Flooding shows fighting sea-level rise in South Florida will be a slog

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Pedestrians make their way through the flooded streets of 900 block of South Miami Avenue in Brickell area on Tuesday.
Pedestrians make their way through the flooded streets of 900 block of South Miami Avenue in Brickell area on Tuesday. MIAMI HERALD

We can’t blame king tides, but the flooding that engulfed Miami Beach and Miami’s Mary Brickell Village area after seven inches of torrential rain fell on Tuesday, sadly, reveals we’re far from being ready to handle a deluge — from the sky or the sea.

The flooding was an eye-opener for both Ground Zero cities and their plans to keep water at bay under the threat of sea level rise and climate change. We appear far from ready. And that must change.

Worse hit was Miami Beach, where people splashed through standing water that rose to the knees and cars were submerged up to the wheel wells during the afternoon rush hour. Underground garages flooded, and waters swept into local businesses.

So what happened? Why didn’t Miami Beach’s highly touted $500 million anti-flooding pump program, often cited as a model of sea-level-rise preparedness, work?

Well, it seems it did, until some pumps got overwhelmed and others were shut down when electricity went out, disabling the pumps located in the city’s Sunset Harbour neighborhood, which was waterlogged.

“We’re prepared for sea-level rise, and sea-level rise and rain, but not tropical storm rains that suddenly dump seven inches of rain — after the National Weather Service announced just two inches,” Mayor Philip Levine told the Herald Editorial Board. The mayor makes a valid point. Acts of nature are hard to hold back.

But isn’t that what climate change is all about?

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A pioneer in recognizing the dangers of flooding in his city, a frustrated Levine now wants to get generators installed to power the pumps. On Wednesday, Levine wrote a Herald opinion piece, explaining his plan of action. Levine pledged to expedite negotiations with a contractor to get permanent backup generators put on pumps. We commend his doggedness on this issue as his tenure comes to a close.

Levine blamed “bureaucratic paralysis” for holding up the installation of permanent generators, which commissioners agreed to purchase in February.

In retrospect, the city should have moved quicker to buy and install the generators. At least a contractor has been chosen.

“To put it simply, we cannot wait any longer,” the mayor wrote. “Our residents, rightfully so, are demanding action, and I agree. Therefore, I have directed city staff to immediately pursue emergency procurement procedures to secure the generators to prevent future flooding as seen yesterday.”

The issue of the pumps and the need for generators to run them have been kicking around for about a year.

An article by Herald reporters Joey Flechas and David Smiley said that, in May 2016, one engineer warned Miami Beach officials that this common-sense safeguard was necessary.

“The motto here is: We learn as we go along,” Levine told the Board.

In Miami, Mayor Tomás Regalado used the flooding to push for his proposed $400 million bond initiative to address the city’s longstanding drainage needs. Miami has built 11 pumps around the city.

What Tuesday’s storm washed clear is that we are miles away from effectively dealing with sea-level rise.

Both local communities, and the broader region, are making strides in addressing nature’s quirks and climate change. But a long slog lies ahead.