal Aviation Administration last year challenged height restrictions on a proposed new condo, the City of Miami sided with the developers.

Such deference to South Florida’s construction industry has complicated the pressing need to tackle the threat of sea level rise. More and more of the region’s mayors and city planners recognize that their economies are inextricably linked to global warming. They have begun to act in concert and alone, virtually abandoned by Republican Governor Rick Scott, who rarely misses an opportunity to brag about creating jobs but has difficulty uttering the words “climate change.”

One of the most vocal of those officials is Miami Beach’s mayor, Philip Levine.

“Some people get swept into office,” Levine says. “I got floated into office.”

***

Levine has told that joke many times since he filmed an ad for his first campaign in 2013 that showed him kayaking home from work on a flooded Alton Road. He won office with a promise to fix the flooding, and by most accounts he’s done just that.

“This is literally the level of the road 10 months ago,” Levine says, pointing to the entrance of Pubbelly, a popular sushi restaurant in West Miami Beach. The sidewalk lies 2 feet below the newly elevated road on which cars are driving. “At king tide”—the highest of high tides—“you couldn’t cross the street. The water was 1 foot high. People in that condo over there were going crazy!”

By the time Levine “floated” into office, the city’s 91,000 residents were so sick of the sunny day flooding that few objected when he hiked the stormwater utility fee from a monthly $9 to $17. Like most cities, Miami Beach had long neglected its infrastructure. To what degree was graphically illustrated when workers, upon excavating a street, discovered a 100-year-old wooden water pipeline.

But while Alton Road stays dry, some climate change scientists are unimpressed by an engineering feat they consider lamentably shortsighted.

“Why would you put $100 million into infrastructure that won’t even survive the next foot of sea level rise?” demands Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami’s geological science department and one of the best-known experts on sea level rise. In Miami, he’s known as “Dr. Doom.”

“The reality is, we don’t know how fast the ice will melt. Looking at ice melt following the last Ice Age, we know that once it starts to melt, the flow can be very rapid. It’s not a gradual la-di-da process. The ice is on its way.”

Levine, a multimillionaire who made his fortune publishing everything from magazines to in-cabin TV programming for cruise ships, decided something was better than nothing. He is a major Democratic donor who flies around the country speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton. At home, joggers stop to shake his hand. Drivers honk and roll down their windows to shout: “Mayor! How ya doing?”

“Listen, doom and gloom is a cottage industry,” Levine says. “I call them defeatists. We’ve had them throughout history. Can you imagine how many Americans said `forget it’ after our fleet got bombed in Hawaii? That we were never going to get the Nazis out of Europe after our troops landed in Normandy? That was that generation’s challenge, and I believe climate change is our generation’s challenge. We’re not going to run, and we’re not going to surrender.”

He bends down to retrieve a penny from the gutter and put it in his pocket.

“You look at the incredible development—the smartest minds, the most important cultural icons, the biggest investors in the world—they’re all buying in Miami Beach. It’s the hottest real estate market in the world. The market always tells you what’s going on. And the market tells you Miami Beach has a brilliant, bright, dry future.”

Retreat “is not part of the conversation,” says Susanne Torriente, Miami Beach’s resilience officer—a job description increasingly embraced by cities around the world. Resilience officers are the new emergency czars, assigned to oversee the impact of sea level rise, extreme heat, earthquakes and other challenges. Last year, Miami-Dade County also hired a resilience officer.

The title is usually traced to the 100 Resilient Cities Program pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013. When a city is accepted into this prestigious program, it receives financial and technical support from experts around the world. Miami Beach recently applied in partnership with Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami. If approved, the three municipalities would be the program’s first Florida member.

Whether Miami Beach and the surrounding cities will prove resilient enough is a question that draws a certain amount of macabre fascination from the worldwide media. Each year at king tide, TV crews fly in from other continents to document the flooding and wave the city adieu. “Goodbye, Miami,” Rolling Stone cheerfully saluted in a 2014 article. But Torriente’s office is besieged as well with a different kind of attention—requests for tours of the city’s new pumps and elevated streets. There are calls from city engineers, European media and international nonprofits—all eager to see one city’s incremental adaptation to sea level rise.

