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The $2.8 Billion Plan To Protect Keys From Flooding Now Includes Raising Homes, Floodproofing — But No Buyouts

A home in Key West is jacked up to be elevated.
Gary Thomas
The Army Corps plan calls for more than 2,000 homes in Key West to be elevated — but some aren't waiting for the Corps plan to be completed before going higher.

Adapting to climate change in the Florida Keys is going to carry big costs. Monroe County has already estimated the bill for raising county roads at $1.8 billion.

But help may be on the way from the federal government for other aspects of that adaptation: elevating homes and floodproofing businesses and infrastructure like hospitals, utilities and fire stations.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' latest recommended plan is meant to help the Keys cope with the increased flooding caused by climate change.

That plan, now estimated at almost $3 billion, includes shoring up six segments of the Overseas Highway and elevating nearly 4,700 homes. That is fewer than in an earlier draft — and the latest recommendation includes no buyouts.

Monroe County, which is the local partner with the Corps, had objected to using eminent domain to buy property from unwilling sellers. The Corps requires eminent domain be used in its buyout programs, unless a project has a special exemption from Congress.

But local sustainability planners say the buyouts were eliminated for a different reason — because Keys homes are so expensive that a cost-benefit analysis showed it would be cheaper to elevate them than buy them out.

About 43% of the homes targeted for elevation in the study are in Key West — more than in unincorporated and mostly lower-lying areas of the county. But Key West was developed earlier than much of the rest of the Keys. Homes built after 1974 were required to meet FEMA flood standards and are already elevated.

a graphic shows the number of structures the Corps says should be elevated or floodproofed in the Keys.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/screencap
Almost 43% of the homes targeted for elevation are in Key West.

The total cost of the plan for Key West, including home elevation and floodproofing businesses and infrastructure, is $1.2 billion. That figure gave Key West City Commissioner Sam Kaufman sticker shock during a Corps presentation about the study Tuesday.

"I'm kind of blown away by the numbers," he said. "We're talking about 10-figure numbers and I tried to put the number in my calculator in my phone. And it's too big."

Under the plan, the federal government would pay 65% of the costs. Participation would be voluntary on the part of the property owner.

Monroe County is the local sponsor. The county's sustainability director, Rhonda Haag, said the remaining 35% could come from the state, the property owners or a combination of places — as long as it's not another branch of the federal government.

a graphic shows the estimated costs of elevating homes and floodproofing businesses and infrastructure in the keys
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/screencap
The estimated costs for elevating homes and floodproofing businesses and infrastructure in the Keys is about $2.8 billion.

"We're going to work hard over the next couple of years to try to determine where those local sources could come from, because this is really important work that we need to do," Haag said. "If you have any of those 4,698 homes that are ground level and need to be elevated or you're a business that needs to be floodproofed, I'm hoping you really pay attention to this because this is going to be a really good opportunity for you to get at least 65% of those costs funded by the federal government to help make your business or home more resilient."

If all goes smoothly and Congress approves the Keys project, the earliest construction could start is 2025.

Other projects to help Keys homeowners adapt — or sell out — are also underway.

The city of Key West and Monroe County are working with a local group called Fair Insurance Rates In Monroe to help Keys homeowners learn more about the costs and other aspects of elevating homes.

And the county is planning to apply for FEMA grants that help property owners who have filed flood claims in the past with money for elevation, demolition or buyouts.

A Key West home is elevated
Gary Thomas
Most homes in Key West's historic district are already above ground level but some are being elevated further to better protect from flooding.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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