Miami-Dade County

When it rains in Miami, the politicians pour it on

Afternoon thunderstorms flood Miami Beach neighborhoods

Heavy afternoon thunderstorms flood areas of Miami Beach Aug. 1, 2017.
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Heavy afternoon thunderstorms flood areas of Miami Beach Aug. 1, 2017.

After Tuesday’s torrential deluge, the mayors of Miami and Miami Beach used widespread flooding as political springboards, promising to push their cities to fund crucial anti-flooding projects.

But in both cases, the necessary improvements weren’t suddenly revealed during Tuesday’s storm. These kinds of upgrades have been on officials’ radars for years.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado stumped for his proposed $400 million bond initiative, calling for officials to address drainage needs identified by an engineering firm back in 2012.

In Miami Beach, where a power outage knocked out anti-flooding stormwater pumps during some of the heaviest rain in Sunset Harbour, causing businesses to flood, Mayor Philip Levine emailed supporters pledging to expedite negotiations with a contractor to get permanent backup generators put on pumps — a commonsense safeguard that one engineer warned City Hall was necessary back in May 2016.

Politics aside, the drainage problems were put on display during a storm the National Weather Service says wasn’t actually caused by Tropical Storm Emily. Rather, the rains were a product of the same trough of low pressure that spawned the storm as it collided with the afternoon heat.

For four hours, a band of thunderstorms dumped up to seven inches of rain over parts of South Florida, including 6.5 inches over the Miami Beach Golf Club. Water up to two feet deep covered streets across South Beach and Sunset Harbour, stalling cars and drenching pedestrians. One joker dragged a rod and reel out to the street and pretended to catch a fish.

In Miami, Brickell was the hardest hit, with more than 10 businesses around Mary Brickell Village reporting up to four inches of water inside their walls. Miami Beach and South Dade got the worst of it, with rainfall totaling 7.46 inches on Krome Avenue, according to unofficial reports.

NOBODY LISTENED

In a message to residents Wednesday, Levine blamed “bureaucratic paralysis” for holding up the installation of permanent generators, which commissioners agreed to purchase in February.

“To put it simply, we cannot wait any longer,” the mayor wrote. “Our residents, rightfully so, are demanding action and I agree. Therefore, I have directed city staff to immediately pursue emergency procurement procedures to secure the generators to prevent future flooding as seen yesterday.”

But Levine, a possible 2018 gubernatorial candidate who has aggressively advertised Miami Beach’s $500 million anti-flooding program as a shining example of how local government needs to respond to the perils of rising seas, forgot that he was warned about the lack of backup power more than a year ago.

Dwight Kraai, a retired engineer who at one time served on a panel Levine created to tackle the city’s flooding problems, emailed the whole commission on May 11, 2016 to sound alarms. Kraai pressed the city for answers on what would happen if a storm knocked out power.

“It is inevitable that sooner or later there will be a major power outage during a time of heavy rain and high tides,” Kraai wrote. “Without backup generators, there will be catastrophic flooding.”

Heavy rains brought flooded streets and flooded store fronts along Miami Beach Tuesday afternoon. LeeAnna Lough, of Oregon, found herself mopping up the art gallery that she owns with her husband Rodney Lough, Jr. a master wilderness photographer,

While not catastrophic, Tuesday’s rains were only remnants of a tropical storm, and they wreaked havoc across the Beach — including Sunset Harbour.

When the Miami Herald showed Kraai’s email to Levine on Wednesday, he said the sea-rise panel never recommended generators, and he relies on the recommendations of the panel and city’s public works staff to highlight which projects are priorities.

He also took on a humbler than usual tone as he defended the work that represents the centerpiece initiative of his term as mayor.

“We are learning as we go along. We are by no means an expert or nowhere near perfect,” he said. “We seek to improve on what we are doing in making our city more resilient.”

In his email to residents, Levine used Tuesday’s flooding to call for “emergency procurement procedures” to get generators installed quickly. He didn’t mention that the city has already used emergency, no-bid contracts to build the bulk of improvements in Sunset Harbour and West Avenue, waiving the typical competitive process and approving expensive changes.

It is inevitable that sooner or later there will be a major power outage during a time of heavy rain and high tides.

Dwight Kraai, engineer who warned Miami Beach about the lack of backup generators for stormwater pumps

A 2013 contract awarded to Deerfield Beach-based Lanzo Construction was worth $2 million and included construction of injection wells and a new gravity drainage system. That contract has since ballooned by at least $14 million as the project expanded to include raising several streets in the neighborhood and installing multiple pumps. But generators were never included in the expanding footprint of the job.

