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Impact: Building and Infrastructure

Hot Spot: Miami Beach
Down the Drain

Flooding has become more common on touristy Miami Beach. Because parts of Miami Beach are only four feet above sea level, even small increases in sea level matter. Data from a nearby Virginia Key tide gauge show the highest monthly average sea level rising by more than four inches from 1994 to 2012.

The city even struggles with what is called "sunny day flooding," where no rain falls but high tides push water back into the streets.

"Miami Beach is ground zero," says Leonard Berry, director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at FAU. The city has begun one of the most aggressive campaigns to plan for sea level rise in Florida, starting with its stormwater system.

Based on the suggestions of an engineering firm, the city will spend $200 million updating its drainage system to ease flooding, installing 17 new pumps. The project will be paid for with bonds. A separate plan to ensure sea walls are at least 3.2 feet high isn't included in the $200-million tally.

The South Florida Water Management District is also making major investments in its stormwater system, which relies on 2,000 miles of canals and 69 pump stations to divert water from roads and homes. Put in place in the 1950s and 1960s, the system of canals and floodgates is not working as well as sea level rises.

"Sometimes we cannot open the gates because if you open it, the water would come back," says Jayantha Obeysekera, chief modeler at the South Florida Water Management District.

The water management district spent $50 million on two pumps near the Miami airport last year, using a grant from FEMA's hazard mitigation program, according to a district spokesman. Now when water spills out from canals, it can pump the water to the ocean rather than relying on gravity.

Hot Spot: Punta Gorda
Code Wet

After Category 4 Hurricane Charley ripped through Punta Gorda in 2004, city officials resolved to rebuild with an eye toward how climate change might impact weather and storms in the future. Tide gauges at Fort Myers show the highest average monthly sea level has risen by nearly four inches since 1966, the first full year the gauge was in operation.

The city of 16,000 residents examined its zoning practices, purchased some flood-prone properties and converted them into parks. The goal is to eventually move chunks of the city east and inland, leaving only the historic downtown near the water's edge. "We're doing small things that make sense at the time," says Joan LeBeau, the city's chief planner. "We're not trying to get people to approve a whole new way of life."

More notably, however, the city requires new structures to be built at higher elevations than current building codes require. Florida's building code relies upon Federal Emergency Management Agency flood hazard maps to set minimum elevations. FEMA sets these elevations using historical flood data. The code, adopted in 2002, gets high marks for its windstorm standards but is criticized for relying on FEMA flood maps that don't take into account sea level rise. Punta Gorda requires residential structures to be built three inches above the "base flood elevation," which is the level that represents a once-in-a-century flood event. The city also requires commercial buildings below base flood elevation to flood-proof up to 12 inches above that base flood elevation.

"The building code doesn't really address the issue of sea level rise because it's based on historical data on coastal flooding," says Ricardo Alvarez, a former engineering professor who now consults on sea level rise mitigation. "If you are designing a building you expect to last 50 years or more, the question is, shouldn't you be looking at what will happen during the service life of that building?"

Builders, not surprisingly, are skeptical that stricter building codes are the answer. "They can require higher elevations in the building code if they want to, but I think they would be crazy to do that," says Doug Buck, a lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association. "You want to do what science says you should do. Those elevations and other things in the building code cost money."

Studies by FEMA and Punta Gorda estimate that building a new house two feet higher would cost $2,000 more per 1,000 square feet during the construction phase.

Hot Spot: Monroe County
Going Up

Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys, is one of the most vulnerable regions in the country to sea level rise and has the most long-term historical data.

The county is approaching building projects and ongoing maintenance work with sea level rise in mind. When it decided to build a $4-million fire station on Stock Island, just north of Key West, the facility was designed to be 1½ feet higher than code required. The fire station, set to open in December, will be 10 feet above sea level and five to six feet above surrounding ground.

Monroe County Sustainability program manager Rhonda Haag says the county didn't want to waste "taxpayer dollars on something that is going to be under water." Adding the extra foot-and-a-half only cost $10,000 extra, she says.

"We're not a whole lot above sea level as it is," Haag says. "We're already seeing the effects of it, with roads that flood more than they used to."