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What’s Inside The $2.7B Plan To Protect Miami Real Estate From Catastrophic Floods

Streets in Miami are flooding this week, as South Florida kicked off summer with a dayslong deluge that is set to drop up to 10 inches of rain through Friday.

As the rain pours in and Floridians take advantage of a hurricane tax holiday, county officials and the Army Corps of Engineers are putting the final touches on a $2.7B plan to protect Miami from storm surge. The plan has been hotly debated for half a decade, but officials aim to send it to Congress for approval and funding this year.

The storm surge protection plan would introduce a pilot program to test natural solutions to reduce flooding.

“Our goal is to take some of those slam-dunk kind of measures, the things that are accepted by the community, the things that we can push forward for implementation faster,” said Abbegail Preddy, the Army Corps project manager leading the study. “Then, at the same time, we want to start making progress on the more complex and long-term analysis of other solutions.”

The plan is centered around three pillars: multiple lines of defense, adaptive management and integration. Its impacts would largely be confined to six focus areas chosen for their flood risk as well as environmental justice factors that prioritized disadvantaged communities. 

Practically, the Army Corps is proposing to elevate roughly 2,100 homes and renovate around 400 commercial buildings to help protect them from flooding. The structures are in parts of the northern and southern sections of Miami Beach, Miami’s Little River neighborhood, buildings along the Miami River west of Brickell and Downtown, North Miami and Cutler Bay.

The plan would also mitigate flooding at an additional 27 properties identified as critical infrastructure, including sites outside the focus areas.

The Army Corps recommends spending $200M on nonstructural solutions at commercial buildings, or investments that prevent damage from flooding rather than preventing flooding altogether. It recommends $170M of that be used to floodproof multifamily properties while using $30M to identify solutions for hospitals. 

The plan also calls for the creation of a $180M pilot program exploring nature-based solutions to storm surge that prioritize a layered approach using natural barriers, as opposed to walls that prevent flooding. 

The nature-based approach involves tactics like planting mangrove forests, building reefs and expanding wetlands to naturally divert water. It is an approach that the Army Corps concedes it doesn’t have a lot of experience with and for which results are hard to measure, but it comes after a 20-foot seawall proposed in an earlier report met with disdain from residents and local officials. 

The $2.7B package includes $1.5B for construction, $214M for engineering and design, $205M for construction management and $165M to acquire real estate.

The Army Corps recommends that all commercial structures be “dry floodproofed,” making their exteriors watertight so floodwaters can't infiltrate them.

“This can be done using waterproof coatings, impermeable membranes, sealants, and shields/gates applied to doors and windows,” the report says. “A sump pump can also be installed to help keep the area dry and prevent flooding.”

The practice is only considered effective for up to 3 feet of inundation, but the report recommends providing that level of protection at impacted developments even if they're likely to see higher storm surges.

Miami could experience a $1.2B reduction in damage from storm surge over 50 years through the program, which estimates the impacted properties would see $1.7B in damage with no intervention and $518M in storm-related impacts if the upgrades are made. 

A graphic in the 222-page report outlines a layered approach to flood protection.

Army Corps officials acknowledge that this latest draft, which was completed on an expedited basis after the earlier report was dismissed, is pared back, with the report leaving questions related to floodwalls, levees and storm surge barriers for a follow-up report.

The final version is in the hands of Army Corps leadership, who will have to sign off before the plan and its funding can be incorporated into any piece of federal legislation. The Army Corps estimates the federal government would fund 65% of the program, or $1.4B, with the remaining $1.3B coming from the county and other sources.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava has signaled her support for the amended plan but acknowledged in a May 23 letter that its recommendations are far from sufficient to protect Miami from flooding. 

“This interim report is the initial step to address coastal storm risk in the County,” Levine Cava wrote to the Army Corps district commander overseeing the report. “However, a large portion of the County remains at risk. Actively pursuing future phases and future studies is necessary to address storm surge risk for the county as a whole.”

The plan is also at least two years away from implementation. There was a push to get the expedited report done in time for Congress to vote on it this year, but a stamp of approval will only clear the way to seek federal funding as part of a budget, an outcome that isn't guaranteed.  

“The earliest that we would be able to start the pre-construction, engineering and design phase is actually 2026,” Preddy said.

The report estimates construction would wrap up in 2034. 

The Army Corps’ plan dovetails neatly into several other initiatives and studies from the government and universities, said Aaron DeMayo, chair of the city of Miami’s Climate Resilience Committee. Together, the programs will help Miami more successfully weather flooding, as opposed to preventing it altogether. 

DeMayo thinks a bolder solution will ultimately be required. The founder of Future Vision Studios, a design and architecture firm, has drawn up a plan for levees and natural sea walls that he says would protect huge swaths of the city. 

Until Miami is ready for that solution, DeMayo sees the Army Corps plan as a step in the right direction. 

“This creates a more bite-sized part that lets us start getting shovels in the ground while additional reports are happening,” he said. “It’s good from the ‘don't let perfection be the enemy of progress’ kind of approach.”