The Real Deal Miami

Miami Beach mayor says coastal cities need more state and federal help to deal with sea-level rise

Mayor Philip Levine says red tape makes it hard to get money for mitigation efforts

Ocean Drive in Miami Beach and Mayor Philip Levine (Ocean Drive photo by Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images)

Calling sea level rise an “existential threat,” Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine on Thursday called on federal and state authorities to do more to help coastal cities like Miami Beach deal with rising tides that he says are threatening cities like his.  

Levine spoke Thursday at a conference of five government agencies that make up the Community Resilience Panel at a meeting at The University of Miami that was sponsored by the Miami law firm Hinshaw and Culbertson LLP.

Noting that Miami Beach has raised about $500 million to install pumps to raise city roads and undertake beach replenishment measures, Levine said nearly all the money had been raised by the city itself with no help from the federal government. In a reference to campaign ads he ran that showed him paddling his dog Earl through flooded streets on Miami Beach, Levine said “he got floated into office,” and he said Miami Beach voters got the message, agreeing to raise their storm water fees by 50 percent to 70 percent. That allowed city officials to get bond money to install pumps and begin raising streets. All city streets will eventually be raised to a minimum of 3.5 feet and the city is raising sea walls to a height of 5.7 feet.

Levine, who is not running for re-election this year, said the city has changed its building codes and is replenishing its beaches, but he said his city and other coastal cities “need funding and leadership,” from state and federal authorities.  “This is about the survival of coastal cities,” said Levine who also noted that “the system is broken…red tape makes it hard to get money.”  

Hal Wanless, who chairs the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami told The Real Deal that he believes within the next 50 years many barrier islands around the world are going to be abandoned, because of what he says will likely be a 2-foot rise in sea levels that will put cities like Miami Beach at extreme risk of storm surges and damage.

He said there’s already been a 1-foot rise in sea levels since 1930 and some residents on Miami Beach are not going to wait for levels to go higher. “Its unfortunately simple, people are already leaving Miami Beach, people are already starting to sell in the low-lying areas because of increasing flooding,” said Wanless who adds that many developers on Miami Beach and other low-lying coastal areas in the region are “not incorporating any understanding of sea level rise into where they are putting their pumps and electrical outlets — they are going to run into trouble real quick,” he said.  

Insurers speaking at the conference also sounded warnings about many residents of coastal South Florida being either uninsured or underinsured. Noting that South Florida already loses $20 billion to $22 billion on an annualized basis to hurricane losses,  Alex Kaplan, senior vice president, of SwissRe said those losses could go as high $46 billion by 2030. He told TRD that while a city like Miami Beach is taking a proactive approach to the risks associated with sea level rise, FEMA flood maps ultimately decide insurance pricing. And developers need to look to the future when they design their projects, he said. 

“If I were a long-term investor I would make sure that I have the appropriate plans and resources and financial structures in place to make sure that I could absorb those losses,” Kaplan said, “and make sure that whatever I’m developing is built for a future year and not today.”