Philip Levine’s political prospects are intertwined with Miami Beach’s $500 million plan to survive rising seas.
When he ran for mayor in 2013 as a relatively unknown businessman, Levine promised to keep the city dry during seasonal high tides and better prepared for a future fighting back floodwater. Now that he hopes to score the Democratic nomination for Florida governor, the plan he set in motion to rapidly raise roads and protect neighborhoods with industrial pumps is a key cog in his progressive platform.
But as Levine crisscrosses the state promoting his radical sea-rise agenda on Miami Beach, his signature accomplishment is springing leaks back home.
Last week, amid questions about planning under Levine’s tenure, angst about the city’s climate change efforts effectively torpedoed the next steps of the former mayor’s agenda. Because of fierce opposition to a $24 million project that includes raising roads, a divided city commission punted on nearly $90 million of roadway and stormwater improvements in a residential swath of the city.
Following the vote, one elected official referred to the delayed project as “ill-conceived.” The criticism follows frustrations from business owners who’ve seen the city’s pumps fail during power outages and faced warnings from scientists who’ve documented evidence that those same pumps are polluting Biscayne Bay.
“I think Philip Levine helped wake everybody up. I love him for that. This is an elected official who said ‘We don’t have time to wait,” said Caroline Lewis, executive director of the climate change non-profit CLEO Institute. “But I’m not so sure everything was so well thought out.”
On the surface, what the city accomplished under Levine has been widely celebrated.
After his election in the fall of 2013, the new mayor quickly took the previous administration’s 20-year, $200 million plan to overhaul Miami Beach’s storm drainage system and sped up the timeline and more than doubled the scope.
With work already under way along Alton Road and in Sunset Harbour — two low-lying, bayside neighborhoods in a city where gravity pulls water from the Atlantic to the bay — the city rushed emergency contracts to install new pumps and raise roads. Modest sea-rise projections factored into the new city-wide drainage system were aggressively expanded, and the city more than doubled stormwater fees to help pay for it all.
A cruise line media magnate, Levine made sure to promote the plan to the world. The city timed the accelerated projects to the annual king tides, affording Levine opportunities to invite the media and other politicians to see once-flooded roadways now elevated and dry. His efforts were the subject of articles and television productions studying climate change and sea-rise solutions. Levine was featured in "Rolling Stone" and on National Geographic, and was interviewed by Leonardo DiCaprio in his documentary, “Before the Flood.”
Today, the city is about a quarter of the way through the overhaul, which is intended to prepare Miami Beach for another three to five decades of sea rise. The city experiences tidal flooding about a half-dozen times a year now, but projections expect that number to increase dramatically in the coming decades.
Still, despite widespread acknowledgment of the city’s problem, critics remain wary of the way Levine’s administration jumped into construction without having resolved all the particulars. The raising of streets has especially led to push-back in neighborhoods where homeowners worry the water will end up running downhill and into their properties.
“You can’t come to North Bay Road, one of the most prestigious streets in Miami Beach, tear up our street and get it wrong,” said Glenna Norton, among the homeowners who came to City Hall last week to kill the city’s project. “We don’t want to be a guinea pig.”
Perhaps nothing illustrated the dichotomy between national reception and local ambivalence around Levine’s efforts more than the city’s screening of DiCaprio’s film in October 2016, when the mayor and actor stood together at the New World Center in South Beach the night after a massive and unexpected thunderstorm opened up over the city. In the film, DiCaprio and Levine were seen strolling on a raised street in Sunset Harbour that, just 24 hours earlier, had been underwater after the city’s pumps failed.
Flood water would rise again in the same neighborhood about a year later, this time because the pumps lost power during a heavy thunderstorm and there were no backup generators to keep them running. City engineers have never claimed their efforts would make the city flood-proof from severe rainstorms, but in their haste to move ahead on construction and save money, planners and contractors had neglected to plan for power outages at their pumps.
“When you become mayor of a city that’s being attacked by sea level rise, there’s no book to buy, no course to take, no guide to follow. We had to literally write the book ourselves,” Levine told the Miami Herald, acknowledging that his plan wasn't perfect. “We have learned as we went along. We of course realize that everything we did could have been better and everything we’ve done can certainly be improved.”
Some missteps have been significant. Last year, for instance, a senior engineer brought in after Levine became mayor admitted that he oversaw the design and construction of a sea wall without federal permits, potentially costing Miami Beach millions. Administrators are now reviewing his work to see if there were any other bungled projects.
