Why Did Miami Beach's Multimillion-Dollar Anti-Flood Pumps Fail?

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Miami Beach has the second most properties threatened by rising seas in the world, so the city recently sank $500 million into a Sisyphean project to install up to 80 anti-flood pumps across the city. Though the system has helped suck away sunny-day tidal flooding, independent engineers have warned that the pumps likely won't save the city during a major flood event: Last year, an engineer told New Times the pumps would probably fail during a hurricane because there are no backup generators if the city loses power.

Yesterday Miami Beach saw firsthand how the new anti-flood system works during a major storm. The tail end of Tropical Depression Emily (not even a tropical storm at this point) grazed Miami, and the amount of rain exceeded the pumps' maximum capacity. Certain portions of the city ended up drowning under multiple feet of water. And according to city spokesperson Melissa Berthier, a brief power outage knocked two pump stations out in Sunset Harbour for 45 minutes. Multiple restaurants in the area, including Pubbelly and Sushi Garage, told New Times they were inundated.

"The city has experienced an extreme amount of rainfall with a rate of over 7 inches per hour due to the remnants of Tropical Storm Emily," Berthier said via email. "This amount of rainfall is twice our design criteria for our storm-water infrastructure."

Just before 9:30 p.m., Mayor Philip Levine — the biggest advocate for the expensive pumping system — did his own bit of damage control by reminding residents that most of Miami Beach still isn't covered by the pump system.

"The new stormwater systems have only been installed in approximately 15 percent of the city," Levine wrote. "In neighborhoods that have not been upgraded, the city continues to work to remove water from the streets and swales."

Levine attached a letter from Assistant City Manager Eric Carpenter that echoed the mayor's talking points.

"In areas where the new stormwater systems were installed, the streets were clear of water shortly after the rain stopped," Carpenter claimed. "The areas of the city that do not have new systems in place are still experiencing flooding hours after the event."

Granted, the city isn't finished building the system yet, and a whole network of raised roads and pumps is still slated for installation. The city recently embarked on a $100 million road-raising and pump-installation project in January that's expected to last at least another year. Moreover, the system has helped to dry roads during high tide, which used to flood certain portions of South Beach even when it wasn't raining.

That being said, Miami Beach is only beginning to see the effects of climate change, and flooding events are expected to worsen dramatically by the end of the century. Yesterday's rainfall, though intense, didn't even come from a tropical storm, let alone a full-blown hurricane. (There are also concerns the pumps flush human waste into Biscayne Bay.)

Plus, the statements from the city downplay the extent of the flooding. Some video clips showed residents walking in waist-deep water while waves splashed above the window level of sedans parked on the road. Speaking with New Times, Berthier said it "is important to note that the flooding has not only been in Miami Beach. Areas of Miami such as Brickell, Coral Gables, and other cities have also experienced significant flooding." But those cities haven't spent a half-billion dollars on flood-mitigation projects.

A power outage made everything that much worse in Sunset Harbour — and confirmed the warning New Times received about the pump stations last year. Carpenter, the assistant city manager, explained in his letter that the pumps "were struggling to keep up with the rainfall already, and when the power went out, the impacts increased quickly." He noted that the pumps came back online after 45 minutes and that "most" of the restaurants and businesses nearby reopened within an hour.

But the business owners who spoke to New Times yesterday were none too pleased.

"After $400 million of investment to raise the streets and after businesses suffered through three years of construction, we are still flooding the same way as before," Pubbelly Group's Juan Ayora said yesterday. "We still had to pay taxes and get permits those years. Where did the money go?"

On Alton Road, popular Italian restaurant Macchialina closed for the night, as did French restaurant Semilla. Nearby Flywheel Sports was forced to cancel its workout classes for the night.

"Why aren’t the pumps on a generator system?" Macchialina co-owner Jen Chafesky asked. "Power out, pumps out, and flooding on Alton is as bad as ever."
On July 19, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization that speaks often about the dangers of climate change, released a map that warned that roughly half of Miami Beach will likely be "chronically flooded" by the year 2045, and virtually the entire island faces "chronic inundation" by 2060. ("Chronic inundation" means an area where 10 percent of the land floods 26 times per year or more.) The jury is out on whether the pump system will actually save city businesses from constant closings and water damage.

In their statements yesterday, Levine and Carpenter appeared aware that the new system won't be a silver bullet to stem the impacts of climate change.

"We realize now more than ever that we need to continue to build our new-generation stormwater system while understanding that it is not without limitations," Carpenter wrote. He added that "although the streets may not always be bone dry, the impacts will be less severe and last for a much shorter duration."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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