Miami Beach's $400 Million Sea-Level Rise Plan Is Unprecedented, but Not Everyone Is Sold

Miami Beach's $400 Million Sea-Level Rise Plan Is Unprecedented, but Not Everyone Is Sold

The poster-sized map on Bruce Mowry's desk is scrawled with blotchy patches of red, showing elevations across Miami Beach. Everywhere 2.2 feet or lower is shaded in deep crimson. That's the same height, incidentally, that water reached last September during the King Tide, the highest nonstorm water level ever recorded in the city.

Mowry, a jovial man with gray hair, rosy cheeks, and a Southern accent, is calm and calculated as he explains the disturbing reality evident on the map: Fifty percent of South Beach is red. Almost all of Belle Isle and the west side of Palm Island are too. The Indian Creek corridor from 26th to 39th is bright red. And so is Normandy Isle and the eastern part of Biscayne Point. If current forecasts are right, these areas will be submerged within the next century.

"When people ask me where I'm going to focus my attention, I just tell them to look at the map," Mowry says. "Where would you start?"

From his sunny corner office on the sixth floor of Miami Beach City Hall, the engineer has spent the past two and a half years working on one of the hardest jobs in the country: trying to keep this city of 90,000 above water.

The Mississippi native has tackled difficult jobs before. Before Mowry took the position in 2013, he'd spent 35 years working on water-resources projects from China to New Orleans. Now he's a key part of a stable of experts Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has positioned in top city posts since 2013, all trying to save this town from salt water without tarnishing its well-groomed tourism image.

Their plan of attack is unprecedented: $400 million poured into state-of-the-art stormwater solutions, from valves and pumps to raised roads. The project is especially bold in a state where the governor refuses to acknowledge that climate change even exists, let alone fund infrastructure improvements to prepare for it. Just across the causeway, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez recently said a lot of sea-level-rise talk "is of doomsday scenarios which, frankly, I do not believe."

In Miami Beach, Levine has never denied the science. And for his willingness to stare straight into the problem and invest huge sums of money into fixes, he's been lauded as a pioneer. Media across the country have characterized him as "Bloomberg South," a progressive political outsider who kayaked into office saying, "Enough is enough."

"Here's a community with worldwide notoriety for getting things done," Levine says of his work.

But not everyone is cheering the city's plans. Some wonder if aggressive action on sea-level rise can really coexist with a boom in luxury development. The mayor — who owns millions in South Beach property himself — has installed developers in key positions and, some say, steered city action toward protecting big-money interests. Local critics question the city's rapid-fire move toward untested solutions. Still others say the plan doesn't go nearly far enough to save the city long-term from being swallowed by water.

"We're spending exorbitant amounts of money, and it's the first time anyone's ever done anything like this," says Miami Beach City Commissioner Kristin Rosen Gonzalez. "We've got to be sure we're doing it right, because we're not going to have the money to do this twice."

The behind-the-scenes story of Miami Beach's war against sea-level rise makes this much clear: No city has ever faced a threat quite like this. And whatever happens here will be a blueprint — for better or worse — for the whole world.

"This is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced," geospatial analyst Keren Prize Bolter recently told an audience in Miami Beach. "In South Florida, the water is coming in not just at the sides. It comes up from underground. Not even seawalls will stop the flow of water. This is bigger than the government."

Given that danger, Mowry says slowing down or rethinking strategy isn't an option. Though he admits he's as clueless about the future as anyone else, he refuses to let Miami Beach sink.

"You can't take a city and say we're gonna wait until the last minute and then let that city decay its economy," he says. "Would you want to lose a patient on life support just because you were too busy looking for a cure?"

Miami Beach City Engineer Bruce Mowry leads the charge against the encroaching seas.
Miami Beach City Engineer Bruce Mowry leads the charge against the encroaching seas.
Photo by Karli Evans

Long before the white sands and the sunbathers, Miami Beach was an overgrown, bug-infested swath of mangroves and swampland.