Eric Carpenter, assistant city manager, said on Wednesday that permanent generators were initially considered as part of the Sunset Harbour project.

“However with the financial impact and realizing that they would only need to be used in very rare instances, it was determined that temporary generators were a better financial option,” he said.

In a memo sent six days after Kraai’s email last summer, City Manager Jimmy Morales told commissioners his administration favored portable generators because permanent generators would be cost-prohibitive, ugly and difficult to fit into pump stations.

“Built-in emergency generators at each stormwater pumping station is not practical due to the space requirements, unsightliness and increased costs of $250,000-$500,000 per station,” he wrote.

Miami Beach wasn’t alone in getting soaked on August 1, 2017. Flood advisories also included Miami, Coral Gables, South Miami and Virginia Key.

JUST GETTING STARTED

On the mainland, Miami’s mayor gathered the media in Brickell next to the Metrorail line along Southwest First Avenue Wednesday to use Tuesday’s floods as a political launch pad for a proposed $400 million general obligation bond, nearly half of which is slated to fund drainage and sea-rise projects.

The placement of Regalado’s press conference was strategic: Mary Brickell Village, across the street, flooded badly, and Brickell City Centre was forced to close the lower level of its underground parking garage. Meanwhile, behind the mayor, construction crews worked on a $2.8 million pump station that city engineers say should be operational by September and able to stop a storm like Tuesday’s from flooding the neighborhood.

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Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado speaks in Brickell Wednesday about Tuesday’s flood and his proposal for financing anti-flooding projects. Sebastián Ballestas sballestas@miamiherald.com

“We are taking into consideration that this type of event, which we see more and more often, has to be discharged,” said Jeovanny Rodriguez, Miami’s capital improvements director. “Unfortunately, the well was not completed yesterday.”

For Regalado, the pumps were a symbol of his efforts to address the problem. But city leaders knew five years ago that they needed to invest at least a quarter-billion dollars into Miami’s drainage infrastructure in order to keep neighborhoods dry during heavy rain events. In 2012, ADA Engineering published a stormwater master plan that found the 30 most important flood basin projects in the city would by themselves cost Miami $223 million.

A man let neighborhood kids ride his kayak down a flooded street in Miami's Midtown on Aug. 1, 2017.

Regalado, who has served as mayor since the fall of 2009, defended his recent attention to flooding and sea-rise Wednesday, saying that 11 pump stations have been built around the city and arguing that until now his administration has lacked the money to adequately address flooding without raising taxes.

But it’s also true that Regalado has presided over an unprecedented economic rebound, and proposed record-setting spending in his budgets two years in a row now. It’s only now, in his final year as mayor, that Regalado has made sea rise, climate change and flood prevention staples of his platform.

“The city now is doing what we can do and what we need to do,” he said.

Though estimates currently place Miami’s long-term flood-mitigation needs at around $1 billion, he says the $192 million he’s seeking this November to fund drainage improvements is a crucial start.

“This is the consequence of nature. We can not fight nature, but we can do something to remedy the consequences,” he said.

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Pedestrians make their way through the flooded streets of 900 block of South Miami Avenue in Brickell as heavy rains causes havoc for motorists and commuters on Tuesday. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

MOVING FORWARD

Back in the Beach, commissioners who were asked about the 2016 warning email responded differently Wednesday.

“Dr. Kraai did speak in favor of backup generators for our pump stations,” said Commissioner Joy Malakoff, who said she attends most meetings of the city’s sea-rise panel. “In Miami Beach when it rains heavily our power frequently fails. However, it was my understanding that we would be using portable generators until we could fund permanent generators.”

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez took issue with the city’s entire approach to flood mitigation, arguing that city should be raising the highest points of the island on the east side first to maintain a downward slope toward the rest.

But then she also knocked the city’s drainage system at Biscayne Bay, referring to concerns raised by scientists that as pumps expel water during more frequent seasonal high tides projected to accompany sea level rise, more pollutants will be shot into the bay.

“The pumps are polluting the bay, and I don’t believe in them,” Rosen Gonzalez said.

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said he agrees with anyone who challenges the city on why generators weren’t considered before.

“It’s clear [generators] need to be part and parcel of all future pump solutions the city has,” he said.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

David Smiley: 305-376-2284, @newsbysmiley

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