“This is the one place where you can see actual investment,” says Torriente. “Other cities are planning to do things. But here the changes are visible.

“We are confident we can make investments over time, that we can learn from our mistakes and create a new city,” she continues. “It’s going to be Tomorrow Land, not your grandmother’s Miami Beach.”

With that in mind, the city has retained Pininfarina, the Italian industrial design firm that devised the signature look of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Now it’s being charged with creating a cool, art deco look to overlay on those massive saltwater pumps and give them some Miami Beach style.

Still, no amount of chic wrapping can cover up the consequences of pumping untreated flood water back into Biscayne Bay. Citizens have made videotapes of what looks to an untrained eye like silty dead zones, spreading out from where pipes gush more than 7,000 gallons a minute at the height of the flooding. Levine disputes there is any permanent harm to marine life caused by the churned-up water.

But Henry Briceno, a Florida International University geologist, has found high levels of nutrients and bacteria—“a lot of sewer juices”—in the waters being pumped into Biscayne Bay. He is analyzing for other contaminants as well. “We expect all kinds of metals, pesticides and chemicals. They’re the same toxins you’d find in any city, especially when flood water is seeping up from the ground.”

To prevent contamination, Briceno says money would be better spent on a 3,000-foot-deep injection well to naturally filter wastewater before it returns to the ocean. Briceno estimates the cost of such a well at $7 million. It’s not as sexy as an art deco pump design, he admits, but it would, according to Briceno, help preserve the all-important tourist industry, which depends on maintaining the clean and protected waters of Biscayne Bay.

His latest study of floodwater discharged directly into Biscayne Bay found high levels of human fecal bacteria, signifying leaks from old underground sewage and septic tanks. “We are now pumping water which is out of compliance with the protected water status of the bay,” he says. “And in time, we will have to pump water every day because the tides and seas will be higher. That will be the new normal.”

***

Miami Beach may be the poster child for sea level rise, but it doesn’t suffer alone. Virginia Beach floods on a more regular basis and Annapolis, Baltimore, Norfolk and Washington, D.C., are all under threat of storm-induced flooding.

What makes Miami Beach and the rest of South Florida so vulnerable is the bedrock of porous limestone that runs beneath its surface. The limestone was formed over millions of years from skeletal fragments of shrimp, coral and mollusks. It looks like a sponge and is filled with holes, making it permeable and full of water. It’s also easily pulverized.

Consider: In the middle of construction of the Port of Miami Tunnel in 2011, engineers suddenly realized that the limestone in Biscayne Bay had to be injected with cement before the boring machine could begin its work. It’s this permeability that thwarts any easy solution.

That includes the tried and proven solutions from the Netherlands, a country that has been holding back the seas for 800 years with a system of dikes, sluices, levees and sand dunes. All are unusable in a place built on top of porous limestone. When the sea moves in during annual fall and spring high tides, the limestone acts as a calcified sponge, pushing water up through holes in the ground.

“Miami is so low and so flat,” says Strauss, of the independent scientists group. “There are so many people and so much value. And this bedrock that’s full of holes. A lot of New Orleans is below sea level, but it has a system of levees and sea walls. That’s not possible for Miami.”

The size of the problem, and its intractable nature, can make experts throw up their hands. Environmental anthropologist Kenny Broad says that if Mayor Levine “came to me and said, `Hey, should I put $1 million into climate change, raising the streets and putting in pumps? Or should I put it into the school system?’ I’d tell him give it to the schools.”

Broad is chairman of the Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society at the University of Miami. In 2011, National Geographic named him Explorer of the Year. But when it comes to home ownership in Miami, he sounds more like a risk-averse banker.

“My personal game plan is not to own anything in 10 to 15 years,” he says. “I have a cool place high up, well out of the flood zone. But so what, if the taxes are high and the streets are filled with water?”

Levine recognizes that his solutions for Miami Beach provide a stopgap measure at best. But he points optimistically to transformative technological innovations of recent years: “If we could go back 30 or 40 years and I showed you the iPad and Facebook, you’d think I was out of my mind. I believe innovation and entrepreneurship will come up with great solutions. Because there’s just too much to protect.”