Outside experts have also been brought in by the city to look over its work, and are now asking whether the city’s efforts were spent in the right areas and in the right ways. The outside panel has found some preparation lacking, but as Levine notes in a campaign commercial, the group also commended the city for having the “courage” to get moving.
“I think Philip showed a lot of courage in not kicking this down the road," said Dan Gelber, the city’s new mayor.
Marilyn Freundlich, who calls her neighborhood pump in Sunset Harbour “that monstrosity,” agrees.
“I’d rather have that [pump] and look at it than get a canoe,” she said. “I think [Levine] did everything the right way. His philosophy was ‘let’s get it done’ and that’s what he did. He did not dilly dally in committees or commission.”
But the feeling is not universal. On Palm and Hibiscus Islands, nearly two years of construction has some residents saying a two-foot road raising caused more harm than good. Luis Bosch, who builds luxury houses, said the elevated streets put homes like his below the road, potentially sending flood waters straight to his door.
“The city having the initiative to do this is a good thing. How they executed it was not something to be impressed with,” he said. “I’d rather have a flooded street than a flooded home.”
Levine says the city was staring down a looming crisis when he was elected. He stresses that he had to begin moving on sea rise before insurers decided to hike rates, banks stopped issuing 30-year mortgages and real estate values began to suffer in one of South Florida’s wealthiest cities. It's a conversation other cities are now having after watching the Beach get to work.
“The insurance companies of the world don't really care where the water is coming in. If they don't see that we’re making significant efforts to make our city resilient, they’ll stop insuring. Finance companies ... will stop financing 30-year loans. The biggest crisis we can have is a loss of confidence,” Levine said. “No one likes to have their roads dug up. No one likes to be inconvenienced. But in order to have gain you have to have pain.”
To be sure, Levine has been fiercely protective of his legacy.
Asked about criticisms that he owns roughly $40 million in real estate in the neighborhoods prioritized by his administration when he first took office, Levine said his financial interests had “zero” to do with the work along Alton Road and Sunset Harbour. Though Levine significantly accelerated and expanded work in the neighborhoods, projects were already underway when he was elected.
“I’m flattered that everybody thinks I own half the western part of Miami Beach,” he says. “But that’s politics. It is what it is.”
Levine also remains unapologetic about one of the most controversial confrontations in his four years as mayor.
Two years ago, he used the word "defamatory" to deride a Miami Herald story about a scientific study that found the city’s flood pumps were sending flood water tainted by human fecal bacteria back into the bay at levels up to 600 times the acceptable limits. While limited in scope, the study raised the possibility that the pumps could be polluting Biscayne Bay and could become a significant problem in the future when tidal flooding becomes more regular.
The scientists involved with the study, including Florida International University professor and hydrologist Henry Briceño, said it warranted a further look and said the city may be better off shooting floodwater thousands of feet into the ground through injection wells rather than into the bay. But Levine treated the study as an attack, labeled it "sloppy science," and had the commission vote to demand the Herald retract its story. Briceño, who was publicly accused by the city of doctoring his findings after officials declined to fund the study, says at least one city commissioner called up FIU President Mark Rosenberg to try to have him fired.
"These people think that because they have power they can bully people and destroy us. We only have our names as scientists. We have nothing else," Briceño said in an interview, adding that his group had already shared its finding multiple times with the city before the study was published. "We had been informing them. And then they came back and with undeserved attacks."
Then and now, Levine argues that the city installed a system to keep bulky waste from flowing into the bay and filters to skim oils from the water flowing into the bay — measures that were nonexistent before the pumps were installed. Levine said he'll "always call out anyone who I don't think is correct." But the city does not treat the water for bacteria, and subsequent testing conducted by the county's environmental resources division confirmed Briceño’s results.
“The problem is still there,” Briceño says.
Briceño believes Levine was more concerned about campaigning than acknowledging the problem. Norton, the North Bay Road homeowner who fought at City Hall Wednesday against a project in her neighborhood, thinks Levine viewed the entire endeavor as a political stepping stone.
“He wanted to jump on the Al Gore bandwagon and be a celebrity before he ran for governor,” said Norton, a Realtor and developer.
Levine dismisses the speculation. Overall, he says that the majority reaction to Miami Beach’s stormwater projects has been positive. As he travels around the state, it's a message he's spreading to Democratic voters trying to decide who to vote for in August. And back home, for neighborhoods that don’t want their roads raised, Levine thinks the city should just work elsewhere until they come around.
“I’ll tell you one thing, and feel free to quote me,” he said, “I’m sure the people of Atlantis wish they would have raised their roads.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.