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4 APR 2018

Fighting back the floodwaters in Miami

When he was running for Mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine told the electorate that they had a choice.

They could either live in Atlanta or in Miami Beach. The situation was clear – the region was flooding even on sunny days. It was just a question of time as to when a catastrophic flood would hit the region.

Levine was elected and set out to build a more resilient city for his constituents. They installed one-way flex valves to keep water from coming up drains. They installed pumps and raised the roads. They built higher sea walls. Despite the expense, people understood that to do nothing was not an option.

“We coined a term called sunny day flooding,” Levine told delegates at the Miami Summit. “It was unnerving. People started to think – what’s the future of Miami Beach if it’s going to be underwater?”

It’s not just Miami Beach that has to fight back the rising sea levels – the entire state of Florida is facing this existential threat. The investments Levine’s team made were expensive but according to him, they were a small price to pay to make sure the city has longevity. However, not all levels of government consider resilience a pressing issue.

"We have a president who owns a beautiful property in Palm Beach. The beach is getting thinner and thinner. I think that’s something Washington will have to look at going forward," said Levine.

Consider the data

Keren Bolter is a risk modeller with Arcadis who analyzes the data to predict the consequences of sea level rise and prioritize the areas that are most vulnerable to flooding. She recommends changes to the way new neighbourhoods are developed: "We have high levels, but we have low levels too. One solution is to densify and develop high areas and shift out of flood plains."

Waterfront property is currently in high demand but as the water level rises, those populations will have to shift to higher levels causing stress as neighbourhoods that were once in low-demand shift to high-demand and put vulnerable populations at risk. Low income populations that rent will be displaced as people are pushed out of low-lying regions. “We’re looking at one or two feet of rise in our lifetimes,” she said.

Building up strength

Joining Bolter and Levine on the panel was Shahid Hamid, a professor at the International Hurricane Research Center at FIU. He stressed the importance of waterproofing to limit storm and water damage in risky areas. According to Hamid, building more resilient housing stock doesn’t have to be an expensive task but it does require a change in culture. For example, a good first step is abandoning the standard wooden roof for a cheap concrete one that would stand up better to hurricanes.

"The lesson we’ve learned is that the part of the house that is the most vulnerable is the roof and the roof to wall connections. That is the greatest source of vulnerability when it comes to single family homes. Concrete roofs can be designed to have waves on it to reduce the impact from the wind," said Hamid.

Changing the type of nails used in the construction of homes is another inexpensive change that makes a great impact on a home’s ability to withstand high winds. Shutters may be more expensive but are recognized by insurance companies through discounts that allow for a substantial reduction in vulnerability at a low cost to the home owner.

Despite the unique challenges faced in Miami, the answer is strikingly similar to the conclusion the resilience panel reached in San Francisco. No matter the cost and effort put into making one home or building resilient, it takes collaboration to build a resilient neighbourhood, city or state. Join us in New York and Toronto as we consider how these cities are tackling the challenge of building resilience.

Join the discussion on Facebook, Twitter at #RICSsota and join us on LinkedIn to keep up as the conversation evolves.