Levine’s faith notwithstanding, the ideas that have emerged so far sound more far-out than feasible.

There’s a Dutch plan for a flotilla of Styrofoam islands—29 lavish homes, each with a pool, boathouse, desalinization system and private beach, for a cost of $12.5 million apiece. Bobbing in Maule Lake, a former rock pit in North Miami Beach, the artificial islands would be impervious to rising seas.

Architects and city planners discuss “triage:” saving some places, while letting others disappear underwater. They paint a dystopian future: raising airports, universities, and warehouses by up to 6 feet, while leaving the rest to rot.

Perhaps the most audacious idea of all involves waterproofing the limestone substrata of coastal Southeast Florida to keep out the Atlantic Ocean. The nature-defying idea is the brainchild of a hazard mitigation specialist who has applied the same principle to hundreds of hospitals, resorts, schools, marinas, roadways and communications towers in Miami and around the world. The difference now is that he’s proposing to do it to more than 100 miles of coastline, from northern Palm Beach County to southern Miami-Dade.

“Show me a study that proves we cannot reduce or control the permeability of limestone,” says Ricardo Alvarez, former deputy director of the International Hurricane Research Center and a professor at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University.

Alvarez plans to test various mechanical, chemical and biological methods, such as injecting limestone with bentonite, a clay that expands when wet and is capable of absorbing eight times its dry mass in water. Bentonite is commonly used in underground waterproofing projects, such as those used by the oil and gas exploration industries.

Biomimicry, the creation of products that emulate natural processes, might also be considered. Alvarez wonders whether barnacles may prove useful; they excrete a glue that adheres to different underwater surfaces.

His vision entails an engineering project of almost unfathomable complexity and expense—saturating the substrate 50 meters below the surface and plugging the billions of holes in Florida’s bedrock of porous limestone. But if successful, the benefits would far outweigh the costs.

“Without this possibility for adaptation in place,” he says, “the only realistic options over the long term appear to be centered around relocation and abandonment.”

***

Retreat is exactly what Philip Stoddard is preparing for.

The mayor of South Miami, Stoddard gazes out over the pond behind his house. It’s surrounded by a cypress tree, palms and coca bean plants and is inhabited by a fish named Lola. Stoddard, who’s also a biology professor at Florida International University, says he once imagined he would live out his retirement here. Now 59, he believes the house will be underwater and worthless long before then.

The important thing, he says, is to prepare for the inevitable. “As waters rise, will jobs continue to exist for those who stay? Will our trade district be above water if we don’t start elevating it now? Will we have beaches for people to visit if we line our coast with sea walls?”

He proposes planning for what he calls a “transitional economy,” making sure key businesses continue functioning so that people aren’t forced to leave in one mass evacuation.

“It doesn’t end well, but it can end better than badly.”

Stoddard doesn’t fear just the occasional flood. He knows there is an equally pernicious threat wreaking havoc in the permeable substrata beneath his city. Postwar bungalows are getting bulldozed by developers building shiny new McMansions, but Stoddard knows that underground the septic tanks common throughout town are slowly being corroded by salt water that is slowly pushing inland, displacing underground reservoirs of freshwater as it does.

“The drain fields are where the interesting action is,” Stoddard says, pausing to let that understatement sink in. Septic drain fields, or leach fields, remove the contaminants from liquid that emerges from a septic tank. As the ground becomes saturated from heavy rains and rising sea levels, the water table—an average 2 feet below ground surface—will rise, and liquid from the septic tanks will seep up into the streets.

“I was looking at some of the septic tank data with the city’s hydrogeological contractor,” says Stoddard. “The oldest drain fields in the neighborhood along the Snapper Creek canal are so close to the water table they could fail any time—we’re not sure why they’re even working anymore.”

Last year, his office commissioned an independent engineer to draw plans for a sewer conversion. The city followed up by asking the state for $2 million to get it started. He didn’t get it.

“I understand the governor had a litmus test for funding last year that required an explicit explanation of economic benefit from any project,” Stoddard says. “Thus any project intended to prevent a neighborhood from flooding, that did not explicitly state the economic benefit of keeping the neighborhood above water, was vetoed.”

