Sandbags come out as rainwater rises on Miami Beach
As remnants of Tropical Storm Emily dumped several inches of rain across Miami-Dade County on Tuesday afternoon, stormwater pumps in Miami Beach were found to have one crucial shortcoming: no backup generators in case of, well, a power outage during a storm.
The Sunset Harbour neighborhood saw flooding amid heavy rains Tuesday that knocked out power for a time, leaving two pumps meant to drain the area offline for about 50 minutes — a glaring weakness not yet addressed by the city’s upgraded drainage system.
“We’re going to be installing permanent generators,” Beach spokeswoman Tonya Daniels said Tuesday after the flood.
The storm pounded the area hardest just before rush hour, when an onslaught of rain overwhelmed the drainage infrastructure in Miami Beach and Miami, flooding streets and properties and making Tuesday afternoon’s commute a soggy, congested mess.
Throughout Miami Beach, water closed traffic lanes and forced people to wade with shoes in hand. Rain seeped into businesses, and even a manhole popped off the street and floated away. Across the bay, several inches of rain pooled on streets in Miami’s downtown and Brickell neighborhoods.
Murky water rippled as cars splashed by the Hilton Miami Downtown hotel near Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 17th Street. Water reached the headlights of cars on the Boulevard in front of the Frost Museum of Science. Two private ambulances moving patients were caught in flash floods in Little Havana, according to Mayor Tomás Regalado — who used the flooding to make a case for his proposed $400 million bond initiative.
Mary Brickell Village looked more like a lagoon. Around the corner, a man turned a road barricade into a makeshift raft. Streets in South Miami, Virginia Key and Kendall also flooded.
“This little storm is making the case for flood mitigation,” Regalado said.
By late afternoon, the “little storm” had dropped between three to five inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Some neighborhoods got it worse than others.
Back in Miami Beach, where city officials reported up to seven inches of rainfall over several hours, George Kassabdji, 20, stood at the intersection of 34th Street and Prairie Avenue as he waited for a tow truck after his BMW stalled in the high water. As he pushed the car to a safe spot, bits of his undercarriage floated away. So did his flip-flops.
Kassabdji waved people away from driving down the inundated road as he waited.
“Literally no one knows what they’re doing here,” he said. “They’re running the stop sign and doing what they think is best.”
Streets surrounding Miami Beach City Hall were impassable. Vehicles caused wakes that nearly knocked over people wading with their shoes in their hands. Cars splashed down Alton Road while people slogged along Lincoln Road, where restaurants were mostly empty around dinnertime.
“It’s crazy, the water was up to here,” said Hugo Loaiza, pointing to his knees. The waiter at Balans Restaurant and Bar saw business slow to a trickle amid the storm. “Eventually, it will be busy later. I hope.”
The National Weather Service said the rain would persist until early evening, potentially closing roadways until the waters receded. Scattered thunderstorms are expected each day for the rest of the week.
Flooding in South Beach highlighted the need for backup power to keep pumps running in severe weather. The limitations of upgraded drainage infrastructure were also on display.
“We realize now more than ever we need to continue to build our new generation stormwater system while understanding that it is not without limitations,” Eric Carpenter, Miami Beach’s assistant city manager, said in an email to Mayor Philip Levine on Tuesday.
Carpenter added that “although the streets may not always be bone dry, the impacts will be less severe and last for a much shorter duration.”
Even where pumps drained water faster than in years past, the system could not handle Tuesday’s intense storms. Pump stations in South Beach had trouble keeping up with the rapid rainfall that smacked the seaside city.
“A severe rain event like we experienced due to Emily is above and beyond the design capacity of our pumps. However, they performed well where they have been installed, which is 15 percent of our city,” Levine said.
Areas with improved drainage saw the water recede faster than places with no upgrades, but even brief inundation sent water seeping into businesses.
The city is currently in negotiations with a contractor to install permanent generators for the two pumps that lost power in Sunset Harbour, where streets were raised and pumps were installed to keep the flood-prone area dry during seasonal high tides and rain.
Tuesday marked the second time when a particularly harsh rain, combined with pump problems, flooded the sidewalk along Purdy Avenue, which is about 2 1/2 feet below the newly raised roadway.
Miami Herald staff writers David Smiley and Charles Rabin contributed to this story.