A half-moon stretch of Brickell Bay Drive, home to six waterfront condominium buildings, is often cited as the weak point where the ocean rose up and overtook the business district during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Images of streets turned into rivers ricocheted around the internet and made headlines, as the storm made clear just how vulnerable Miami is to rising seas, which scientists predict could be one to two feet higher by 2060.
Now the city is planning to replace the short sea wall with a more elaborate shoreline, maybe with native plants to soak up the water, to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate at risk in Brickell. It’s a plan that Miami isn’t the first to try, but one it hopes to export to the rest of the world.
“I think this is going to be a world-famous project,” Mayor Francis Suarez said Tuesday as he led global resilience experts on a tour of Miami’s sea level rise adaptation projects. “It’ll be iconic.”
Suarez is one of two mayors — and the only one from the U.S. — on the newly formed Global Commission on Adaptation, headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. The commission aims to use Miami as an example it will promote worldwide of how investments in climate-proofing a community are worth the cost.
Tuesday, city staffers showed Ban and Patrick Verkooijen, the commission’s CEO, several spots in Brickell where the city has funded sea rise improvement projects, as well as areas that are still at risk, like the riverfront Florida Power & Light substation that serves the 96,000 residents downtown.
“What happens if another Irma hits?” Verkooijen asked.
Alan Dodd, the city’s head of public works, pointed to the upgraded Mary Brickell Village pump station that can suck 29,000 gallons of water a minute off the street and shoot it into the Miami River, a replacement for the one that shorted out during the 2017 hurricane.
“It’ll be a temporary inconvenience rather than a major financial loss,” he said.
“We’re almost there,” Suarez added.
The $3 million pump station is just one of 13 the city has installed now, although Dodd said Miami officials expect to need 15 to 20 more in the next 50 years. About 50 of the city’s 300 outfalls, which direct stormwater into the river or bay, are vulnerable to sea level rise.
A lot of Miami is vulnerable to sea rise. With its pricey real estate and dense clusters of condos, the oceanfront city consistently tops lists of communities where rising seas will do the most damage.
The world is on track to heat up 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which Ban said “could be the end of Miami.” Even 2 degrees, which is the international goal, “could be devastating,” he said.
“Miami is facing an existential threat unless you take concentrated, immediate action,” he said. “While our primary goal must always be to rein in greenhouse gases … we cannot ignore that decades of inaction have left far too many exposed.”
Hurricane Irma, like Hurricane Sandy in New York before it, brought into sharp relief what’s at stake in the city. Politicians credit the storm — and its economic punch — for galvanizing Miamians into voting for the city’s $400 million “Miami Forever Bond,” about half of which is reserved for sea level rise adaptation projects.
So far, commissioners have OK’d about $10 million of that bond for adaptation projects, including redesigning riverfront Jose Marti Park and Brickell Bay Drive.
As luxury condos continue to sprout as close to the waterfront as possible in a region that scientists warn will one day have to step back from the sea, the citizens’ willingness to tax themselves to pay for these kinds of projects is what Suarez points to when he talks about the future.
“What we want to do is create model projects,” he said. “We want our citizens to see there’s a return on their investment.”
Ban said he was “very much impressed” with the city’s efforts and Suarez’s leadership.
Since he was elected, Suarez has spoken more frequently about the impact of climate change on his city, largely focused on the economic impacts on a community built on tourism and real estate. Many in the real estate industry worry that the modern stream of scientific research and media attention to Miami’s vulnerability will scare away investors and residents, and at least one wealth manager in the city is already advising clients to invest elsewhere.
The fear that people could pull their money and run, or that insurance companies could look at a city’s inaction and decide the risk of continuing to pay out claims isn’t worth it, is a pressing problem.
“What we want to prevent is that canary in the coal mine effect where insurance companies pull out of the Miami market, which could have a catastrophic economic impact even before the climactic events,” Suarez told an audience of Miami Dade College students and professors Tuesday afternoon.
Through Suarez, the city’s strategy to combat that negative attention is to start talking more about the work it’s doing to protect real estate and the people who live in it.
Miami, along with Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County, is a part of the 100 Resilient Cities collaboration, which will present policies to put into practice this summer. Miami’s stormwater master plan, which will do the heavy lifting in revamping the city’s pipes and pumps, is about halfway done. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the city’s bay with plans to largely fund a project to protect the shoreline, which could take the form of a continuous sea wall or even a surge protector in the mouth of the Miami River.
One of the commission’s main stated goals is to address “the failure of governments and businesses to incorporate climate change risks into development plans,” but retreat from rising seas isn’t going to be discussed, Verkooijen said.
Instead, the commission wants to talk about ways governments can push private businesses to build stronger and more sustainable buildings. Suarez compares the new world of development to post-Hurricane Andrew development, where South Florida pioneered the strongest building code in the country and prevented millions in damage.
When the new codes were developed, Suarez said, the “urban sprawl developers” — who saw their housing stock decimated in the storm — “freaked out.” But the code changes passed, he said, and other parts of the country have since adopted the new standards.
“Andrew, in a way, has set the stage for hardening projects and resilience,” he said.
The commission will create a report — due in September — that details what nations need to do to adapt to climate change. After the report comes a “Year of Action,” when committee members will push the recommendations along.
“The commission is a success if and only if it advances action across the globe,” said Verkooijen.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.