Hurricane Irma spilled storm waters into some of South Florida’s most valuable coastal real estate Sunday, flooding portions of Old Town in Key West, Miami’s financial district in Brickell, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard.
Brickell Avenue, the main drag through downtown Miami’s most populous neighborhood, became a three-foot high river choked with debris and fallen branches.
The damage across the region will take several days to assess, as flooded roads drain and downed trees and power lines are cleared. But the sight of storm surge cascading through low-lying streets and into buildings suggested a heavy price may be paid, especially in the city of Miami’s prosperous urban core.
Even though Miami-Dade and Broward counties avoided a direct hit from Irma, authorities had warned that winds from the storm’s powerful eye could cross the state and dump several feet of water in flood-prone coastal areas. They were right. During the hurricane, social media users flooded the internet with images of waters rising across South Florida, not all of them immediately verifiable. The floods, threatening even from a storm that missed, pose a major threat to a region that depends on a stream of tourists willing to visit and condo buyers who see Miami as ripe for long-term investment.
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For locals, rising waters are here to stay, like it or not. In Coconut Grove, residents Gwen Taylor and Brad Grayson walked down McFarlane Road hand-in-hand mid-Sunday morning to inspect their neighborhood, where Taylor, a Realtor, has houses on the market.
The couple turned back at a bend in the road where they found calf-high waters.
“My husband wanted to see the ocean,” said Taylor, still standing about a football field’s length from the usual shoreline. "Well, we're looking at it."
In Brickell, water from Biscayne Bay crashed over a seawall and rushed west towards a forest of condo and office high-rises Sunday morning. Fierce winds screamed between the towers. Southeast 12th Street became a creek of fast-moving, wind-whipped water.
Across the Miami River, near downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park, Biscayne Boulevard was flooded almost to a reporter’s knee. With the help of hurricane-force gusts, the currents tipped over concrete planters, spun fallen street signs in circles and lapped up against sand bags set out to protect the high-rises against the surge.
One social media video showed torrents of water rushing into the old Porcāo Brazilian steakhouse in the lobby of the Four Ambassadors on Brickell Bay Drive.
City of Miami officials said they had no estimate yet for how high the waters stood.
"This is why we evacuated people from that area,” said Pete Gomez, the assistant Miami fire chief in charge of emergency management. “It's obviously in a flood zone, an evacuation zone and you're seeing it.”
Gomez said initial predictions put the storm surge in the downtown and Brickell areas at about seven feet. Those projections dropped to two to four feet when the storm, now a Category 2, shifted west earlier in the week.
"It's not uncommon, knowing you had those predictions,” Gomez said.
When Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez and two reporters tried to drive into Brickell in a Ford Explorer to survey the flooding at 2:30 p.m., they couldn't get any further east than Northwest Second Avenue once they crossed the Miami River.
If they’d made it, they would have seen a river three feet high flowing down Brickell Avenue. The waters were filled with debris and fallen branches, said Philippe Houdard, a Brickell resident who poked his head out of his Brickell Avenue condo around that time.
“I even saw a mattress floating around,” Houdard said. “I don’t know how that got out there.”
By 6:30 p.m., the water levels had not yet fallen, he said.
Other seemingly vulnerable areas were left untouched by flooding. On Tigertail Avenue in Coconut Grove, two blocks from the bay, streets were reportedly clear of water. In Miami’s Morningside neighborhood, directly abutting the bay, sea waters rose a foot high but receded after five hours, leaving flotsam behind, said resident Alan Danvers.
The storm surge — even one significantly less damaging than initially feared — shows how hard it may be to protect a low-lying region like South Florida from rising seas.
Even a minor flash flood in Miami in August gave Mayor Tomás Regalado the opportunity to pump up his proposal for a $400 million general obligation bond to fight flooding. Half of the money would go to storm drain and pump improvements.
"This little storm is making the case for flood mitigation,” Regalado, a Republican, told the Miami Herald at the time.
Irma was far worse — and in an interview earlier this week the mayor tied the storm’s severity to climate change.
