Against The Tide

In Fort Lauderdale, sea level rise isn’t just a political issue. Local government leaders and homeowners are among those figuring out how to combat and accommodate a new reality.

By: 

Mary Hladky

Published date: 

Apr. 17, 2015

tamara.JPGFor Tamara Tennant, enough was enough.
Each fall and spring when tides were especially high, streets in her Las Olas Isles neighborhood flooded and residents were trapped at home until the seawater receded. Landscaping was ruined. Seawater corroded their cars.
“Everybody was fed up with this,” she says. “This neighborhood had flooded for years.”
So five years ago, Tennant, then president of the Riviera Isles Homeowners Association, asked city leaders to include her neighborhood in a pilot project that might provide relief.
The association would front the money to install 17 valves that homeowners hoped would keep back the seawater. If the valves worked, the city would reimburse the association.
A deal was struck. The valves – meant to block seawater from coming up through storm drains during high tides – largely did the job, although water still can percolate up through the ground or wash over seawalls. City commissioners reimbursed the association $144,399 in 2012. Other flood-prone neighborhoods have been getting the valves ever since.
 “For our neighborhood, it is making a dramatic difference,” Tennant says. “It works.”
The Las Olas finger islands are among parts of the city grappling with climate change that has caused sea levels to rise about nine inches in the last century. Federal estimates that South Florida governments have accepted predict continued increases of three to seven inches by 2030 and nine inches to two feet by 2060.
Whether man is responsible for climate change is almost beside the point. Sea level rise is happening, and residents of low-lying areas near the ocean or along waterways are seeing it with their own eyes. And while South Florida is particularly at risk, the impact is being felt along the rest of the nation’s coastlines.
The stakes are huge. The U.S. National Climate Assessment released in May concluded more than $1 trillion of property and buildings are at risk of inundation nationally if sea levels rise two feet, with about half of that vulnerable property in Florida.
The cost of responding to a four-foot sea level rise and flooding events alone could be as high as $325 billion by 2100, with the cost to Florida at $130 billion, the assessment said.
The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a collaboration of the four South Florida counties and many cities, calculated that the area could lose as much as $4 billion in taxable real estate with a one-foot rise in sea level.
“With the next two feet of sea level rise, we probably will lose our freshwater sources to saltwater intrusion. In certain areas it will become overwhelmingly difficult to maintain an infrastructure,” says Harold Wanless, chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami. While at some point much of South Florida will be underwater, “we are going to try to live here as long as we can.”
With Congress and state government providing little in the way of help or guidance, South Florida leaders grabbed the reins. They created the climate change compact, with Fort Lauderdale an active member, to coordinate a gameplan for the region in 2009 and 2010. Now they are moving beyond planning to doing.
“All you have to do is look at our location as the easternmost city with low-lying areas and hundreds of miles of navigable waterways,” says Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler. “You realize any rise in the sea level will adversely impact us. Any inability to move water and drain water will impact us. We need to be prepared if sea levels rise by one inch or one foot. Every inch impacts us.”
standing water.JPGFort Lauderdale’s goal is to be the most resilient community in the U.S. by 2035. Getting there will be a huge task.
Beyond Las Olas Isles, areas already seeing rising waters include Rio Vista, Victoria Park, Poinsettia Heights, Sunrise Key and parts of downtown including Riverwalk.
With a two-foot sea level rise, flooding will be more widespread and persistent. Flooding is likely in Port Everglades, the Las Olas Isles, north and south of Sunrise Boulevard east of the Intracoastal Waterway and in parts of Rio Vista, along the New River and the south fork of the Middle River, according to projections mapped out by the Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department.
“It is challenging, but it is our new reality,” says Assistant City Manager Susanne Torriente. “Our eyes are open and we are preparing.”
Residents clearly want the city to take action. Annual “neighbor surveys” show only about 35 percent of respondents are satisfied with the city’s response to flooding.
A kick-start came in 2011 when Torriente was brought on board and took charge of the city’s resiliency and sustainability efforts.  She came from Miami-Dade County, where she had served as assistant county manager and director of the Office of Sustainability.
“She is very highly thought of for her talent and the work she is doing there,” says Richard Grosso, director of the Environmental and Land Use Law Clinic at Nova Southeastern University.
A dramatic wake-up call came the next year when Superstorm Sandy destroyed a four-block section of A1A, badly eroded beaches and swamped residents living in low-lying areas. The city is still digging itself out from under, with A1A undergoing an $11.8-million reconstruction and a major beach restoration project yet to begin.
To achieve the resiliency goal, city officials now are factoring climate change and sea level rise into all their planning.