A little more than 100 years ago, a Midwestern auto pioneer and real-estate developer named Carl Fisher invented the idea of Miami Beach after setting his sights on the uninhabited stretch of land between Biscayne Bay and the ocean. For such a prolific entrepreneur (he created the automobile headlight, the Indian­apolis 500, and America's first transcontinental highway), the swampy ecosystem couldn't stop his grand vision of an island paradise. In 1912, he and his wife bought a Miami vacation home and began acquiring land. They widened the shoreline with millions of cubic yards of white sand dredged from the bottom of Biscayne Bay. The beach, on the east side, was built up into the highest part of the island.

In his 2006 book The Swamp, Michael Grunwald writes about "Crazy Carl," saying that "by 1920 he had remodeled a worthless spit of swampland into a destination resort, but he had also ravaged a formerly pristine habitat for crocodiles, pelicans, shrimp, crabs and fish."

Other developers soon followed, adding a smattering of manmade islets up the west side of Miami Beach, from Star Island and the Venetians to Normandy Isle and Biscayne Point. But Fisher and his followers didn't give much thought to elevation as they carved out their slice of paradise. Most of Miami Beach was built at barely two feet above sea level, making it one of the lowest-lying places in the entire country.

Almost immediately, the winter playground began to flood. On September 18, 1926, the Category 4"Great Miami Hurricane" made landfall over Miami Beach, spewing tides from 10.6 feet on the ocean side to 6.4 feet on the bay side. Miami Beach was inundated.

"If the guy who built Miami Beach could go back and redo it, the whole area should have been four feet higher from the beginning," Mowry says. "But that's 20/20 hindsight now."

During early population booms between the 1930s and the 1960s, the city built a storm drainage system to fight the problem. It used gravity to drain the town from east to west, where the water drains into Biscayne Bay. It mostly worked. And until recently, occasional flooding was called a recurring nuisance.

But over the past two decades, as the floods worsened and climate-change science improved, the facts began to suggest otherwise.

Though there is still wide disagreement on the rate of sea-level rise, it's become indisputable that it's happening. Scientists generally agree that it's caused by a warming planet that's melting the polar icecaps. Global sea level has risen by about eight inches since reliable record-keeping began in 1880. And over the past decade, the average rate of sea-level rise has increased by 6 millimeters per year — from 3 millimeters per year before 2006 to 9 millimeters per year since.

That's already having unique impacts on Miami Beach. A team of University of Miami scientists using data like tidal records, rain gauges, and insurance claims found that since 2006, rain-based floods have increased by 33 percent and tidal flooding by an astounding 400 percent.

Scientists point to Miami Beach's unique features, like its proximity to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic and its geography atop porous limestone, as contributing factors. The Gulf Stream creates a "hill" of water in the Atlantic Ocean that's roughly parallel to the shores of the East Coast. But the Gulf Stream has been slowing down, causing the hill to flatten out, which leads to higher sea levels along the Eastern Seaboard.

"We know there are certain processes that are going to make sea-level rise a lot worse here than in other parts of the world," Bolter says. "Gulf streams are slowing down like a traffic jam up the coast."

So just how much are the seas going to rise? The best-case scenario is that ice sheets melt at a relatively stable rate through the end of the century. The doomsday possibility? The melt will keep accelerating ever faster as the Earth warms.

City workers install stormwater pumps as part of a $400 million project to fight flooding.
City workers install stormwater pumps as part of a $400 million project to fight flooding.
Photo by Karli Evans

That latter possibility is more than just a slight risk. Last month, science journal Nature published a report finding that oceans could rise by more than six feet by the end of the century. If high levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue, scientists concluded, the melting of ice on Antarctica alone could cause seas to rise more than 49 feet by 2500.

"Big surprises may come in the future," says Dr. Roni Avissar, dean of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. "We just have to stay open and continue to follow the science."

It's only recently that all this science has become part of the daily conversation in Miami. Greenpeace was perhaps the first group to raise local concern, in July 2001, when activists gathered at Tenth Street and Ocean Drive to warn that rising temperatures could drown the city. In 2006, that message went global thanks to Al Gore's Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. In 2008, the late Florida International University geoscientist Peter Harlem earned international recognition by using a depth-mapping program called Lidar to show just how much of Miami could sink under water.

Around 2009, Miami Beach began to experience a troubling new phenomenon: Pools of water appeared out of the blue on the west side of the island. The floods didn't come from a storm but rather from below, as if out of nowhere. And that water, scientists discovered, was salty.

