Miami Beach's New Anti-Flooding Pumps Will Fail During Hurricane, Engineer Warns

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

As the City of Miami Beach continues to roll out its unprecedented, $400 million plan to fight sea-level rise, a top Miami engineer says city officials might have overlooked a key factor: Back-up generators. The city now relies on a mass system of pumps to shoot flood water out — but what happens when a cane knocks out power to those pumps?

“It is inevitable that sooner or later there will be a major power outage during a time of heavy rain and high tides,” engineer Dwight Kraai wrote in a letter yesterday to Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and City commissioners. “Without backup power generators, there will be catastrophic flooding.”

He might have a point.  City Engineer Bruce Mowry, who has played a key role in implementing the city’s pump program, says the new pump stations do have connections where portable generators can be plugged in. But, he tells New Times, the city does need “to make sure that selected pump stations may have permanent generators.”

“The city has been asking for grant funding to purchase more portable generators to supplement our existing units,” he says.

In recent years, the City of Miami Beach has embarked on an unprecedented plan of attack to confront the rising seas and resultant flooding. It has built a range of state-of-the-art stormwater solutions, from valves and pumps to raised roads. All pump stations are electric and depend on FPL for power. 

By all accounts, the never-before-attempted civic plan, which took massive political will, creative financing, and a team of world-class scientists, is making a dent in flooding problems. Over a dozen new pump stations have been installed along the west side of South Beach, in Sunset Harbour, the Sunset and Venetian islands, and South Pointe.

And when last year’s King Tide came, those streets stayed mostly dry, even as other Beach neighborhoods sank under several inches of water.

But critics have questioned the rapid speed with which the city has implemented largely untested solutions, claiming the plan needs to be more well thought-out. And according to Kraai, who formerly sat on the City’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Flood Mitigation, the lack of backup power generators may be a key example of that, given South Florida’s vulnerability to storms and hurricanes.

“Southern Florida, including Miami-Dade County, has the largest probability of a category one hurricane or greater than most of the Gulf or Atlantic coast,” Kraai says.

Kraai says he's glad that Mowry and other city officials are getting the wheels turning on backup generators for the system.  But as hurricane season looms next month, those solutions can't come fast enough.

“The probability [of a hurricane] is 15 to 25 percent per year,” Kraai says. “Not having backup power generators is playing Russian roulette.”

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