Hundreds of Thousands in South Florida Threatened as Sea Level Rises

Hundreds of Thousands in South Florida Threatened as Sea Level Rises
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Sitting in the middle of Biscayne Bay, sea level rise threatens the small community of Palm Island.

“For us, it’s a pain,” said Juan Jose “Cheche” Vidal, who has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years.

He said the last five years had major growing pains.

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“It’s been very tedious, very hard to deal with. But it’s fantastic what they’ve (the city) put together,” Vidal said.

The city of Miami Beach spent $40.9 million elevating the island’s roads and putting in drains and pumps to prevent flooding in the lower areas.

City photos show and neighbors told NBC 6 Investigators the project is working but we found it was difficult to get there.

A report from the Miami Beach Office of the Inspector General found the project, at times, didn’t have the proper permits, went over budget, and took longer than originally planned.

The city’s official response called portions of the report an attempt to “sensationalize” but noted there were “lessons learned.”

Some neighbors told NBC 6 elevating the roads now causes some yards to flood when they didn’t before. The city is working to fix the issue.

Melissa Berthier, a spokesperson for the city, wrote in a statement the project “will be completed within 7% of the anticipated construction cost in the next few months.” She went on to say, “The project functions as intended, and we have already avoided double digit flooding days as a result of the work performed. The schedule could have been better as a result of working through the details of a first mover project of this kind and challenges regarding changes of ownership and leadership of the contracted design/build firm.”

Berthier also said the city “has worked closely” with regulators to “make sure their concerns have been addressed.”

“It was a pain at times but it was a good pain because we’re getting the island where we need it to get to,” Vidal said.

In the bigger picture, the work done on Palm Island will be coming to other communities in South Florida.

NBC 6 Investigators reviewed data from the U.S. Census and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and found 416,536 people in 196,981 homes in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties are in jeopardy when the sea level rises two feet.

The NOAA sea level rise viewer shows some vulnerable areas including: Palm Island, the bay side of Miami Beach, Hollywood Beach, and the Florida Keys, which are also some of the most vulnerable areas in the country.

The viewer does not always factor in current or new sea level rise mitigation projects.

“The question becomes how much can they tolerate,” Jayantha Obeysekera said.

Obeysekera is the Director of Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center. He estimates South Florida could see two feet of sea level rise in the next 25 to 50 years.

“It’s coming sooner than you think,” Obeysekera said.

Human activity causes two drivers of sea level rise. First, the oceans expand as the water warms. Second, melting ice sheets add more water volume.

According to Obeysekera, sea level will rise at different rates and in different levels across the globe. He said the impact of melting ice in Antarctica will cause a sooner “regional” sea level rise in South Florida.

The Biscayne Bay area, he said, will likely see impacts sooner than other parts of the world.

Obeysekera described what could happen in South Florida as a “triple whammy” –  the sea will rise, a higher water table and stronger rains will cause more flooding.

“The geology is such that it’s very porous. It’s like Swiss cheese. Water will come underground,” Obeysekera said.

Back on Palm Island, neighbors told NBC 6 other communities should prepare for what they just went through.

“We are coastal. We need to deal with this and this is actually proof that you can do your best to prepare for what’s coming,” Vidal said.