Research showed that the porous limestone below Miami was completely saturated, causing "sunny-day flooding." The gravity that had funneled water off the beach for decades no longer mattered; encroaching seawater simply soaked into the city's foundation, rubbed up against freshwater supplies, bubbled up through pipes and drains, and overwhelmed the streets. In 2012, the city, then under Mayor Matti Bower, crafted a blueprint for overhauling the stormwater system.

Then came Levine, a political newbie, media mogul, and real-estate developer. Levine got his start as an entrepreneur in 1990 when he was working as a port lecturer on cruise ships, telling people where to shop onshore. He turned that into an $85 million business that produced onboard TV advertisements, magazines, and port marketing. Through a merger, he expanded his company, Onboard Media, to create the world's largest duty-free shopping and media firm, with revenues reaching $400 million. In 2000, he sold that company to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

In his $2 million campaign to replace Bower in 2013, Levine blamed the constant flooding and broken streets on poor investments in the city's infrastructure in the face of rising seas. The longtime Clinton donor — and close friend of the ex-president — even snagged an endorsement from his pal Bill.

"Before Philip, the model for sea-level rise was kind of 'Don't freak everyone out,' " says former Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson. "Assumptions were always very conservative, as if the problem wasn't really as bad as it was."

Levine changed that entirely. In a memorable campaign ad, Levine and his Boxer pup Earl paddled on a kayak through the streets of South Beach during yet another deluge. "Vote Philip Levine, a businessman and part-time gondolier, for Mayor," the ad chided.

"Like others before him, this mayor talked about flooding and keeping the streets dry, but he was the first to really link it to climate change," says Betsy Wheaton, the city's environment and sustainability director, who's been working for Miami Beach since 2009. "He expanded the conversation."

That message helped Levine win the mayor's office. Then came the hard part: how to actually fix it. "There's no playbook for this," Levine says. "There's no one saying, 'Here, mayor, follow these 20 easy steps and you'll be OK.' I wasn't swept into office; I floated in."

While a student at the University of Miami School of Architecture, Isaac Stein designed a vision for Miami Beach that embraces the water.
While a student at the University of Miami School of Architecture, Isaac Stein designed a vision for Miami Beach that embraces the water.
Image courtesy of Isaac Stein

"See those stairs there?" Mowry asks, pointing to the entrance of Publix in the Sunset Harbour neighborhood. "There used to be seven stairs leading up to the front door."

Now, there are just two. That's because throughout Sunset Harbour — a booming area of hip restaurants and bars — the streets have been raised by a full two and a half feet. While Publix still sits above street level, the entrances to neighboring businesses like Purdy Lounge and Pubbelly are now subterranean.

"Elevation is a key aspect of our plan," Mowry says. "We've inherited problems from the past because people were instructed to build low. You're going to start seeing a lot of cultural and architectural changes."

The sidewalks are just part of a never-before-attempted civic plan, which took massive political will, creative financing, and a team of world-class scientists. And while returns are early, Levine insists it's working.

"Sunset Harbour was underwater all the time. People were freaking out and leaving," Levine says. "But look at it now. Look at those streets. These raised streets have become the eighth wonder of the world."

Levine's scheme took shape soon after he took office. Mowry, who had just been hired a month earlier, got right to work. Like Levine, Mowry touts his private-sector background as a boon to getting things done quickly. After earning a PhD in civil engineering from the University of Mississippi in 1982, Mowry worked on water and wastewater projects at a private company in Louisiana. He went on to work on water projects from California to Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, Egypt, and China. Although the scope of the problem in Miami Beach was new, his solutions weren't.

"The things we're doing — with pumps and valves and elevation — aren't different," he says. "It's just that we're actually doing them."

Alongside Mowry, Levine rallied Wheaton as well as top Miami engineers like Dwight Kraai and Michael K. Phang. Levine recalls first gathering them all to talk about their plan.

"We had all our chief engineers, everyone around the table, and I said, 'Guys, the days of analysis and paralysis are over. We're not hiring a consultant to hire a consultant. We need a plan to get rid of this water," Levine says.

