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Flood-prone South Florida considers proactive investment against rising seas

March 19, 2014 at 6:26 PM EDT
In recent years, increased flooding has been a stark wake up call for people living in South Florida. Projections calculated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicate sea levels will rise 9 to 24 inches by 2060 in that vulnerable region. Special correspondent Kwame Holman narrates this look by WPBT at how local governments are trying to prepare for the effects of climate change.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s often difficult to see how climate change is altering the environment in our daily lives. To counter that and draw attention to the issue, the White House today launched a new website to visualize scientific data on droughts, wildfires and the rise in sea levels.

As you will see in this report, the residents of South Florida are already noticing how higher water is changing their local landscape.

Special correspondent Kwame Holman narrates our story. It was done in collaboration with the South Florida public media station WPBT, and it begins with longtime fishing boat Captain Dan Kipness.

DAN KIPNESS, Fishing Boat Captain: I have lived in Florida my whole life. I’m actually a native. And, more importantly, I have been on Miami Beach for like 55 years, and I’m a captain.

Captains are used to looking at the ocean. If you look at it long enough — and I have had enough time to look at it — you can see small changes turn into big changes over a period of time. You’re going to see water coming out of Biscayne Bay, up the storm sewers, and onto the streets until it’s about a foot deep.

And that’s not freshwater. That’s saltwater. There’s no rain. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Everyone can see that. Some people go, oh, we broke a sewer main or a water main broke. That’s not what it is. That’s sea level rise.

KWAME HOLMAN: Miami Beach is a barrier island that is mostly only a few feet above water level. High tides are higher than they were in the past, and the risk of torrential rainstorms has worsened with climate change.

In recent years, increased flooding from high tide and weather events has been a stark wakeup call for people living on South Beach.

WOMAN: I remember people taking pictures and laughing when we saw people canoeing down West Avenue, but then a lot of people started asking questions. It’s scary in a lot of ways that what could actually happen here.

KWAME HOLMAN: Dr. Hal Wanless, professor and chair of the Department of Geologic Sciences at the University of Miami, has been studying sea level rise for decades.

DR. HAL WANLESS, University of Miami: The two big things that have been and will affect sea level are the expanding ocean as it warms. The second big factor affecting sea level rise now is ice melt. And the ice melt’s a totally different game. Ice can melt at rapidly accelerating rates.

I videoed this time-lapse footage in Greenland in August of 2013. As these icebergs melt, they add to sea level rise.

KWAME HOLMAN: South Florida political leaders have adopted a unified sea level rise projection, calculated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. the projections indicate sea levels will rise three to seven inches by 2030 and nine to 24 inches by 2060.

Pete Harlem knows these projections all too well. He is the geographic coordinator at Florida International University, and pioneered the precise mapping of sea level rise for South Florida.

PETE HARLEM, Florida International University: Two feet of sea level rise is projected from roughly from 2040 to 2060 some time. And so, when we get to that point, we’re going to see this as the Miami Beach of that near future.

So, now taking that water level to four feet, it’s just not going to be a place you want to live in a house.

KWAME HOLMAN: And it’s not just people living on barrier islands who need to be concerned about sea level rise. Most of South Florida is susceptible to flooding, as infrastructure becomes overwhelmed by rising seas or heavy rainfall.

Dr. Jayantha Obeysekera is the chief modeler and an expert in South Florida’s complicated hydrologic system.

DR. JAYANTHA OBEYSEKERA, South Florida Water Management District: We have regional flood control system that was designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jointly with the state about 50 years ago.

And at that time, sea level rise wasn’t a major factor, that they didn’t worry about. But now some of the infrastructure we have on the coastal belt are basically not working as they were designed.

KWAME HOLMAN: When there is heavy rainfall, the canals receive and move the excess water. That water is released into the bays and estuaries and eventually into the ocean.

The system was designed for the water to flow by gravity, with the water flowing from the higher canal levels to the lower ocean levels. As the sea rises, however, gravity will no longer do the job and so there could be more flooding on the land as the water has nowhere to go.

Richard Grosso is the director of the Environmental and Land Use Law Clinic and a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University.

RICHARD GROSSO, Environmental and Land Use Law Clinic: It’s been the local utility directors, people who run water treatment plants, people who run sewage treatment plants, people who maintain roads, who have been required to institute very expensive retrofits.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Miami Beach Public Works Department is working on improvements now.

ERIC CARPENTER, Miami Beach Public Works Department: We have done our storm water management master plan that was adopted in 2012, and that had identified approximately $200 million worth of improvements that we needed to do over the next 20 years in order to keep pace with sea level rise and addressing flooding concerns within the city of Miami Beach.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some of that infrastructure includes pumps.

RICK SALTNICK, Senior Capital Projects Coordinator: Everything collects on the inlets on the streets and then runs through those white pipes down there. They’re PVC pipes. They then all drain via gravity to the storm water pump station, and then pumped out of the storm water pump station and injected into the ground 80 to 100 feet down.

We’re sizing these pumps to provide the proper level of service 20 years from now and at the sea level 20 years from now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Miami Beach is not alone in addressing sea level rise. South Florida has become a model for regional cooperation on this issue.

Projections by a four-county climate change compact were turned into an action plan with more than 100 recommendations. Those now are being reviewed. Some have been adopted by county governments.

Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs has been at the forefront of South Florida climate change discussions and has earned national recognition for her work.

KRISTIN JACOBS: I see one of the biggest hurdles for us in going forward is term limits, when you consider the leaders that are necessary, the cheerleaders that are necessary to continue pulling this very heavy train forward.

And without that leadership, the one that casts the vote, the one that decides the budget, the one that directs their staff resources to any given priority, if you don’t have that, at any point in time, all of this could all fall apart.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the plans come at a high price, something always politically difficult. As a member of the compact, former County Commissioner Katy Sorenson has been an advocate for planning for the coming changes.

KATY SORENSON, Good Government Initiative: No one wants to pay increased taxes or fees, but if people want to live here, we have to make these investments to do the infrastructure planning, the pump systems, all the stuff that needs to be done so that we can stay habitable.

RICHARD GROSSO: One of the biggest challenges we have in South Florida and across the country is this disconnect between the best long-term investment and economic strategies for a community vs. a political process that is short-term in terms of its rewards.

For most local elected officials, they’re not going to be around to reap the rewards of those smart, thoughtful decisions that they made 10, 20 years ago. And so that system still puts pressure on the folks who do have the power, who do have the votes to continue to make short-term gain kinds of decisions. That is our biggest challenge presented by sea level rise right now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Recently, commissioners for the city of Miami Beach voted on measures that are expected to double to $400 million, the cost of keeping water out of its city streets.

GWEN IFILL: You can read more about the White House’s new climate data initiative, and find a link to a full documentary on rising sea levels. That’s from South Florida’s WPBT, and it’s on our Web site.