“I don’t want to be political but the fact of the matter is that this is a lesson that we need protection from nature,” Regalado said.
The bay spills out
All through the day, crushing winds whipped up Biscayne Bay, rocking boats docked in increasingly choppy waters.
One sailboat crashed into the bridge connecting San Marco and Biscayne islands along the Venetian Causeway — man-made islands that were gradually swamped by storm surge.
The boat's mast snapped and crashed onto the roadway while the hull bobbed in the violent waves. At Miami’s Dinner Key, another sailboat was hurled onto the rocks.
Bay waters were spilling onto the Venetian Causeway, crashing over low sea walls.
Television stations showed the area around the John F. Kennedy Causeway, another of the three arteries that connect Miami with Miami Beach, badly flooded. A photo posted in a private Facebook group for North Bay Village residents captured water creeping ominously toward Treasure Island Elementary School.
In Coconut Grove, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens — the quirky Miami neighborhood’s top tourist attraction — reported flooding in its basement. The historic 1914 mansion, at 3251 S. Miami Ave., faces Biscayne Bay and is operated by Miami-Dade County. It was once owned by James Deering, the Gilded Age industrialist and antiquities collector. Spokesman Luis Espinoza said museum staff won’t be able to assess the damage until the Hurricane clears.
"The good news is there are no art collections stored" in the basement, Espinoza said.
Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, the heart of South Florida’s tourism industry, was not hit by serious flooding.
Across the Beach, in Sunset Harbour, Purdy Avenue was also not flooding in the early afternoon. The sidewalk, now 2 1/2 feet below a raised roadway, was re-engineered to mitigate tidal flooding worsened by rising sea levels. The Beach has embarked on an $500 million program to raise streets and install pumps to drain the floodwaters.
Those pumps, bolstered by portable backup generators and an army of additional temporary pumps, appeared to be working Sunday afternoon, weeks after they lost power during a severe thunderstorm.
Farther north, the situation was much worse. Irma’s harsh squalls persisted for hours, felling trees and creating floods.
In Middle Beach, north of the Fontainebleau Hotel, the Indian Creek waterway overtopped the road and spilled onto Collins Avenue. In swaths of North Beach, where few drainage upgrades have been made, water was pooling high. Stretches of 71st Street had knee-high depths, with heavy rain continuing to fall.
Beach Mayor Philip Levine said the city is planning to clean up the streets once the storm passes.
"We have contractors ready to go as soon as the storm is done," he said.
Far to the south, portions of historic Old Town in Key West were hip-deep in water, according to posts on social media.
Storm surge swamped several streets near Mallory Square and wrecked several boats near Galleon Marina and toppled huge ficus trees across town. Several cars imploded after trees fell atop. So did two houses on Williams Street after two mammoth ficus trees toppled; neighbors said one of the homes belonged to poet Shel Silverstein.
But as the waves died down late Sunday morning, residents emerged to find that Hurricane Irma appeared to have spared their neighborhood from catastrophic damage. Before noon, people were already out taking photos, checking their boats, and even driving around on golf carts.
“It’s not as bad as we thought,” resident Robert Phillips told the Herald. “We did better than we anticipated. It’s just trees and foliage and cars.”
Back up north, in the isles on Fort Lauderdale’s East Las Olas Boulevard, a photo showed at least a foot of flooding outside a day spa. In another section of Fort Lauderdale, fish flopped in the street.
Despite the damage suffered in South Florida, the storm surge is expected to be far worse on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where Irma made landfall on Marco Island just before 4 p.m. Sunday.
Gov. Rick Scott said he expects his waterfront mansion in Naples to be submerged under 10 to 15 feet of water — and that he’d already steeled himself for the loss.
“You can replace a house,” Scott said at the state’s emergency operations center in Tallahassee Sunday afternoon. “My daughter just had two little babies. She’s further inland, and so I was more worried about her.”
Miami Herald staff writers Carli Teproff, Kristen M. Clark and Miami Herald editor Steve Rothaus contributed to this report