The city has hired a consultant to conduct a water rate study to analyze whether the current rates charged homeowners are enough to cover the costs of planned stormwater improvements, whether rate increases are needed or whether projects should be financed some other way.
Just how much will it cost to make the city resilient and sustainable? City officials say they don’t know and are taking one step at a time.
“The work we are doing is within the funding sources we have,” which includes city revenues and state grants, Torriente says.
Seiler, a self-described “budget hawk,” prides himself that taxes have not increased since he became mayor in 2009. But he says that residents and businesses must be protected from rising seas.
“We do recognize we are going to have to allocate resources to address these issues,” he says.  “We are going to prioritize first.”
beach-5.jpgA look at Miami Beach shows how costly adaptation to higher sea levels can be. The city, which has flooded for years, will spend about $300 million by 2020 for about 80 pumps to keep streets dry.
City officials also are talking about elevating the city’s infrastructure, roads and all, by as much as four feet. They have not said how much that would cost.
Sam Poole, former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District who now practices law and lives in Rio Vista, says Fort Lauderdale also should be thinking about elevating roadways and utilities. Residents, he says, need to accept the necessity.
“We as taxpayers need to acknowledge that this is a priority,” he says. “The improvements we are talking about will not be inexpensive. We as taxpayers need… to be willing to pay the cost of making sure our improvements are keeping up with sea level rise.”
Some residents are pleased with the city’s efforts, some not so much.
The fault line seems to be between those who have gotten help and those still waiting.
Commissioner Dean Trantalis, whose district includes many of the affected neighborhoods, said he hears about flooding all the time when he attends civic association meetings.
“They are concerned that many of the properties that line the waterways will be affected and they are looking to their government to work with them to head off what could be a catastrophe,” he says.
Trantalis believes that, in time, the city will do just that. “We are working on it now,” he says. “If we continue at the pace we are now, we will be prepared.”
Tennant, whose Riviera Isles neighborhood has gotten help, is pleased. “They are working very hard on this,” she says.
Now the city should address raising the height of seawalls, she says. When Sandy hit, seawater washed over the walls and flooded the streets. Like some others living in the area, she spent her own money to raise the seawall on her property to 5 ½ feet as is required by the current building code.
Victoria Park resident Bob Oelke says the city responded well after Sandy pushed water onto streets near the Middle River. City Manager Lee Feldman and other officials attended a community meeting after the storm, fielded questions and talked about what the city was doing to address drainage issues.  The meeting led to the recently completed stormwater improvement project.
“Fingers crossed that it does work,” says Oelke, who lives in a part of Victoria Park that was not flooded. “I think everyone was happy with the level of response and the seriousness with which they took our concerns.”
Dr. John Golia, an anesthesiologist who lives on Hendricks Isle, also is satisfied. Valves were installed there about a year ago.
“We are very happy,” he says. “That has improved the flooding situation maybe 80 percent. It is a huge difference…It is nice to see your tax dollars go for something positive.”
Howard Steinholz, president of the Seven Isles Homeowners Association, isn’t critical of the city, but he does counsel patience.
The city has raised a seawall that was on public property, but he and his neighbors are still awaiting valves they hope will halt flooding on Del Mar Place and Aqua Vista Boulevard. One street is scheduled to get the valves this year, but the other has not yet made the list, he says.
Ken Cooper, secretary of the Las Olas Isles Homeowners Association who lives on Royal Plaza Drive, is angry.
Beach road_4.jpegIn his telling, the original plan was to put utilities underground on the Las Olas Isles, at which time the street levels would be raised. Residents are still waiting for Florida Power & Light to come through on undergrounding plans.
“The city is just incompetent,” he says. “They don’t do anything. They just talk about it and talk about it. It never gets done.”
The Fort Lauderdale attorney particularly wants Las Olas Boulevard, a state road, to be raised since valves won’t stop flooding on that artery.
Residents’ dissatisfaction with the city runs deep, he says. “I can tell you everybody is mad.”
While Federal sea level rise estimates are grim, many scientists think they understate the problem.
The National Climate Assessment, for one, projected a rise of one to four feet this century. The University of Miami’s Wanless says that fails to consider ice melt from Greenland or Antarctica or other factors such as loss of sun-reflective snow and ice. He thinks the seas could rise by as much as 6.6 feet this century.
“I think they are too low,” Wanless says of Federal estimates. “There is no way we are going to turn around global warming and climate change… This is going to be a much-diminished place by the end of this century.”
Even if he’s right, no one knows exactly how sea level rise will play out. The seas could rise gradually. Or there could be a precipitating event that causes a sharp spike.