Wolfson says he vividly remembers how the tone changed after that meeting. The city had been debating a variety of solutions, including new injection wells, but those ideas were quickly scrapped. Instead, the city tackled the plan devised by Mowry and his colleagues.

"Bruce and Philip came in and ramped everything up," Wolfson says. "There were new engineers, new assessments, new committees. We developed a more realistic viewpoint of sea-level rise. And we moved very quick."

The goal was clear: keeping at least some of the most flood-prone areas dry during the looming King Tide — the first big test — in early October 2014.

But first Levine needed to pay for his plan. Levine and commissioners swiftly raised stormwater rates by 84 percent, for a $7 increase per month per household. "I told residents, you have a choice to make. Would you rather keep living in Miami Beach, or would you rather live in Atlantis?" Levine says.

That tax bump secured $90 million worth of bonds to start work in the fall of 2014, when pumps began to go in along Alton Road and in Sunset Harbour under emergency single-bidder resolutions.

When that King Tide came, those streets stayed mostly dry, even as other Beach neighborhoods sank under several inches of water. Since then, 12 new pump stations have been installed along the west side of South Beach, in Sunset Harbour, the Sunset and Venetian islands, and South Pointe. At the same time, streets were raised on West Avenue, 20th Street, Tenth Street, Sixth Street, and all of Sunset Harbour.

Mowry is now finalizing plans for two big pump stations near the Convention Center and others at 19th Street and in Flamingo Park, with simultaneous street raising. And the city is about to embark on a huge new endeavor: raising Indian Creek, from 26th to 41st streets, and improving the seawall. That area was heavily impacted during last year's King Tide, when the water reached a foot higher than predicted, spilling onto the road and causing traffic disasters.

"When Al Gore visited Miami Beach and said he saw fish swimming in the streets on a sunny day, that's the area he's talking about," Mowry says.

That project has been an even bigger political challenge than the rest of the Beach projects. Indian Creek is actually a state highway, not a city road, so Levine and his allies had to fight Tallahassee for approval and funding. The upgrades will be a $25 million partnership between the Florida Department of Transportation and the city, with the goal to stop flooding before this fall's King Tide. During construction, there will be no parking along the road.

Miami Beach isn't necessarily stopping with pumps and raised streets. In September, the city hired its first "Chief Resiliency Officer" to oversee everything from building-code compliance to green spaces to recycling and environmental departments. Susanne Torriente, who had been Fort Lauderdale's assistant city manager before taking the job, says the city can become a national leader in fighting climate change.

"Bruce's work came first, and it was the biggest and most visible," Torriente says. "The resiliency strategy that we're developing now is building upon that."

Miami Beach's $400 Million Sea-Level Rise Plan Is Unprecedented, but Not Everyone Is Sold
Image courtesy of Isaac Stein

In a fifth-floor City Hall conference room, the city's Blue Ribbon Panel on Sea Level Rise considers a tricky question: As new buildings and homes — including the city's growing crop of McMansions — are built ever higher to avoid rising seas, what becomes of the older, low-scale constructions more characteristic of historic Miami Beach?

At the head of the panel sits megadeveloper Scott Robbins. Robbins, who is Levine's good friend and partner in several real-estate deals, shared his vision for those older homes: "Well, they are knockdowns," Robbins calmly noted.

Immediately, preservationist Daniel Ciraldo, of the Miami Design Preservation League, shot back, "Not everyone feels that way."

The testy exchange underscores the delicate balance among preservationists, politicians, and developers in a city on the edge of sea-level ruin. Although Levine has been widely lauded for his quick action on flood prevention, he's also been criticized for his close ties to developers and his no-bid contracts. Some environmentalists, meanwhile, question whether the pumps and raised streets are more than a short-term solution. Others say the pumps have filled Biscayne Bay with polluted runoff.

"We're getting world-class attention because we're making efforts a lot sooner than others — but that's out of necessity," says scientist Isaiah Mosley, who lost a campaign for the commission last year. "We have billions of dollars of property on Miami Beach. The cheapest way to solve the problem right now is to build, build, build."

Of the criticisms lobbed at Levine, his ties to developers might be the most consistent. Many point to the history of the Blue Ribbon Panel as evidence. When Levine first convened the group in 2014, it included engineers Kraai and University of Miami engineering professor Phang. "We were talking about really exciting solutions, and we had found new ground," Kraai says.

