As Waters Rise, Miami Beach Builds Higher Streets And Political Willpower As the climate change debate rages, leaders in Miami Beach, a city that routinely floods, are tackling sea-level rise head on by raising roads and seawalls and installing new storm sewers and pumps.

As Waters Rise, Miami Beach Builds Higher Streets And Political Willpower

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In South Florida, a new study shows the rate of sea level rise has tripled over the last decade. That's a particular concern in Miami Beach, where the average elevation is just over 4 feet above sea level. The rising seas raise questions about whether the resort community has a future. NPR's Greg Allen reports that leaders there say the answer is emphatically yes.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For the last few years, big road projects have made life miserable for residents in Miami Beach. The small city on a barrier island, just 7 miles long and 1 mile wide, is getting a makeover. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine likes to show off work recently completed in the Sunset Harbor neighborhood.

PHILIP LEVINE: And of course, this is the western part of our city, which was the lowest area of our city, which of course was developed on muck.

ALLEN: Over the last decade, flooding during high tide in this and other neighborhoods along Miami Beach's western edge has become a regular occurrence. A new study from the University of Miami confirms that the main reason for the increased flood events is sea level rise. While some elected officials, including Florida's Gov. Rick Scott, aren't ready to acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, here in Miami Beach it was a campaign issue that helped get Levine elected.

LEVINE: I think I did a campaign commercial in a kayak.

ALLEN: Levine took office on a pledge to build a resilient Miami Beach, one that would recognize and adapt to climate change. He holds up Sunset Harbor as a model. The patio outside a restaurant and cafe is a cozy spot that's now more than 3 feet below street level. Levine says the street was raised.

LEVINE: Literally rebuilt, raised and built higher. And of course, major pumps were installed as well. So now you have certain buildings that are lying lower, but the streets are higher.

ALLEN: This neighborhood, perennially wet during seasonal high tides, now is dry.

BRUCE MOWRY: This gives you just a quick viewpoint of the city. This is Miami Beach.

ALLEN: In his office, Miami Beach's city engineer, Bruce Mowry, unrolls a map of the community. Large sections - anything with a 2.2 foot elevation or lower - are highlighted in red. Those are all areas susceptible to flooding. To combat that, Miami Beach has launched a $400 million project that's begun installing powerful pumps throughout the city. On the map, Mowry shows me where.

MOWRY: We have projects going on right here on Sunset Islands III and IV. We have a project here on what you call lower North Bay Road. We're building a pump station here.

ALLEN: In all, as many as 80 pumps will be installed throughout Miami Beach. Mowry takes me to Miami Beach's next big project - the reconstruction of Indian Creek Drive, a road that saw severe flooding last year during a seasonal high tide. Former Vice President Al Gore took a tour and later talked about seeing fish swimming in the street there. Mowry says that's true.

MOWRY: And we had tides as high as 2.2 last year, so we had as much as foot of water over the seawall.

ALLEN: To make sure that doesn't happen this year, Mowry says Miami Beach will rebuild Indian Creek Drive higher and raise the height of the adjoining seawall.

MOWRY: Two blocks up here, we're planning on putting a pump station right here and collecting all the water.

ALLEN: It's a $25 million project and perhaps surprisingly, after negotiations with the Scott administration, 80 percent of that cost is being picked by the state of Florida. Ben Kirtman, a climate modeling expert at the University of Miami, says it's encouraging the state finally signed onto the project, but it took a lot of negotiation. Kirtman is one of the Florida scientists who have worked to convince Gov. Scott to acknowledge and begin planning for climate change. Kirtman thinks by working to build a resilient city, officials in Miami Beach are on the right track.

BEN KIRTMAN: I'm quite optimistic that there'll be a Miami Beach 50 years, 100 years from now, but we need to set aside sort of the political nonsense about the debate about whether climate change is happening and embrace our problem and start developing comprehensive strategies.

ALLEN: At current rates of sea level rise, officials in Miami Beach believe the work underway now will buy the city at least 50 years. By then, they believe innovation may begin providing long-term solutions and make the city a model for the nation. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami Beach.

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