A new plan to armor Miami’s coast against storms is in motion: This time, no giant wall
A brand new set of protections for Miami-Dade’s storm-prone coast — and billions of federal dollars to pay for it — is once again on the table after the county agreed to move forward with a new coastal protection study with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The county tried this in 2018, but after three years, Miami-Dade shot down the nearly $5 billion plan the federal government devised to keep the coast safe from storm surge, mainly over concerns that the tall walls along the coast the Corps suggested were ugly and unwanted by residents.
This time, the Corps and county worked together and held several public meetings to hear from Miami-Dade residents. The result announced on Friday: a set of ideas the Corps says it can afford to build and the county says it can support.
On the table are a lot of the same ideas from the initial study: elevating thousands of homes up and down the coast, adding flooding protections to businesses and important facilities like hospitals and fire stations, as well as planting mangroves and other nature-focused solutions.
“This is essential for our future,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “What this is doing is really creating readiness for this eventuality which we know is coming.”
“It will be some combination of physical, structural barriers and natural solutions,” she said. “I think it will be a very innovative and modern approach. I’m excited to see it evolve.”
This decision kicks off another four-year $7 million study that will end with a specific plan to keep the coast safe from Miami-Dade County. A draft plan, open for comment, could come in about two years. Actually work would take longer. At the fastest, none of the ideas in the plan could be fully designed or built for more than a decade.
“This renewed commitment underscores our dedication to enhancing storm surge risk reduction and resilience in Miami-Dade County,” Col. Brian Hallberg USACE Norfolk District Commander said in a statement. “We believe that by working hand in hand with the community, we can develop actionable projects that not only safeguard lives and property but also contribute to the preservation of Miami-Dade County’s precious ecosystems.”
Walls and surge barriers
The most significant shift between the first version of this study, also called the Back Bay study, and the latest version is a focus on nature-based solutions (like coral reefs and mangrove plantings) and elevating and protecting individual buildings, and a shift away from larger structural protections like walls.
“They haven’t had a chorus of acceptance for structures,” said James Murley, the county’s chief resilience officer.
In a Friday meeting, the Army Corps told the county there wasn’t enough time or money to pursue another idea floated this year, moving that wall of defense from Miami-Dade’s coast to the outer ring of its barrier islands, through a series of flood gates in the gaps between islands and an elevated dune system along Miami Beach, all connected with elevated roads.
However, Murley said that just because those ideas are off the table, for now, doesn’t mean they can’t get worked back in later down the line with additional grants or studies.
He also acknowledged that the shift away from walls to elevating homes and businesses is the county accepting a lower level of protection than the Corps originally offered.
“Probably 50 years from now maybe the people living here might say ‘Oh we should probably have that,” Murley said
But in the meantime, today’s residents of Miami-Dade have made their voices heard — no tall walls along the coast, more plants instead. Instead, Murley thinks a more incremental approach is the answer, solutions that can be gradually stacked over time to get stronger and stronger as the threat grows.
And it’s not just Miami. Floridians across the state, when faced with the opportunity for billions of dollars of federal funding to armor coastlines, usually with walls, keep saying no.
In Collier County, which recently saw the wrath of Hurricane Ian, hundreds of residents turned out to public meetings to protest against the Army Corps’ initial vision of tidal gates and other structures. They wanted nature-based solutions instead, like mangroves and artificial coral reefs.
“We had people say ‘I’d much rather flood than look at that gate every day’,” said Rachel Rhode, manager of the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate resilient coasts and watersheds initiative. She’s been watching all of Florida’s Army Corps coastal studies and said the pattern is the same everywhere, including a new coastal study in St. Augustine that just kicked off.
But the math the Corps has relied on for years to determine the “best” solution heavily weighs things like property value protected and doesn’t include the habitat or water quality benefits of using mangroves instead of a sea wall, or even mangroves along with a sea wall.
“The Corps has a really hard time quantifying the benefit of nature-based features. That’s why it’s so hard for them to integrate,” Rhode said. “They can easily quantify — and they have for decades — a wall or a gate. It’s very static. But it’s a much more difficult time quantifying the benefits of nature-based features.”
That’s changing in Miami, as local scientists rush to study the protective power of coral reefs and mangroves versus steel and concrete, and the Corps has opened up its process to start considering more “comprehensive benefits.”
Rhode said that’s what makes Miami-Dade’s study so important.
“Everybody knows Miami. It’s the place that is on the front line,” she said. “I think Miami is going to set the precedent not just for other cities but for the Corps and how they approach these studies.”
Learn More: Miami-Dade County and the Army Corps are hosting a public meeting to explain the decision and path forward on Wednesday, August 23 at 5:30 p.m. The link to register for the meeting is: https://rb.gy/1dgrt
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.