Saltwater intrusion of drinking water is an acute concern throughout the region. The South Florida Water Management District has designated two Broward County well fields as “critical.” Several wells in the county have already been abandoned by water utilities due to saltwater contamination or its threat.

Jennifer Jurado, director of Broward’s Natural Resources Planning and Management Division, often hears from residents who are grappling with how much they want to invest in their properties, how to decipher their elevation certificates, and whether it’s worth sticking around. Her main concern is the county’s drainage infrastructure.

“The capacity isn’t in the system,” she says. “There are areas where you can hear the water running in the drains and it’s not raining.”

Standing on Mola Drive, a finger island surrounded on three sides by canals and a tidal waterway, Nancy Gassman, assistant public works director of Fort Lauderdale, considers the challenge of saving roads that at different times in the year look more like rivers.

During the last king tide in October, Mola was so deep in water that city officials posted “No Wake” signs up and down the mansion-lined street. The passing cars were creating huge waves that rolled up driveways and down the street.

Mola is one of the roads that Fort Lauderdale is considering for elevation. But once the work begins, it’s hard to know where to stop. “If the homes are below the new elevation, they would then be flooded,” Gassman says. Which means the city of Fort Lauderdale would have to continue the elevation—by raising up the ground floors of numerous mansions. Stilts, anyone?

***

Earlier this year, when Democratic legislators in landlocked Tallahassee drafted a bill proposing a state agency to deal with the impact of tidal flooding and storm surge, they cast about for an inoffensive name. They were looking for something that wouldn’t rile their GOP colleagues, many of whom, like their governor, espouse a skeptical attitude toward anything that smacks of climate change. The legislators finally settled on the Natural Hazards Interagency Workgroup.

“You need to appeal to people where they already are,” says Kristin Jacobs, the former Broward County commissioner who authored the bill. “The legislature is more comfortable in dealing with flood research reduction than planning for climate change. In our perspective, at the end of day the label is not as important as the action itself.”

But in the end there wasn’t much action either.

The bill moved easily through the state Senate but bogged down in the House. Jacobs, a longtime champion of environmental issues (in 2014, she co-chaired President Barack Obama’s subgroup of the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience), says she’ll reintroduce the bill next year.

Political differences tend to dissolve at the local level, where practical considerations trump ideology.

In 2009, Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties joined forces to create the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. It was formed to allow coordination between local county governments and has been hailed as a national and international model of bipartisan cooperation.

In 2011, the leaders of Fort Lauderdale, Broward, Miami-Dade and Miami Beach discovered that they were each pursuing the same technical assistance grant. Then a surprising thing happened: Fort Lauderdale, Broward and Miami-Dade decided to withdraw their applications to give Miami Beach, which was deemed furthest along, the best chance.

“Climate change should be the defining issue of our time,” Jacobs says. “When you look at all the things happening in the world, I have absolutely no patience for people who make it a partisan issue. When you come from an area like I do in South Florida, the issues we are dealing with are very pragmatic. We go way beyond partisan issues.”

While Miami Beach has been accused of throwing good money after bad, other local governments have just begun to plan. In July 2014, a Miami-Dade County task force proposed a “robust capital plan” to overhaul infrastructure and deal with persistent flooding.

Eight months later, environmental activists were shocked when they scrutinized the county’s proposed $6.8 billion budget for 2016: “There was no funding for sea level rise in the entire three-volume document,” says Caroline Lewis, director of the CLEO Institute, an educational nonprofit dedicated to climate literacy.

After Lewis and her colleagues staged a protest at a budget hearing, the county allotted $300,000 to fund engineering work for climate change.

Even so, the county task force gave no hint of the potential costs of that robust plan, leading some observers to speculate that the price tag could exceed $50 billion—a number so astonishingly high it has had a paralytic effect on candid discussion of the problem.

“It’s one of the conundrums for me,” says Harvey Ruvin, clerk of courts and chairman of the Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force. “If I wave this flag too wildly, I don’t want to see a stampede to North Carolina.”

(North Carolina, of course, has its own issues with sea level rise. The state that once outlawed the words “climate change” has now acknowledged that sea levels will rise along its coast by up to 10.6 inches during the next 30 years.)

