This past fall, the City of Miami Beach—one of America’s most famous beach resorts since it was founded 100 years ago this month—faced the King Tide.
King Tide is an unscientific term for a particularly strong high tide. For Miami Beach residents, that typically means flooding, and lots of it. The city’s main arteries typically shut down for days at a time as 88,000 residents wait for the water to drain.
But this time was different. It was the first King Tide event since the city launched an ambitious public-works project: a set of pumps designed to flush excess water into Biscayne Bay to the west, which separates Miami Beach from Miami.
As the water level rose, the pumps kicked into gear, successfully keeping any accumulation to a few scattered puddles.
If they did nothing: The interactive below, produced by four Florida International University School of Journalism and Mass Communication professors in collaboration with Fusion, shows how a sea-level rise of six feet would affect Miami Beach.
The pumps now represent the city’s principal strategy for confronting rising sea levels, which a recent report showed appear to be accelerating for South Florida.
Over the next five years, Miami Beach plans to install 58 pumping stations, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars. It is also considering raising the levels of some lowest-lying streets and increasing minimum building heights for new construction, although there is not yet a comprehensive plan in place for doing so.
But as it weighs its options to confront rising seas, it is allowing an unprecedented building boom to proceed.
“This is the place that the whole world wants to come to,” Mayor Philip Levine told Fusion.
The number of properties available for sale on Miami Beach has climbed 20 percent in the past year, according to real estate firm Douglas Elliman. The combined median sales price for condo and single family properties has increased 14 percent over the past 12 months to $400,000, while the median luxury condo price climbed nearly 50 percent to $2.65 million.
And the rising prices are reflective of demand, not risk. The federal government controls flood insurance rates, and a law passed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to increase them ended up getting rolled back with the support of coastal-state senators, including Florida’s Bill Nelson.
Joe Padula, a real estate broker for Zilbert Realty on Alton Road, said not once has he heard a client — many of whom are from South America and looking to move their cash away from their countries’ poor investment climates — mention rising sea levels when thinking about buying a property.
“You think they would or should, but they don’t,” he said. “It’s all…‘What’s new? What’s hot? What’s flashy?’ No one ever thinks about really important stuff like that.”
Anthony Graziano, senior managing director of consulting firm Integra Real Estate, said developers are reluctant to consider raising construction costs for an event they’re not even sure is going to happen.
“It’s a lot of 'Chicken Little' stuff,” he said. “If all that happens, we’re going to have a lot bigger problems.”
In recent months, some outlets have published stories suggesting that the city has adopted a strategy of building its way to safety. As Robert Meyer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Wharton Risk Center, wrote for Bloomberg this fall, “Because buyers and sellers in Miami Beach have yet to connect the dots between nuisance flood events and the future consequences of sea level rise, property buyers continue to be drawn to the area, and development projects continue unabated—both of which are essential for a continued healthy tax base.”
The city says there is no official policy to encourage development to fund improvements.
But last year it approved an 84-percent increase in stormwater management fees on property owners.
In response to a question about how Miami Beach's breakneck high rise growth could be happening even as the threat of sea level rise grows, the mayor responded by saying the same thing could be asked of New York City, where development also shows no sign of slowing down.
“We actually think Miami Beach is probably less at risk because [we've taken the] offensive, and we're so progressive and pragmatic,” Levine said.
Hal Wanless, a geologist the the University of Miami, said the ongoing construction boom is a sign the city is not taking the issue seriously.
“Sea level rise is accelerating, and will be accelerating through the next century,” he said. “That’s hard to fathom when you see these new condos being built.”
And the pumps will prove a too-expensive solution for such a short-term fix, he said.
“They’re going to end up wasting a lot of the people’s money, and that’s a shame,” he said. “All these defenses and things with the pumps and so on should be thoroughly thought out — there’s only so much money people have, and at some point they’re going to need more help.”
Levine acknowledges the pumps are only likely to last a few decades at most. But he’s banking on future innovations coming down the pike to take care of what may lie ahead.
“I always believe in human innovation,” he said. “Fifty years ago you and I were looking at an iPad or an iPhone, you would have thought it was magical and was crazy. And I believe that humankind will come up with new ideas that will be so innovative that we can't even imagine them today.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.