It was one of those clear, cool, dry autumn days that remind us why we live in South Florida. Not hint of rain, which made the sandbags along the storefronts seem as misplaced as snow shovels.
But rain is no longer a prerequisite for flooding in the 2400 block of East Las Olas Boulevard, a small commercial strip amid one of the most coveted waterfront neighborhoods in South Florida.
Sandbagging thereabouts has become a fall ritual. Rain or shine. Merchants worried that this week’s high tides, conspiring with a full moon, would once again inundate their little stretch of Las Olas and bring canal waters lapping at their doorways.
By now, these freaky rainless floods have lost their novelty. At the Lee Loo Salon, Courtney Allen showed me the new woodwork installed after brackish water seeped under the doorway and ruined the baseboards. Jennifer Britton pointed to the tile floor that had been elevated to keep the water away from the condo developer’s showroom where she works. On king tide evenings, Chima, the elegant Brazilian steakhouse at 2400 E. Las Olas, could pass as a canal-side restaurant in Venice. King tides can make a sign in a storefront window, “dockyourmegayacht.com,” seem like dark humor.
Francesca Guerrera regularly consults tide schedules; keeps track of the full moons. “We’re like mariners around here,” she said. Guerrera, who owns the FG Salon and Spa, showed me the two sump pumps she installed in the lovely courtyard out back to keep her salon dry.
Since she opened FG at 2424 E. Las Olas nine years ago, flooding has become an ever worsening aggravation. “Deeper and deeper. More and more often,” she said.
Her assessment was a simpler version of a startling assessment of sea level risk issued last week by Climate Central, the climate change research site. Climate Central catalogued the 25 American cities with the largest number of residents threatened by sea level rise and climate change.
New York, of course, has the largest population situated in threatened areas — 245,000. But Florida cities, most of them in South Florida, utterly dominated the list.
Residents of seven Miami-Dade cities, led by Miami, Hialeah and Miami Beach, were classified as endangered. But a dozen cities in Broward County were deemed at risk, led by Pembroke Pines with 116,000 residents in low-lying areas, followed (in order of the greatest number of residents in vulnerable areas) by Coral Springs, Miramar, Davie, Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise, Pompano Beach, Hollywood, Lauderhill, Tamarac, Margate and finally North Lauderdale.
Remember, this was a national assessment. St. Petersburg and Cape Coral were the only other Florida cities in the risky 25. New York, Charleston, S.C. and Atlantic City were the only towns outside Florida.
Obviously, Floridians have the most to lose if climate change can’t be stanched. That’s hardly news along Las Olas Isles, where residents post “no wake” signs to discourage passing cars from sending waves of water breaking across their yards. On Thursday, a digital state Department of Transportation sign in the middle of Las Olas warned motorists that flooding was imminent.
South Florida local governments, mindful that the region’s boomtown economy might damn well drown if the ocean rises (as climate scientists suggest) 10 inches over the next 15 years, have formed a regional compact to fight climate change. Miami Beach has already spent $600 million buying giant pumps and raising sea walls and roadbeds. Fort Lauderdale has installed 133 tidal valves to keep sea water from reverse flowing into storm sewers. On Tuesday, Miami voters will decide whether to approve a $400 million bond issue, with half the money earmarked for storm drainage, seawalls and other projects to fend off the ocean.
But it’s not just flooded homes and businesses and streets that worry local civic leaders. Sea levels in South Florida, which have already risen four inches above measurements taken 25 years ago, are approaching the critical inflection point at which gravity will no longer drain inland canals. Sewers and septic tanks and drainage systems are nearing the same crisis point. When all that reeking detritus starts flowing backwards, when salt water contaminates the aquifer . . . well . . . so much for the magical allure (not to mention the real estate values) of our watery fantasyland.
Trouble is, local governments can hardly afford the prophylactic measures. Their constituents are reluctant to ante up now for an amorphous future threat. On Tuesday, Miami voters might well reject the bond proposal. Last year, rather than irritate the homeowner associations, Fort Lauderdale backed off on a proposal that would have required waterfront property owners to raise their seawalls.
Dissenters can always cite the climate change deniers who’re running the show in Tallahassee and Washington. After all, the governor of the most vulnerable state in the nation can’t bring himself to say “climate change” aloud. The president, though he owns vulnerable properties himself in South Florida, has insisted that global warming is a Chinese-manufactured hoax. As if the Chinese could conjure up Las Olas Boulevard floods on cloudless day in November.
As Francesca Guerrera told me, along the 2400 block, where sandbags are kept at the ready, the king tides have washed away the debate about climate change.
Fred Grimm (@grimm_fred and email@example.com), a longtime resident of Fort Lauderdale, has worked as a reporter or columnist in South Florida since 1976.