The New Miami Beach Leader Facing Rising Seas
On Wednesday, South Florida will go through another King Tide. Not sure what to expect, except maybe closed roads and cars on flooded streets.
Miami Beach is trying to get ahead of the problem, which is a consequence of rising seas. The city is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on pump stations, higher roads and seawalls.
But Mother Nature will not be stopped, and we can pretty much say goodbye to our city. That's what a report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says. It says no matter what we do to reduce carbon emissions, Miami and New Orleans are eventually doomed. This may happen within the century.
But Susanne Torriente isn't thinking that far ahead. She's dealing with the issue in the present as the new Miami Beach chief resiliency officer.
Miami Beach is going through another King Tide. Thinking about the last King Tide when some of the streets were deep underwater, what are you feeling?
I think the times are changing. And I grew up here in Miami. I remember coming to Miami Beach and not seeing what I see now. But I also know that there's a lot of good planning efforts and a lot of good engineering solutions going into finding solutions and reducing our risk. It's not about fixing the flooding problem. It's about reducing the risk and living maybe in a new normal. And you know, what's Miami Beach going to look like and what our streets are going to look like. And I think that's what's important here, that we're looking at, you know, a changing time, but us adapting to a changing time.
Sea-level rise is a global issue. What other cities are dealing with this issue in a way that might help show us best practices?
Interestingly enough this subject matter for me has given me the opportunity to travel to a lot of different places. I was just recently invited to a resiliency meeting in Canada, Germany and South Africa. What I have found is that the city-to-city exchange has been very beneficial. I was just in Durban, South Africa. They are implementing a climate compact very similar to ours and really based on the Southeast Florida climate compact. That's a collaborative agreement amongst the four counties to work together. That model of collaboration is now being used over there. It's not only just the engineering solutions, but also the partnerships. This is not something that an issue that stops in one border or another. We have to work at it together.
There has to be a frustration when you have a governor who doesn't even want to use the words climate change. How much does the city of Miami Beach need the state, need the federal government to help out?
Climate change, I like to say, is a local government issue, and it's the local governments that have really been facing this over the last few years. So in the absence of state’s help and absence of federal help the cities have really stepped up. Do we need their help? Could it be beneficial? Absolutely. Could we use additional funding sources? Absolutely. But in the absence of that we're moving forward.
Do you ever invite any of those folks, whether it's the governor or anybody from Congress, to come down and see what's happening?
A few weeks ago, our city staff went and visited with the folks in Tallahassee. Because there are roads in Miami Beach that are not all city roads. Some of them are county roads and some of them are state roads. So we do need those partners as we're investing in our roadway system. How are they going to invest in the roads that travel through our city? So it's a matter of having those conversations, having those partnerships and trying to prioritize the funding plans.
You call these floods the new normal. What are you asking of residents?
[It's about changing] behavior a little bit. You know that the tides come in every 12 hours. How do you maybe adjust your behavior so you're not driving through that when you're going to work? How do you make sure that if you do drive through that, how do you clean your car so it doesn't get corroded? The tides are going to rise and they're going to fall again. And it's happening more often, but I think with education and with awareness we can also start to adjust our behavior a little bit. And that's part of the message.
How much of this is on the residents to adapt and how much is on the government to do something?
I think folks will always expect government to be there to solve these issues. But what's important here is that we are reducing our risk. We are making it better. But it's also a function of time. It's about making sure that we're protecting our assets. It's about making sure that we're reducing the risk. But it's also about folks having an understanding and making some behavior changes in the long run.
As the chief resiliency officer, what role do you play within the different city departments?
It's a brand new position. And it's a brand new position in a lot of different cities all over the world. And it's really about bringing people together. It's about coordinating efforts and it's about collaborating. So I really see myself as that person working with the public works director, working with the planning director, working with all these different folks and figuring out how to change the way we deliver local government services. What ordinances do we need to amend? What zoning changes, what building code changes do we need to put into place? It's looking at the future.
How do you convince taxpayers, developers and city leaders to invest now on battling an issue that will take another century or so to really play out the way some researchers say it will?
I've been involved in this climate and sustainability agenda since about 2009. And in the very beginning there were a handful of people just talking to themselves about it. You didn't have engineers in the room. City managers and elected officials didn't necessarily want to talk about it. What I've noticed now, in today's day and age, it's amazing how many more people are talking about the issue and are willing to fund it. Miami Beach is a perfect example. The electorate here is willing to fund it.
Why did you want this job?
It was nice to be able to come home, to come to back to Miami-Dade County. And again someone told me just a few weeks ago that I'm the most action-oriented person in local government that they've met. And I think that I can be part of the solutions. Again in the short increments over time. It may be a hundred-year problem. But we can deal with it in one year, five years and 20 years.