But the engineer quickly grew disillusioned. "The atmosphere kind of changed. It seemed like the panel existed just to monitor the public-works projects that were being implemented. No one wanted to talk about the long-term impacts of sea-level rise," he says. "I think Levine decided he didn't want to be mayor of Venice, but he is."

Some environmentalists questioned Robbins' leadership, especially after he told Audubon magazine in 2014 that developers had no cause to fear climate change. "Right now, Miami is going through one of the hottest real-estate booms ever in its history," he said. "People are investing enormous sums of money, and many of them really aren't worried about sea-level rise."

Those critics had more ammunition when Levine disbanded the panel, then rebuilt it — but without the two scientists. In their place came Wynn Bradley, an architect who does not live in Miami Beach, and Michael DeFilippi, a luxury-real-estate agent who focuses on trash and litter issues. Robbins returned as chairman.

"Although the administration makes jokes about Governor Scott being a climate-change denier, it seems that this group has a different type of denial going on," Ciraldo says, "one that denies the impact that climate change will have on the ability for new development."

The panel has little real power. But its composition amplifies other concerns about Levine's ties to developers. During last year's reelection campaign, Levine's opponent, David Wieder, noted a potentially shady side to Levine's acclaimed work in Sunset Harbour: The mayor owns millions of dollars' worth of property there, as does Robbins.

Wolfson, then a commissioner, says he understands why people would be suspicious. "Sunset Harbour needed pumps; however, Sunset Harbour also got the streets raised, and no other area in the city got that," Wolfson says. "There is an obvious interest there; they own a lot of property together. Is it a conflict? Maybe. It clearly raises property values there."

Levine pushes back against those criticisms, though. He says the city raised streets and installed pumps in Sunset Harbour first for one reason: It's the lowest-lying part of the city. "When you look at the topography, that's the topography," he says. "What could we do?"

Miami Beach's $400 Million Sea-Level Rise Plan Is Unprecedented, but Not Everyone Is Sold
Image courtesy of Isaac Stein

As for Robbins' role in the city's plans, he says the developer has taken on the volunteer job at considerable time and expense — and no business advantage. "He has the expertise and the passion for fixing this city," Levine says. "It's like with me: This is the most expensive job I've ever had in my life. I've lost more money being mayor than I could ever make back."

Within City Hall, others have raised questions about the speed with which Levine attacked his sea-level-rise plans. To build pump stations and raise streets so quickly, the city waived normal bidding processes. "We did it like an emergency measure," Levine says. "We did it like it was World War II and we'd just been attacked at Pearl Harbor."

Rosen Gonzalez says there's a big risk in that approach. So far, four companies have managed all the city's sea-level-rise projects: Bergeron, Lanzo, Mancini Brothers, and Ricman. "When we do bid things out, we are getting one bidder," Rosen Gonzalez says. "I think people are discouraged. Why should they try if only Lanzo or Mancini Brothers are going to get contracts?"

Levine says that a single-bid process was the only way to cut through red tape and that he's held the companies responsible. "Some of these things had to be done fast and furious," he says. "We've made them sharpen their pencils. Going forward, we're trying to get more and more contractors in this so we can really bid it out more."

On the environmental front, the Beach's massive effort has also raised some concerns. Soon after the pumps kicked into gear last year — spewing out more than 7,000 gallons of water per minute — some residents noted dirty plumes of rainwater and debris shooting into the bay. Videos showed up on YouTube exposing the mess. Last summer, Mosley decided to check it out for himself. With a snorkel, fins, and underwater camera in tow, he jumped into Biscayne Bay near the Tenth Street pump and found a disgusting mess.

"It was horrible," Mosley told New Times last August. "It tasted like petroleum and gasoline. It was foul, and some of it even made it into my nose. I was so grossed out, I don't even want to think about it."

Mowry says the pump systems have been built to filter out most pollutants. But he admits it's an issue that still needs to be addressed. "Storm drains are the sewers of a city," he says. "They take all the runoff; everything left by all the people who come here ends up in storm drains."