A threat this grave would argue for an even stronger response by South Florida governments and elected officials. And indeed, experts say they should be doing more.
But they also praise officials for what they are accomplishing. At the very least, they say, the governments’ actions are pushing back the day when people will have to pack up and leave.
“Not enough is being done, but a lot is being done,” says Leonard Berry, emeritus professor of geosciences and former director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University.
“We recognize the problem while some places refuse to recognize the problem,” he says. “We have a proactive administration in Fort Lauderdale and the four (South Florida) counties that are willing to make plans to respond to the problem.”
NSU’s Grosso describes the four-county climate compact, which has won national recognition, as a model for the country.
“Coming together to coordinate a response is really critical,” he says. “It is important to see South Florida being prepared for sea level rise rather than leaving each city and county to go it alone.
“I would very much like to see our efforts be bigger and faster. However, these decisions get made by political bodies. So I think a smart strategy in 2015 is to put into place those things you can accomplish… If you bite off manageable portions and get it done, you take the next steps.”
The duty to plan and execute has fallen to local governments because of the failure of state leaders and a dysfunctional Congress to do so, Grosso says.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting reported in March that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration had ordered state Department of Environmental Protection employees, contractors and volunteers not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications. Scott has denied this.
Such a policy, Wanless says, would be “totally criminal.”
The threat of sea level rise has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of developers who are building at a record pace in South Florida as the Great Recession fades from memory and eager buyers are happy to pay top dollar.
In Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, 325 new condo projects are proposed east of I-95, with 35 in Fort Lauderdale, according to the real estate website CraneSpotters.com.
“Right now there is a mad dash to build on every square foot of buildable space along the ocean and the Intracoastal because prices are so extremely high,” says real estate analyst Jack McCabe, CEO of McCabe Research and Consulting in Deerfield Beach. “From the builders’ standpoint, they will have their projects built and sold out before there are repercussions from rising oceans.”
Even if a developer took pains to scout for land away from low-lying areas, it is doubtful that today’s buyers who value ocean views would be interested, says Peter Zalewski, founder of Condo Vultures real estate consultancy.
Developers also have no incentive to build more resilient buildings before building code changes make it mandatory because the added cost would place them at a competitive disadvantage, he says.
“If the buyer wanted it, the developer would develop it,” he says.
For now, it is in the best interest of many to ignore the looming threat, Zalewski says. “The politicians don’t want to talk about it because it will affect (property) values, which is less tax dollars,” he says. “It is the 800-pound gorilla no one wants to discuss because real estate is such a driving force of our economy.”
Amanda Wilson, a realtor with EWM Realty International’s Las Olas Boulevard office, said she and others in her office never have heard a buyer ask about rising oceans.
“I have many condos (listed) on the beach and I have never even heard mention of water levels,” she says.
McCabe and Zalweski think there can be several reasons for that. Many buyers are from other states or countries and may be unaware. Foreign investors looking for a place to park their money might never live in their new condos or may plan to sell in a few years. Buyers in their 50s or 60s may not care because they won’t be around when the problem becomes acute.
Not all property owners are avoiding the issue, though. “I am constantly getting phone calls from people who wonder if they can get 10 years out of (a property) or if they should sell what they have,” Wanless says.
McCabe says developers’ attitudes will change once the ocean is lapping at waterfront developments.
“These high-dollar buildings will go down in value,” he says. ”Inland properties will go up in value.
“There are tremendous ramifications ahead, but we are just not there yet.”
But developers may be getting closer.
“I have heard from several sources that some of the developers are beginning to quietly consult with engineers and others on sea level rise so they can make smarter decisions about where they are building,” Grosso says. “They apparently see the reality of what is happening and are positioning themselves.”
What could change the dynamic in a hurry though, is the next hit from a powerful hurricane.
That could force decisions on further strengthening building codes and limiting where people can build or rebuild. And insurance companies could abandon the market or make premiums unaffordable.
Homeowner insurance premiums already are a burden for many South Floridians. Now flood insurance is on the rise, although not as sharply as it could have been. Last year, Congress passed a law that rolled back dramatic premium increases allowed in earlier legislation intended to make the National Flood Insurance Program solvent. But they can increase by as much as 18 percent a year.
“The insurance companies are looking very carefully at this whole thing,” Wanless says. “There will come a time when they will walk.”


