The Biscayne Times

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Nov 20th
The High Cost of Water PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
November 2017

Neighbors in hidden Biscayne Shores explain why they rebuild after severe flooding

YFlooding_1amila San Martin, her husband, her three daughters, her two dogs, and her cat are essentially homeless. They still have a house, but that single-family home currently has no walls, no sinks, no toilets, no furniture, and no appliances. What used to be in the house is sitting in piles in their front yard or drying in the back courtyard.

When Hurricane Irma struck, the inside of San Martin’s house east of Biscayne Boulevard on NE 108th Street was inundated with four feet of water, soaking the drywall, compromising electrical outlets, and drenching their belongings.

General contractors by trade, Yamila and her husband, Robert, knew they had no choice but to rip everything out in order to prevent remnant moisture from causing mold or electrical shortages later on. “We’re in complete demo right now,” she says.

Yamila adds they’ve already invested $30,000 trying to fix their house, and she estimates that it’ll take $200,000 to bring it back to where it was. They’ve turned away construction jobs as they deal with the demolition and permitting for their own home.

After initially crashing at a client’s place, the San Martins will stay at a hotel that will be partly paid for by FEMA vouchers -- until November 5. After that, they’re not sure where they’re going to go. It’s tourist season and hotels are expensive. And apartments? They’re expensive any time of year.

“I have nowhere to go,” she says. “I can’t afford to pay $2000 or $3000 a month for rent. A lot of places don’t take animals. We’re dealing with it. Hopefully the insurance money comes fast.”

It’s not just the San Martins who are forced to rebuild. Dozens of single-family homes and duplexes from NE 108th to 110th streets, between Biscayne Boulevard and Biscayne Bay, were flooded when Hurricane Irma lashed South Florida in September.

Flooding_2

In spite of two pump stations by the bay at 109th and 110th streets, Irma turned this quiet neighborhood into a lagoon. To get around in the storm’s aftermath, residents resorted to paddling in kayaks and canoes for nearly two days.

Then, on October 2 and 3, following a series of thunderstorms, the streets and yards flooded again. “If it rained one more day, people would have had water in their homes again,” declares Carol Newport, a retiree who has lived since 1984 in a two-story bayfront home on N. Bayshore Drive near NE 108th Street.

Newport’s home escaped significant damage, but she knows several of her neighbors were far less fortunate. “Their houses had three feet of water,” Newport says. “Some of them are not living in their houses because they’re being gutted and renovated.”

This residential area just north of Quayside and south of the Jockey Club is known as Biscayne Shores, an unincorporated pocket, hidden by retail plazas that line the west side of Biscayne Boulevard. Services are handled by Miami-Dade County government.

It’s a diverse place, where working-class families live next door to retirees and affluent business owners. Don Bailey, the founder of a 45-year-old South Florida carpet and flooring business that featured iconic billboards of him posing naked on a rug -- à la Burt Reynolds in Cosmopolitan circa 1972 -- has a home here, too, as does his son, Don Bailey Jr.

Bailey Jr., who now runs Don Bailey Flooring, says his bayfront home near NE 109th Street experienced severe seawall damage and extensive interior flooding. “Almost everyone in the area was affected,” says Bailey Jr. “Fortunately for me, I’m in the flooring business.”

Most of the properties along Biscayne Bay east of N. Bayshore Drive are elevated to at least eight feet above sea level, according to EyesontheRise.org, an FIU website that allows users to simulate sea level rise at specific addresses. But further inland, homes are just two to four feet above sea level.

Flooding_3Near Biscayne Shores, Irma pushed water levels up to 5.13 feet above baseline levels, says Stephanie Severino, a spokeswoman for the county mayor’s office. Raise the oceans just five feet, and most of Biscayne Shores is covered with water.

Biscayne Shores routinely flooded decades ago. Then in 1989, the county installed pump stations. Between 1996 and 2003, the county spent $3.9 million overhauling the pumps and enhancing the area’s drainage system, Severino says.

The overhaul worked. Except for western segments of NE 108th and 109th streets, Biscayne Shores hadn’t flooded in at least 15 years, not even during tropical storms, hurricanes, heavy rains, or extra-high king tides, Carol Newport says. The limited flooding that did occur never made it beyond the yards, she adds.

That changed with Irma. “I’ve spoken with public works, and they said they’re going to come and check,” Carol Newport tells the BT, “but they said it was because of the king tide, and the water was just too high to wash out. It had nowhere to go. And I said, ‘Well, we’ve had other king tides, and it was nowhere like this.’”