Urban designer and coastal resilience expert Walter Meyer, who runs the New York-based company Local Office Landscape, says there are other ways the city could clean that water. Though state and federal permits would be required to build into the bay, a new habitat with oysters, grasses, corals, and mangroves just off the pump evacuation point could filter some of the toxicity.

But there's an even bigger-picture environmental question as well: Will the pumps and raised streets even help if the worst sea-level-rise projections hold true? Levine admits he can't answer that question.

"We believe what we're doing, this $400 million plan, could be a 30- or 40-year solution, depending on projections," he says. After that? He trusts that the inventors of tomorrow will come up with another plan.

"I know that human innovation is so incredible," he says. "If I told you 30 years ago that an iPhone could Facetime with a friend in Europe right now in real time, you'd think I was out of my mind. The opportunity for entrepreneurs is unlimited. They'll come up with solutions we can't even think of today. Deep-water injection pumps below the aquifer? Who the hell knows?"

The key, he says, is fending off the water until then. "We don't want people to get tired out or lose interest or lose confidence," he says. "Once you lose confidence, try getting it back."

Miami Beach's $400 Million Sea-Level Rise Plan Is Unprecedented, but Not Everyone Is Sold
Image courtesy of Isaac Stein

As Miami Beach prepares for the future of sea-level rise, it may just be time to look to the past, before the days of Crazy Carl, when Miami Beach was still an actual swamp. As efforts mount to find ever-more-creative ways to force water off the land, some visionaries say it's time to invite it back in.

Developer Isaac Stein, a UM alumnus currently working in New York City, has proposed one of the most creative solutions yet to save South Beach: a mix of urban mangrove forest, buildings on stilts, and citywide canals that would turn Miami Beach into a pedestrian-friendly, water-borne city — a mix of the Everglades and Venice.

"Just look at Venice or many Dutch cities," he says. "Bringing in water and inviting it to be part of the city can really add quality and value. It can make the city better."

On the Bay side, Stein envisions returning Miami Beach to its early glory, notably by restoring mangroves, which were once plentiful there. "Mangroves create a subdued storm surge," he says. In some residential areas, six feet of fill could be cut to form an ecological canal and "raise the grade" of residences on these streets. At the heart of his vision: fewer cars and more public transportation options.

Stein's plans might be extreme, but so is the threat facing Miami Beach. Whether Levine's plans end up as a visionary solution to sea-level rise or a short-term Band-Aid, nearly everyone agrees that outsized ideas like Stein's are going to be key to Miami Beach's long-term future.

The city itself is trying to start that move, through Torriente's job as chief resiliency officer. Torriente says she plans to replenish oceanside dunes, heighten existing seawalls, and create new urban green spaces that will absorb water and carbon dioxide. Flood regulations could change for new buildings, and so could building heights.

"Thinking about 2100 is overwhelming," Torriente says. "But if you think about the things we can do now, it's a manageable challenge and an opportunity. The next person in my job is going to have to keep building upon this over time."

Plenty of long-term thinkers say there's only one real solution to Miami Beach's mess: a mass migration to higher land. But Torriente says there's newfound optimism and energy in the city — an opportunity for Miami Beach to become a world leader.

"This is an opportunity to be creative, to innovate," Torriente says. "I don't think anything's off the table. Even a far-out idea can give you a spark of something that could be implemented easily."

Although Torriente isn't backing any plans as extreme as Stein's, she too envisions mangroves, new dunes, solar panels, and a more efficient building stock as part of the solution.

For now, Mowry's not slowing down on the current project. Ten new pump stations are under construction, and three additional projects will break ground in the next six months. In total, the city will get 60 to 80 pump stations over the next few years. Meanwhile, streets on Palm and Hibiscus are being raised, as are streets in Bayshore South and Flamingo Park. Eventually, 30 percent of all roads on the Beach will be elevated.

The work may not be perfect — or even a long-term solution at all — but Mowry says there are few other options.

"Mother Nature's gonna win, and sea-level rise is coming," he says. "But failure is not an option. Retreat is unacceptable. When people say we should leave Miami Beach, I ask them if they would like me to buy them a ticket to leave town. We need positive thinkers who believe there are solutions and are ready to try them."

— Managing Editor Tim Elfrink contributed to this report


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