I was driving with Harold Wanless through Miami Beach one day when the sun suddenly disappeared and the skies opened up. When it rains in Miami, it's spooky. Blue sky vanishes and suddenly water is everywhere, pooling in streets, flooding parking lots, turning intersections into submarine crossings. Even for a nonbeliever like me, it feels biblical, as if God were punishing the good citizens of Miami Beach for spending too much time on the dance floor. At Alton Road and 10th Street, we watched a woman in a Toyota stall at a traffic light as water rose up to the doors. A man waded out to help her, water up to his knees. This flooding has gotten worse with each passing year, happening not only after torrential rainstorms but during high tides, too, when rising sea water backs up through the city's antiquated drainage system. Wanless, 71, who drives an SUV that is littered with research equipment, notebooks and mud, shook his head with pity. "This is what global warming looks like," he explained. "If you live in South Florida and you're not building a boat, you're not facing reality."
Michael Góngora, a Miami Beach city commissioner, prides himself on his willingness to face reality. We met at a conference in April on extreme weather held downtown, where Góngora spoke eloquently about the dangers of more intense hurricanes and about his commitment to sustainability. "We want to be the greenest city in Florida," he said proudly. Góngora, 43, the state's first openly gay commissioner, is now running for mayor of Miami Beach. He was, notably, the only politician at the extreme-weather conference.
Góngora has as much green cred as any politician in Miami. As commissioner, he has pushed for the first citywide recycling program and helped create a sustainability plan that encourages developers to erect greener buildings. When it comes to sea-level rise, he is no denier: "It is a big challenge," he told me one morning in his sparsely furnished office on the fourth floor of Miami Beach City Hall. Like most South Floridians, he believes sea-level rise is something that is going to happen slowly and that engineers will figure out a way to address. "There is $24 billion dollars of real-estate investment here," says Góngora. "The people who own that property are not going to let it just be washed away. We will figure out a solution. It's too valuable not to."
Truth be told, it's hard to live on a thin barrier island seven miles long like Miami Beach and be a climate-change denier. The ocean-facing side is protected by a man-made dune and beach, which is 10 feet high on the southern end, but the west side of the island is only a few feet above Biscayne Bay. Not so many years ago, the west side was a mangrove swamp. When the city emerged in the 1920s, nobody gave any thought to sea-level rise – they just chopped down the mangroves and started building on the low, swampy ground. As a result, the west side of Miami Beach is among the most flood-prone areas in Florida. Whenever there is a full moon and a high tide, the sea water comes up through the old storm drains and flows into the streets. In some places, it bubbles up between the street and the sidewalk. During high tide, Miami Beach can feel like it is being swallowed up by the waves. And of course, as the seas rise, this is only going to get worse.
To address this, the city of Miami Beach hired CDM Smith, a Massachusetts-based engineering firm, to come up with a $200 million stormwater plan that, in theory, will keep the city dry for the next 20 years. Under the plan, the city will build sea walls, triple the number of stormwater-drainage pumps, reline storm-discharge pipes and install one-way valves on outlet pipes so that rising sea water cannot flow back into the pipes and flood the city. Góngora is rightly proud of this plan. "No one else in Florida has come up with anything like this," he says. "I think it shows that we are dealing with this problem in a frank and realistic way."
Góngora's plan, as it is now, runs into some troubles: It only addresses the consequences of six inches of sea-level rise, which is on the low end of scenarios over the next 20 years. When you ask Góngora what happens to Miami Beach when the sea level rises three feet and inundates the entire west side of the city, he says, "I trust we will find a solution. I have been to Amsterdam. I have seen what the Dutch have done. If they can figure it out, so can we."
You hear this a lot in South Florida: The Dutch can do it, and so can we. The Dutch promote it, too. The Dutch Consulate in Miami hosts get-togethers to tout Dutch engineering firms, passing out beautiful coffee-table books that illustrate dike and storm barriers in the Netherlands. "It's like the Dutch East India Company all over again," Wanless says, referring to the Dutch company that dominated world trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. "They have expertise to sell, and they are pushing it hard."
The Dutch certainly have valuable experience living with water. Dutch engineers were involved in creating the massive levees that were built to protect New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and they are deeply involved in conversations about how to protect New York and New Jersey from another Sandy. But no Dutch engineering firm I talked to had any concrete ideas about how to save Miami. "New Orleans looks a lot like the Netherlands – it is below sea level, with a big dike around it," says Piet Dircke, program director for water management at ARCADIS in the Netherlands. "If you don't pump it out, the city drowns. It's a big bathtub. We know how to do that. Miami is different. It is also a low-lying city but far more complicated because of issues about water quality, the porousness of the limestone the city sits on, as well as water coming in from the west, through the Everglades."
Some engineers point to the coastal resort community of Scheveningen in Holland as a possible inspiration for what might be done in Miami. In Scheveningen, engineers created an elaborate dike with a road and parking within it, as well as pedestrian walks and a man-made sand dune. But Scheveningen has an altogether different geology and coastline than southern Florida. Then there is the question of scale: The dike at Scheveningen is a half-mile long and cost nearly $100 million to design and construct. Miami Beach alone is seven miles long – the entire Florida coastline is more than 1,200 miles. Even if an elaborate dike like this were possible, you can't build a wall along the entire coast. If you just walled off Miami Beach, the water would still flow in from the bay side.
Góngora touts the virtues of sea walls as a way to protect the city, but those have problems, too. For one thing, although they can help protect from storm surges, they don't necessarily keep the water out. "The water can just seep in through the limestone," says Richard Saltrick, the Miami Beach city engineer, who notes that in some places the seepage is slow enough that it can be pumped out. Another problem: The city of Miami Beach has about 60 miles of sea walls on the island. "The vast majority of them are on private property," says Saltrick. How do you force people to raise them higher – do you pass a law requiring everyone whose property includes a sea wall to spend tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade them? Does the city pay for it? And, of course, you can have 59.5 miles of six-foot-high sea walls, but if there is one open gap that is only three feet high, the water will come rushing in.
For the next 20 years, Miami Beach hopes to escape inundation by installing a network of about 40 pumps around the city that can be cranked up after storms to pump flood water off the streets and inject it deep underground. It's a good idea, and it may work for a while. But in the end, Saltrick believes the only long-term way to protect Miami Beach from sea-level rise is to raise the city itself: the roads, the buildings, everything. "It's a huge undertaking," Saltrick says. "But someday, it may come to that." The city is planning to raise roads when it can, but even that is an impossibly complex task in a built-up place like Miami Beach. "When you raise the road even a few inches, what happens to the water?" Saltrick asks rhetorically. "It runs off the road into the buildings and homes alongside it. So you have to raise those, as well."
Miami Beach has other infrastructure problems, too. One of them is how to dispose of the 22 million gallons of sewage the city's residents create each day. Right now, it's pumped out to one of Miami-Dade County's wastewater-treatment plant, which sits on Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay. The decrepit old facility, which has been plagued by spills and overflow for a decade, is hugely vulnerable to storm surges and rising tides. And yet instead of moving the plant to higher, safer ground, the county wants to sink $550 million into repairs and system upgrades, leaving it where it is and risking its destruction by rising waters. "The only way to motivate people who are in denial about climate change is for the leaders to instill confidence that we'll all still be here in 2100 and that critical infrastructure – like water, roads and sewers – will be here, too," says Albert Slap, a lawyer who represents the Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers, an environmental group that is involved in the fight over the plant. "And right now, that leadership is sorely lacking."
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