Miami Beach

Miami Beach's future is 'uncertain,' experts say, but sea rise pumps are a good start

Miami Beach's $500 million attempt to elevate and pump itself out of sea level rise's path has drawn criticism, but an expert panel concluded Thursday that the city's doing what it needs to survive.

The question of Miami Beach's future, whether the community stands a chance in the face of rising seas, was an unspoken theme in every interview the panel held this week, said Mark Osler, a national practice leader in Coastal Science and Engineering with Michael Baker International.

"Our professional opinion is that the outcome is uncertain, and it is in your hands," he said, to audible gasps from the audience. Osler said the panel believes the city has a future if the public and the government work together on solutions and don't let up on the push to enact them.

The experts praised the city for "acting with courage" to start construction on the elevated roads and pumps that have left streets dramatically drier after floods — provided, of course, the power isn't knocked out in a storm.

That's not to say the island's engineering-first, green-solutions-never approach drew perfect marks. The experts, a nine-member panel convened by the Urban Land Institute, called for a more comprehensive plan for living with water and increased transparency with the public on what's changing and why.

The city should embrace more "green" infrastructure, they said, like parks to soak up floodwater and mangroves to lessen wave impacts on the coast, in addition to "gray" infrastructure like elevated roads and sea walls. A group of Harvard graduate students recommended a similar approach last week.

The panel also critiqued the city on water quality, a topic that wasn't included in the panel's scope and became a controversial issue following a Florida International University scientist's discovery that the city's pumps push more pollutants into the bay.

“We would recommend that there be more frequent testing of that water and more frequent reporting of that testing to put the public at ease that we are not putting their environmental resources at risk. And if we are, then that we’re doing something about it,” said Greg West, chair of ULI for Southeast Florida and the Caribbean.

Miami Beach is working with Charles Rowney, an Orlando-based water quality consultant, to analyze the city's water samples from the bay over the last few years.

irma miami beach pumps
In an effort to clean storm water, Miami Beach filters out large objects at pump stations, shown here, before water is flushed into the bay. But the dirty water is not treated. Miami Herald Staff

The panel toured Miami Beach this week, meeting with residents, commissioners and administrators in its review of the city's work to combat flooding and sea level rise. The review was a campaign issue in the November election as some voters worried the city was moving too fast and making mistakes with the $500 million plan championed by former mayor turned Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine.

Residents were able to bring those concerns to the panel on Tuesday, where they talked about water quality, "construction fatigue" and concern that the city's elevated roads send water sloshing into their low-lying properties.

Despite that worry, Joyce Coffee, panel chair and president of Climate Resilience Consulting, said the city should continue to raise roads and install pumps as it adopts the panel's recommendations.

"It’s true that the first phase was a very rapid rush and the city is better for the work," she said.

Although, she added, the city's efforts to keep the island safe from sea level rise can't just be about public spaces. The board said Miami Beach should consider helping homeowners pay for their individual projects, like sea walls, possibly as part of an island-wide sea barrier that the city builds rather than allowing each property owner to take care of their own protection.

Jeff Hebert, vice president for adaptation and resilience with The Water Institute of the Gulf, said Miami Beach should have a scientific advisory panel review future projects, and a risk management department to examine sea level rise's future effects on property value.

“You have a lot of exposure, a lot of investment, a lot of capital in this city,” he said. "You’re gonna have to be very, very, very creative, very, very, very innovative in how you manage that risk.”

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who helped bring the panel to town with the financial backing of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities program the city is a part of, said he's "heartened" by the group's conclusions.

"These are the kind of ideas you want to hear now, not in 10 years," he said.

The panel will issue a final report in June.

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