Flood Gates, Flood Walls and Home Buyouts: Coming Soon To Miami?

Sep 23, 2019

Two years ago when Jennifer Cheek and her husband bought their tidy stucco house near the Little River with a rambling backyard - grand even by Miami standards - they thought they’d left behind the threat of devastating sea rise they faced in their Miami Beach neighborhood.

Neighbors and flood maps vouched for the relative dry ground.

“Obviously being in Miami everywhere’s a little bit prone,” Cheek said. “But we did spend some time looking at the maps and talking with neighbors and real estate agents and everyone we could to make sure we found somewhere that at least didn’t have a history of flooding.”

So earlier this month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a meeting for residents to take an early look at plans for flood control around Biscayne Bay, Cheek was surprised to see a flood wall proposed two blocks from her house that could potentially gobble up properties.

“I said, 'Oh, that’s my neighborhood,'” she said. “I asked if they specifically knew how much space would be required.”

They did not. Corps officials said that would be worked out in the months ahead as plans are finalized. Measures may also include flood gates across the Miami River, Little River and Biscayne Canal and natural barriers like increased mangroves along shorelines.

The study is one of dozens up and down the Atlantic Coast being developed by the Corps with a growing sense of urgency following a devastating stretch of hurricanes with massive losses: Sandy in 2012 caused an estimated $50 billion in damage in the U.S.; Harvey, Irma and Maria caused well upwards of $230 billion in 2017; and Florence left behind at least $24 billion in destruction.  The studies consider a range of options that could include erecting berms and levees, flood gates, flood walls, storm surge barriers and more living shorelines.

Miami falls under a $16 million South Atlantic study that covers 18,000 miles of coast. Corps officials say they will come up with a tentative plan in January and release a draft report for public comment in March. An agency decision is slated for June, with a report signed and sent to Congress for authorization in September 2021.

Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In addition to constructing barriers, the Corps may also recommend elevating homes and structures that flood repeatedly, or buying out owners. That last option is drawing close scrutiny from environmental justice advocates at the University of Miami's environmental justice clinic.

It's also part of a growing debate on how coastal communties deal with sea rise and what part retreat should play.  In an August study published in Science Magazine, researchers argued that retreat should no longer be an option of last resort, but part of managed plans.

"These are not radical alterations to adaptation practice," wrote lead author A.R. Siders, a University of Delaware public policy researcher.

The authors point out retreat is already happening in response to natural disasters. As part of its recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma, Florida has set aside $75 million to buy out flood-prone property, including $10 million for the Keys.

After this month’s meeting, WLRN interviewed Joseph Vietri, the director of the Corps’ National Planning Center for Coastal and Storm Risk Management and Norfolk District Planning Chief Susan Conner, who’s managing the study. 

What follows is an edited version of that interview.

Vietri: “This is really a very, very complex area to one, understand, number two, to come up with reasonable solutions that are cost effective and that are implementable. You have a lot of environmental concerns and environmental issues here that are very important, that have to be taken into consideration….Most of South Florida - pretty much south of Palm Beach - is experiencing many of the same things that are going on here in Miami-Dade. What makes this area a little bit unique is the level of development. We're loving the place to death, let's be honest, and it's a competition for a very scarce resource, that resource being the water….When you put all of that together, you’ve got all the makings of this larger societal issue that we're currently dealing with.”

WLRN: In the range of easy to hard fixes, what would you consider easy or hard?

Vietri: “Basic flood-proofing, raising a road, putting some protection around a commercial property. It actually is really easy....You can raise road by a foot and you could really increase your overall storm damage protection immensely. One foot, you know, makes a big difference….. Another easy one to me is replanting our mangroves, getting them back into where they were historically. They are very good sources of protection against surge. In the not-so-easy box is a surge barrier on the Miami River. That's sort of a big deal. You have a structure that's going to be aesthetically not so pleasing and it's going to have environmental impacts, potentially, that are going to have to be mitigated.”

WLRN: How does Miami compare to other cities in terms of how much protection is needed?

Vietri: “You're what we would call a very sophisticated partner. You have a resiliency officer, you received benefits from the Rockefeller Foundation….You have a tremendous economic base, and your elected officials understand this. They know that their job is to help protect that economic base, right?... You have not only the financial resources, but you also have the technical resources, you have some great engineers and scientists. A lot of other places don't necessarily have that luxury.”

WLRN: Some people worry that we might have an expiration date.

Vietri: “We all have that expiration date. Our job, while we're here, personally and professionally, is to try and leave it a little better than we found it.”

WLRN: But in this study, will there be areas you find can’t be saved?

Vietri: “We have some understanding of what we think sea level change will be over time….At some point, we may have to pick up and move. But you need to have these conversations now. I do feel because of the economics of these big cities - New York, Miami, New Orleans, Boston, Norfolk - we have a lot more economic value and, if we're able, to pay for more opportunity for resiliency. There's some coastal communities that I work in that don't have the financial wherewithal and they really have to start thinking about sort of a managed retreat over time.”

WLRN: So are we too big to fail?

Vietri: “I hate to say too big to fail, because I don't believe that to be true. But I think we're in a pretty good position, because we have the financial wherewithal. What I am concerned about, though, is the overall appetite across the country and our ability to fund all of these projects…..A lot of people say, ‘Well, you should be like the Netherlands. So you know, the Dutch experience.’ That's great. They're the size of a small state, right? We're a very large country with a lot of coastline. There are projects right now going on in Texas, California and Southern California. Much of the South Atlantic coast coastline is now being looked at and evaluated... If I add up the cost of all of those things, it would be, you know, probably off the charts in our ability to pay. This is where you have to sort of triage. You look at what you can do with the money that you have, pick your high risk patients and get them the protection they need.”

WLRN to Susan Conner: What’s the point of the study?

Conner: “This is [being done under] a coastal storm risk management authority. What that means is primarily we're dealing with the storm surge. So we're dealing with the high water levels that come in during a storm.”

WLRN: There’s been a lot of talk about purchasing properties. What does that mean?

Conner: “That's something we work on really closely with our non-federal sponsor - in this case Miami-Dade County. We work really closely with them to see if acquisition of properties may be something that we would consider. Those are generally properties [with] recurrent flooding. So flooding over and over again. We do consider if we can get clusters of properties. It makes the most sense if you can have a lot of structures in one area where they're all acquired, and you can turn that into green natural space - so nature can do its thing - and that were historically flooded. It's a difficult topic. It's something that holistically, we have to work together with the communities and the federal government. But it's something to consider on those properties where nothing else might be able to solve the issue.”

WLRN: And not unprecedented?

Conner: No. There are many areas in the nation talking about acquisition or retreat.

WLRN: Have you identified any in Miami-Dade?

Conner: “We haven't gotten to that level of detail yet. What we have identified are about seven areas in the county, which could be elevated or acquired or flood-proofed. How we identify those is it's just the most vulnerable areas, those areas that are getting the damage the most, and that have social vulnerabilities already, which makes it more difficult for those populations to leave the area and to deal with flooding when it does occur….We will run economic models which tell us what makes the most sense.”

WLRN: And how will you decide what property owners to buy out?

Conner: “The things that we look at are both the benefits, so what damages are prevented, as well as the cost of the structures. We don't know if it's worth it to pay for those benefits until we know how much the structure costs.”

To submit a comment about the plan, email Carissa.R.Agnese@usace.army.mil.