plan a.JPG
Construction on a new bridge to Las Olas Isles.

Fort lauderdale’s  Plan  A
Fort Lauderdale has a 10-year stormwater management plan to upgrade aging infrastructure and improve drainage. Phase 1 calls for completing 35 projects over five years. So far, the city has spent nearly $1.5 million on improvements to the stormwater system at nine locations, with two more under construction, assistant city manager Susanne Torriente says.
“We definitely have an older city and aging infrastructure,” she says. “We identified a series of projects and are chipping away at those.”
The plan also calls for creating:
• Bioswales, or sloped areas adjacent to streets that are built with drains to collect and divert water.
• Recharge drainage wells, which collect water and pipe it directly into the aquifer.
• Pervious pavers that allow water to seep into the ground rather than pool on the surface.
• Seawall repairs and upgrades to protect against storm surge and high tides.
• Pumping stations that lift stormwater runoff from low-lying areas to a discharge location at a higher elevation.
• Stormwater preserves, or open land used as parks that can serve as collectors for stormwater and overflowing waterways.
After the A1A washout, the city changed design criteria for roads to raise them in the center so water can more easily run off.
The state began replacing five bridges leading to the Las Olas Isles in 2013. The bridges were old, corroded by saltwater exposure and unable to handle more than 10 tons of weight.  But the new bridges have the benefit of being higher and better equipped to handle sea level rise.
In 2012, the city adopted the updated Florida Building Code, which includes more stringent requirements for building in flood zones and elevated new construction so it is less likely to flood.
Some recent developments offer a glimpse of the projects in the works.
On March 7, a ribbon-cutting was held for the recently completed Victoria Park Stormwater Improvement Project. The project included valves and catch basins intended to dry up NE seventh Street, NE 20th Avenue and NE sixth Court.
At a city commission meeting in March, commissioners took steps to move forward on three projects.
The city will install 48 more valves in Las Olas Isles and Rio Vista. The project also includes installation of 24 pollution-control baffles, which remove sediments and other pollutants from stormwater. A $700,000 state grant will pay for the project.
Planning is well advanced for the 9.1- acre River Oaks Stormwater Park just east of I-95 and south of Davie Road. When the park is completed, it will also serve as a place for stormwater to be held so that nearby residential areas aren’t flooded.