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King tide floods offer glimpse of Miami’s soggy, salty future. Can anything be done?

A for sale sign sticks out from a flooded street near a water pump, across from a house.
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
A for sale sign sticks out from a flooded street near a temporary pump at Little River Pocket Park on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023 in Miami, Fla. Monday was the highest king tide of the year for South Florida, flooding streets, driveways and parks.

The roar of a generator overwhelmed the quiet burbling of water at the Little River Pocket Park on Monday.

It hadn’t rained in days, but the park — and several nearby streets — were under nearly two feet of water from this year’s king tides, the annual highest tides of the year.

The sound came from a temporary stormwater drainage pump, one of ten placed by the city of Miami to combat the tidal flooding that swamps roads, sidewalks, yards and parks across South Florida every fall.

The pump had one hose hooked into a city drain, where it sucked up the excess water flooding the neighborhood. The other end dumped into the nearby Little River. But less than ten feet away from that discharge hose, the river had overflowed its banks and was pouring back into the park over a particularly low-lying chunk of sea wall.

As the tide peaked Monday morning, the generator continued to sputter at full force, fruitlessly draining water into a river that returned it to the street within moments.

These king tides are a natural, normal occurrence — the entire coast of North America feels them — but the outsized impact in South Florida is not. They’ve been supercharged by sea level rise in recent decades, which has pushed the tides further inland.

And as unchecked climate change continues, experts say these high tide floods will get worse and more common. NOAA said Miami reached this level of flooding twice last year, but by 2050 it could happen as often as 50 days a year.

Monday’s king tide, one of the highest of the year so far, was about about 2.75 feet above sea level. South Florida is expecting to see that much sea level rise by about 2060.

“Whatever the high tides are right now, even the highest of high tides, as the decades go by that’s going to become the mean sea level — and then that’s going to become the low tide,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Research.

“It’s only going to get worse. The places that flood now, they’re going to flood worse. The places that are close to flooding but aren’t yet, they’ll flood in the future.”

Sea levels have risen about half a foot on average since 1994 at Virginia Key’s tidal gauge, a signal that sea level rise is a threat to South Florida.
Brian McNoldy
University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Research.
Sea levels have risen about half a foot on average since 1994 at Virginia Key’s tidal gauge, a signal that sea level rise is a threat to South Florida.

And sea level rise isn’t only visible in the ocean. Unlike most of the world, Florida doesn’t sit on firm bedrock. Instead, the peninsula’s foundation is karst limestone, which looks sort of like a sponge cast out of concrete. As sea levels rise across the globe, groundwater levels under Florida are also rising, which is why inland areas like Doral or Sweetwater can sometimes see “sunny day” flooding during a king tide, too.

Those higher groundwater levels also mean there’s less room for rain to absorb, so South Florida’s summer thunderstorms can lead to flooded streets — or homes— quicker than they used to.

That’s put local governments on South Florida on alert for flooding. During these king tides, which can be predicted months in advance, cities like Miami assemble a slew of temporary pumps and vacuum trucks to keep neighborhoods dry.

This year, Miami said it deployed ten pumps and seven trucks, and “is closely monitoring the coastal areas during the king tide cycle.”

Miami Beach, which has invested tens of millions in permanent stormwater pumps, bigger drainage pipes and higher roads in recent years, said it deployed seven temporary pumps and kept five more in reserve. Five vacuum trucks patrolled the city to suck up standing water. “

The city’s Stormwater Division is in year-round preparation, which includes cleaning of all 7,800 structures, maintaining 48 stormwater pump stations quarterly, cleaning outfalls and performing maintenance on over 340 gravity wells,” said city spokesperson Melissa Berthier.

Miami-Dade County, which oversees a few unincorporated areas with a risk of flooding, said the flooding wasn’t bad enough this round to send out any pumps, trucks or take any other action.

But these temporary pumps and trucks are just that, band-aids. Most coastal cities in Florida have begun analyzing the risk they face from sea level rise, and some, like Miami and Miami Beach, have already made big investments to keep their communities liveable.

Miami’s most recent citywide plan for how to handle future sea rise flooding found that the city would need to spend about $3.8 billion by 2060 to keep the majority of its residents and roads from soaking in seawater most of the year.

That’s a lot of money. But the price isn’t the only stumbling block to adapting to sea level rise. The city’s flood report also found that no matter how much money the city into some particularly low-lying neighborhoods, like Shorecrest, they can’t be kept dry. The answer, the report suggested, is to abandon those areas.

“There are some areas where you run the model now and you plug in the recommended pump stations and outfalls and wells, you will find minimal to no change with hundreds of millions of infrastructure,” Chris Bennett, the city’s former deputy chief resilience officer, told the Miami Herald at the time. “There are cases where your engineering solutions just won’t provide you any benefit.”

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.

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.

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