But whether or not city and state officials engage with the issue, it is already having an impact. And it’s an impact that could drain the life out of the region’s construction-dependent economy. Three months ago, BankUnited, South Florida’s largest local bank, abruptly stopped funding residential mortgages.

“No one at the bank said anything about sea level rise, but many of us called each other with deep concerns,” says Mitchell Chester, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who writes and teaches widely on the impact of climate change. “People who know the emerging impacts, they’re starting to wonder when Congress and Wall Street will begin planning for financial adaptation to help, and not restrict, our economy.”

Chester proposes his own solution: a sea-level-rise savings account, similar to an IRA, to provide refugees with the means to flee rising tides and start life anew on higher ground. He also imagines that a portion of every homeowner’s mortgage payment would be set aside for this almost-certain eventuality.

“It would allow people to save and work with the mortgage company, because no lender is going to want to take over an inundated property,” Chester says. “So if the worst happens—how do we evacuate all these people and pay for it? How will they afford to move? At the end of the day, when they were talking about underwater mortgages, they weren’t kidding.”

***

Last week, at the Republican presidential debate in Miami, the GOP’s 12of the campaign, the subject of climate change came up for the first time.

CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked a question that had been submitted by Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado. Regalado asked what the candidates planned to do about climate change. The question went to Marco Rubio first, which was interesting because Regalado has endorsed his fellow South Florida Republican.

Rubio’s answer included his standard rejection of climate change—the “climate has always been changing,” he said. But, he went on to say, almost swallowing his words, “If there is higher sea levels or whatever may be happening, we do need to deal with that through mitigation.”

There has been some discussion since the debate about whether Rubio meant to say “adaptation,” like pumps and sea walls, rather than “mitigation,” the reduction of carbon emissions that he has said would ruin the American economy. Even so, the fact that he had just acknowledged the existence of sea level rise was taken as a major step forward. Twitter and Facebook were abuzz.

“In the politics down here, that was movement,” says James Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County.

The back story to the question is all about movement, as Tapper, and Rubio, were no doubt aware.

Regalado is an icon in the Cuban exile community. He arrived in Miami at age 14, with Operation Peter Pan, the mass exodus of unaccompanied minors from Cuba in the early ’60s. He became a successful news producer and anchor of a local radio show, later traveling to Africa as a correspondent. Now in his second term as mayor, the Republican was slow to come around on the subject of climate change.

Lately, however, he’s been sticking his neck out. In January, 15 South Florida mayors—from Miami to West Palm Beach—appealed to Rubio and former Republican Governor Jeb Bush to “acknowledge the reality and urgency of climate change and to address the upcoming crisis it presents our communities.” The signers were all Democrats except for James Cason, mayor of Coral Gables, and Regalado.

A follow-up letter—this time signed by 22 mayors—included even more Republicans. “The elected leaders—Democrats, Republicans—they’re not all in lockstep, but there’s no longer any debate that it’s happening,” says Murley.

Regalado’s transformation began years ago—thanks to the sheer persistence of his youngest child, Jose.

“Like water that shapes a stone,” jokes the father, who listens intently as Jose, now 30, describes his intrafamilial lobbying. They are sitting in the mayor’s office in Miami City Hall, a onetime seaplane airport terminal.

Jose remembers waking up to the sounds of his father stirring at 4 a.m. in the family home. For years, Jose would get out of bed to make the coffee and “grab” his dad, bombarding him with factoids about climate change—the death of coral reefs, rising seas, the extinction of species. Jose was the teenager who at family outings refused to allow anyone to order Chilean sea bass.

“I knew that if I couldn’t convince my dad, I couldn’t convince anyone else,” says Jose, an underwater sea photographer who has documented the demise of coral reefs around the world.

Last fall, he attended the Paris Climate Talks as his father’s representative. He was besieged with questions about Miami’s future, but the one that most surprised him came from a fellow American, who asked, “What’s your plan? We’re all waiting for what Miami is going to do.”

“He just assumed we’re moving [inland],” Jose Regalado recalls. “I just stared at him and said: ‘Move where?’”

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