For years, the city of Miami Beach had approached the concept of sea-level rise much like that of other coastal communities: with a lot of “talk talk talk” but not much action, says Bruce Mowry, city engineer.
How the mile-wide island, with no room to retreat, turned its talk into action is a story of political will, driven by public outcry and cemented by a willingness to pay.
Ongoing flooding—including a king-tide flood, or extremely high tide, that occurred in October 2013—had caused “a lot of screaming and a little bit of crying,” says Eric Carpenter, who came on board as the city’s assistant city manager and public works director in late 2013.
Businesses, which sometimes were having to close during these sunny-day flooding events, also were up in arms. With the election of Philip Levine—whose “Just Get It Done” campaign emphasized fixing the city’s flooding problem—a moment crystalized when seemingly everyone wanted immediate action.
“Political decisions often are driven by pain, and we had a lot of pain at that time,” Carpenter said.
True to his campaign mantra, newly elected Levine sought a quick response.
Critically, Carpenter, the public-works director, says, “They were willing to put their money where their mouth is and give us additional resources and the political support to move this program forward.”
Three water-user rate increases over five years are estimated to bring in $300 million in bond capital, Carpenter says. An agreement with Miami-Dade County involving funding from tax-increment financing should bring in another $75 million.
“We anticipated a roughly $500-million program, so we’re still looking for that last $125 million,” he says. So far, Miami Beach has spent about $100 million and has committed to $160 million in contracts. “We still have a ways to go,” Carpenter says.
While Miami Beach’s engineers and contractors have gained some attention for implementing these adaptation strategies, Mowry says action has to start with political leaders.
“There’s a lot of smart engineers out there, but unless you get the backing of the politicians, residents and the funding, those great ideas don’t ever get implemented,” he says.