South Miami

South Miami Mayor Stoddard, Obama meet in Everglades as city aims at sea level rise

President Barack Obama speaks at Everglades National Park on April 22.
President Barack Obama speaks at Everglades National Park on April 22. el Nuevo Herald

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard finally had the ear of someone with some serious pull when he wanted to talk about South Florida’s environmental threats April 22 in Everglades National Park.

That person was the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.

“I got a chance to speak to him,” said Stoddard, who is also a biology professor at Florida International University. “He was not so much speaking back as much as listening. He met with a bunch of people, and I got to say hi. If they were careful and focused, they get a few words in, which I did.”

Stoddard, who attended a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing earlier in the day, spoke to Obama about the mayor’s opposition to Florida Power & Light’s plan to add two nuclear reactors at Turkey Point.

“That evening, I had the public hearing on drafting an environmental impact statement on Turkey Point 6 and 7 with the university, so that was very much on my mind,” Stoddard said. “I told him, I said that the existing nuclear plants that we have and the two new ones that they want to build risk significant interference with the coastal Everglades restoration and I hope he would do what he could to keep those from being constructed in that location.”

The mayor said that freshwater flow in the Everglades buys time for humans and natural creatures of South Florida to adapt and move gradually, whereas if the Everglades are not restored, saltwater effects can drastically cause a great deal of damage and destruction.

“I was very glad that the president came down here to focus national attention on Everglades restoration,” Stoddard said. “Because of sea level rise, it’s important that we restore freshwater flow to the Everglades … not forever, because the ocean will rise, and it won’t be the Everglades forever. It will become a shallow bay.”

“The state promised that they were going to purchase the sugar lands to allow cleaning of the water from Lake Okeechobee, and the voters passed Amendment One with the understanding that funding would make it happen,” Stoddard said. “Now the Legislature is not moving on that agreement. The citizens of Florida expect it and demand it.”

The meeting followed South Miami’s April 21 commission meeting, where officials unanimously voted to authorize City Manager Steven Alexander to enter into an agreement with Catalysis Adaptation Partners for an initial sea level rise, storm surge and inland riverine flooding study.

“I think it’s really important to start a baseline of the information,” Alexander said. “Whether that study shows that we need to do any projects or not, with any doubt that we are in dire need of doing any sort of planning for it now. Just to ward off threats from global warming. The longer we have the data accrued, the better idea we will have about at what rate things are happening.”

Phase 1 of the project costs $15,000 and will identify three, three to five blocks in area, sections of the city where a detailed evaluation of risks to vulnerable assets will be conducted. The next step of Phase 1 includes conceptualizing and drafting a risk-categorization and vulnerability analysis method tailored to the identified areas, and revising and confirming the method, in collaboration with city staff.

After that, the company will work with city staff members to select assets to include in the vulnerability analysis and secure appropriate data layers to be used, or, for necessary data layers that are incomplete or nonexistent, and within the budget constraints, create the necessary data through field surveys such as determining the elevation of houses in each area. Then the study will attempt to identify relative levels of risk and sequence those risks from sea level rise, storm surge and inland riverine flooding over time, in each area, according to the resolution.

“So my belief is that the first analysis we need to do is one that helps us to understand the vulnerability of the different infrastructure assets so we can start investing toward our future,” Stoddard said. “Where do we start putting in protections? If we wait as long as Miami Beach did, we will have the water pouring in and will have to do everything at once. I would like to be able to phase our projects over time and do them in the best order.”

Finally, the study will produce a final report that details all of the previous steps with their results and implications. The report will also specify requirements to scale the study for the entire city, identify data sets and create a framework for a citywide vulnerability assessment.

“This is exactly what I was talking with [Miami-Dade County Commissioner] Daniella Levine Cava about,” Stoddard said. “Trying to figure out how to plan for sea level rise. We know it is going to happen. We don’t know the exact timing, but we know it is going to happen. So what do you do first? Do you elevate houses? Elevate your roads? Do you strengthen your water sewer systems? Which roads do you elevate? Which houses do you protect first? Which of your infrastructure is the area you start with. We don’t have those answers.”

Alexander, who recently traveled to Tallahassee for Miami-Dade County Days with Commissioners Gabriel Edmond and Josh Liebman, said that the city wants to be more prepared than others.

“Miami Beach went through a lot because they didn’t have enough baseline information at the beginning and they had to catch up, and it cost them some money,” Alexander said. “We are sort of learning from the mistake that they made and are trying to get out in front of it a little bit.”