Miami Beach

Will Miami Beach’s anti-flooding measures work? The city’s getting an outside opinion.

Cars go through flooding caused by heavy rains at North Bay Road and West 21st Street in Miami Beach on Aug. 1, 2017. Miami Beach is asking for an outside panel of experts to review the city’s anti-flooding program.
Cars go through flooding caused by heavy rains at North Bay Road and West 21st Street in Miami Beach on Aug. 1, 2017. Miami Beach is asking for an outside panel of experts to review the city’s anti-flooding program. Miami Herald file

Some residents worry Miami Beach is moving too fast and may be making mistakes as it raises roads and installs anti-flooding pumps, a concern highlighted last year as the city started planning for a new $100 million round of improvements in a neighborhood of single-family homes.

So the city’s getting a second opinion from outside experts, and those experts want to hear from the public.

To address the concerns, commissioners agreed Wednesday to allow a nine-member panel of experts to visit the Beach’s already-upgraded areas, examine future plans and give a second opinion on the city’s approach to removing floodwaters from the barrier island, a growing concern as sea-level rise threatens to worsen tidal flooding in the coming decades.

The commission unanimously agreed to the parameters of the review, which will be conducted by nine professionals in engineering, real estate, urban planning and other disciplines under the guidance of the Urban Land Institute, an international land use and real estate organization.

The full membership of the panel has not been finalized. One of the confirmed members is Jeffery Hebert, a former deputy mayor and chief resilience officer of New Orleans who currently serves as a vice president for the Water Institute on the Gulf, a nonprofit research organization focusing on challenges faced by coastal communities in the face of sea level rise and climate change.

The Urban Land Institute’s work will come at no cost to the city, which is receiving the assistance through the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

The Beach’s 10-year, $500 million program to safeguard roads from flooding with pumps and higher roads — a big-ticket initiative heralded by former mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine — has so far kept improved streets dry but also raised concerns about impacts on private property and the environment.

“Some aspects of these projects may potentially impact private property, and that’s really where we’ve seen a lot of concern,” said Commissioner Mark Samuelian, the sponsor of Wednesday’s agenda item.

During the past year, homeowners have expressed their discomfort with the city’s plans to raise the roadway in front of their homes for fear of swamping their properties. The city’s public outreach, efforts to create a public-private drainage program and decision to extend the long-term schedule from seven years to ten eased residents’ worries only somewhat.

The conversation became a campaign issue in last year’s elections. The three candidates elected, Mayor Dan Gelber, Samuelian and Commissioner Michael Góngora, all supported the concept of an outside review.

On Wednesday, the rest of the commission agreed. The panel will visit for four days the week of April 16. The experts will hold a public meeting to hear from the community, review the city’s existing infrastructure and future plans, and present its preliminary findings at the end of the week. A final report will be presented in June.

The scope of the review includes engineering, aesthetics, phasing of construction and communication to the public about the city’s plans. The panel will also explore how the city might encourage private property owners to adapt their land and buildings to handle rising waters.

Several formerly flood-prone streets now remain dry during seasonal high tides each year. But the upgraded infrastructure has had occasionally run into problems. Twice during heavy rainstorms, streets flooded in Sunset Harbour, a corner of South Beach that is often used to illustrate the city’s efforts to adapt the built environment for sea level rise. In those cases, pumps were either out of service or lacked power during an outage, prompting bureaucrats and politicians to apologize and scramble to plan for future storms.

During one of those storms, a restaurant’s flood insurance claim was denied after an adjuster deemed the establishment a basement because the front door ended up a few feet below street level when the city raised the roadway. That issue was resolved last year after the property owner appealed and the city got involved. The claim was approved in December.

Skeptical residents also point to the findings of a Florida International University scientist who tested Biscayne Bay’s water quality while the new systems were pumping stormwater into the bay. He later warned the city that as the pumps expel water during more frequent seasonal high tides projected to accompany sea level rise, more pollutants will be pushed into the bay.

Water quality is not in the purview of the advisory panel, but the city is negotiating a deal with Charles Rowney, an Orlando-based water quality consultant, to analyze the chemical makeup of water samples taken by the city at dozens of locations along its western shores over the past few years.

Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

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