Can Miami Beach survive climate change?

Howard Rogers walks through a flooded street in Miami Beach in September 2015.

Story highlights

  • Rising sea level threatens Miami, but city says it's adapting
  • City official: "We're actively planning and we're actively doing"

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and e-mail.

(CNN)Miami Beach is in trouble.

The seas are rising, and people are starting to respond. I recently wrote about one resident of the South Florida city who is so concerned about climate change and rising seas that he's packing up his home in the center of the island and planning to move to higher ground.
Pull up a map of projected sea level rise, and it's easy to see why. At even 2 to 4 feet of sea level rise, the island will be considerably flooded. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says 6 feet of sea level increase is possible by century's end. These are long-term trends -- measured in decades and generations -- but they're certainly frightening.
Others in Miami Beach, however, are vowing to stay and fight. The city is regarded by many as a proactive leader in efforts to hold back the threats of rising tides.
How are they doing it? And what are the limits of engineering fixes to climate change and rising seas? To learn about that, I called up Susanne Torriente, assistant city manager and "chief resiliency officer" for Miami Beach, a 90,000-person island municipality off the coast of Miami proper.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
CNN: Do you think Miami Beach can survive climate change in the long term?
Torriente: I don't know what the long term is, but I know Miami Beach is adapting to climate change. We're starting already. ... We're starting to adapt today. And the approach is really incremental adaptation. What can we do in our one-year budget, in our five-year capital plan -- and maybe in some of our 20-year master plans -- to start to really start to deliver government services in a different way? We have more data nowadays. We have sea level rise projections.
CNN: What are you doing today to try to fight sea-level rise?
What they've done here in Miami Beach is an aggressive stormwater program that includes installing pumps. ... We're installing these pumps that actually take the water and push it out. We're elevating roads. We're working on our seawalls. We have 63 miles of seawalls. Only three (miles) are actually public. But we're looking at elevating those and restoring those.
CNN: I'm wondering how that has worked so far. From what I've read, Miami Beach has seen a lot of flooding in recent years associated with higher tides.
Last fall, the pumps were working and those streets were dry. Versus two years ago, you see those pictures of some of our roads that were really flooded rather high.
This year, where the pumps were installed, they worked.
CNN: When I was driving around on Miami Beach, I came to these intersections where you feel like you're almost going up a ramp into a parking garage or something. The road level just goes up dramatically. But seeing that I wondered: Does the floodwater just collect below that? If you're just raising the road level, how is that helpful?
Well, you're elevating. So the water's not getting up to you, essentially. That's on the public side. And we're also looking at our land use code. Local governments have that kind of building and zoning and planning authority. We are looking at private development -- what should be those elevations as well.
CNN: I've read that for other low-lying cities like New Orleans there's more potential to put up levees and seawalls to hold the ocean back. But because Miami sits on limestone, which is porous, it's hard to do that. The water would just go under them.
I'm not an engineer, but I've heard the engineers talk about, well, are there ways to combat that? Are there ways to seal the limestone? I just heard my city engineer talking about that earlier this week. Yes, that is a challenge for us. The water does come up through this porous limestone that we do sit on. It's not as easy as just building a wall. That's why we have to work in other ways, like pumping the water out or elevating the roads.
CNN: What would you want to say to someone in Miami Beach -- or another coastal community -- who's worried about sea level rise?
The important message is: Climate change is here and sea level is rising. But our eyes are wide open to the issue. We're actively planning and we're actively doing. We're actively designing and constructing these kinds of incremental adaptation options that continue to reduce our risk. The work we're doing today is safeguarding us for the future. As time passes and we have more information and more data we can continue to build upon what we're doing today.
CNN: I met a Miami Beach resident who told me he is packing up and planning to move out of Miami Beach because he's worried about the long term viability of his home, and, more immediately, he's worried about his investment given the risks of climate change. I'm wondering what you think of that decision. Do you think it's alarmist? Is it prudent?
I think it's a personal decision. People have their own circumstances in life, and you make those personal decisions. But I do think it's important for the residents here to know -- and they do know -- that this city commission and the residents today here in the city are willing to invest. They raised their stormwater rates so we could issue the bonds to pay for these investments. And the investments we're making are in fact reducing those risks.
If were a coastal community that was getting flooded and we had our eyes closed and were doing nothing, then there should be some worry. But we're a coastal community heavily involved in designing and constructing -- and working to reduce that risk.
CNN: I got some comments with people saying this isn't climate change, this isn't happening. This is just the coast of Florida and of course it floods sometimes. How certain are you that what you see happening now is climate change?
We're a local government. We have to be responsible. These things are happening. And so that argument really doesn't happen in South Florida anymore. It's about actually doing something about.
CNN: Marco Rubio is from South Florida and is a Republican presidential contender. And I would say he's injecting a lot of false doubt into the climate conversation. I'm wondering what you think about that -- or about the election as a whole?
As a local government appointed official, I'm not going to get into too much of the politics of it. But the science is there. These things are happening. And whoever gets in office needs to understand that these are issues that are facing these communities. We need the help and the coordination from the state and the feds. Right now it's really the local governments that are stepping up to this. ... It's not a partisan issue down here.
CNN: Is this a pretty expensive problem to deal with?
Yeah.
CNN: I was told you all have pledged something like $400 million to fight this.
The estimate is somewhere around $400 million, and the numbers change as you're out in the field and constructing these things. And it's essentially a three- to five-year program to install these pumps in these low-lying areas of the city. South Florida is coastal and low-lying. I kind of say we're flat and flatter. You look at the areas that are most vulnerable and start there.
CNN: I think some people could see that number -- $400 million -- and think, 'Oh my gosh, that's a lot of money that's being used to fight something that's unwinnable.'
But you spent time here, right? This is a vibrant, beautiful coastal community. People still want to come live, work and play here. So, I'm not ready to give up. (Laughs).
There are a lot of people who are not ready to give up. These investments continue to reduce our risk and make us less vulnerable and buy time. Yeah, I think the key message is we're not willing to give up. That would be disappointing for a lot of folks. Our eyes are wide open, and we're actively involved in making this community beautiful and vibrant and resilient. You know, 100 years from now, 200 years from now, it'll be different.
I joke with my staff that we're creating 'Tomorrowland.' It will look different. Maybe other generations will have to adapt more and learn to live with the water even more. The design of the city will be different. But we're not giving up.
CNN: What do you think that 'Tomorrowland' might look like?
Maybe some roads are allowed to flood or some areas are allowed to flood, and we create investments that are built to hold water sometimes and be dry in others.
There's a whole kind of opportunity to create a different city. We've had conversation with folks from The Netherlands. That's really their phrase: "Learning to live with the water." Our behavior may be different, the way we conduct our lives, but we've been doing that for years. Generations adapt.