Severino insists the pump stations are working. They were working just prior to the hurricane, too. However, they were “placed off-line” prior to the neighborhood being hit by a five-foot storm surge “since they would not be able to reduce flooding.” The pumps were then placed back on-line on September 11, after Irma passed, she says.

In October the pumps were shut off again at “the peak of the recent king tides to avoid pumping groundwater,” Severino adds.

Biscayne Shores is part of a 2838-acre geological area known as the Arch Creek Basin, which includes northern Miami Shores, Biscayne Park, two unincorporated areas, and a large chunk of North Miami. From 1891 until 1922, most of this area was a farming community called Arch Creek. The settlement was so prone to flooding that residents got around in boats. The farming/flooding era ended in 1923, when a canal was dug to drain the swamps and pave the way for residential development.

Flooding_4In recent times, floods have become more common in low-lying parts of Miami-Dade as the oceans rise. “Since 1994, sea levels have risen approximately four inches in our area, and these small changes continue to exacerbate tidal flooding,” Severino, a former meteorologist, explains to the BT.

Biscayne Shores is particularly vulnerable to flooding during king tide events because it’s so low geologically, she adds. “The low elevation means that the area can be directly affected by the higher tides that are linked to our fall weather and long-term sea level rise. On October 5, the local tide gauge recorded a high tide of more than two feet. During these times, the lowest-lying [areas] are at risk of flooding directly from the bay, but also due to higher groundwater levels.”

Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, says the October 5 king tide was the highest non-storm-related tide recorded since 1996. And water levels were rising prior to the peak of the king tide earlier in the month, McNoldy adds.

Sea level rise will get worse as time goes on. In 2030, the oceans are projected to be six to 12 inches higher, according to a chart from the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. In 2060, the seas are predicted to be 14 to 34 inches higher. In 2100, sea levels will be 31 to 81 inches higher.

“It’s certain that flooding events will become more frequent and will be higher on average,” McNoldy says. “All things being equal, when you increase the baseline sea level rise, you’ll be more likely, and more often, flooded by the tides, and certainly by storm surges. It’ll take less of a storm surge now to [flood a neighborhood] than it would 25 years ago.”

It’ll become increasingly difficult, and expensive, to keep places like Biscayne Shores flood-free. More pumps can be added, but “that’s just a patch -- pumps are going to fail at some point,” McNoldy says.

The Urban Land Institute, which studied the future of the Arch Creek Basin with the county in relation to sea level rise, concedes the point in a May 2016 report. It recommended that mixed-income housing be encouraged to relocate to the vicinity of NE 125th Street near the rail road tracks, an area of high ground that might be the location of a Tri-Rail passenger station.

As for low-lying areas, the ULI recommends that “mitigation atolls” composed of mangroves, corals, sponges, and oysters be placed in the water near the outflow of pump stations. Not only could such atolls enhance protection for low-lying areas, they can serve as places for recreation.

Flooding_5Over time, as more people leave the lowlands, the ULI advocates reverting low-lying parts of the Arch Creek Basin into wetland “city sloughs” that can be used as a natural form of flood control.

Biscayne Shores residents the BT spoke to show no signs of wanting to leave. Instead, there are plenty of people laboring to fix their homes.

Victor Silva’s wife and son have been living elsewhere while he rips out waterlogged portions of the walls in his NE 108th Street house.

“This is really frustrating -- the insurance, they’re taking their time,” says Silva. “I want to fix my house, and I don’t have the money.” Besides flooding, Silva’s house has plenty of structural wind damage. “My house has all these holes,” he continues. “The roaches and everything are coming through the roof.”

The toilets don’t work either. Biscayne Shores homes aren’t attached to the county’s sewer system. Whatever is flushed from toilets flows into septic tanks, which become compromised during flooding. “Once the water hits that level, there’s no septic,” Silva explains.

José Palacios, a private driver, bought an industrial vacuum cleaner to suck up water and dust. His front yard is littered with garbage bags filled with material that used to be walls. He estimates it’ll cost $15,000 for him to fix his house. But Palacios says he’s made some headway. “I have new walls,” he says.

Robert and Yamila San Martin hope they can make their house habitable enough to move back in. Yamila says she and her neighbors have already talked about building anti-flooding measures for the next deluge.

But given the inevitability of more flooding, will the San Martins leave for higher ground? No, says Yamila. “First of all, we’re in a great neighborhood,” she says. And, she adds, where are they going to go? “Where are we going to buy, where there’s nothing under a million dollars?” she asks. “We can’t afford to rent anywhere -- $3000 a month? Yeah right, the prices are really insane.”

She continues, “So the answer is, I like my neighborhood. I like where we are. But we have to consider that it’s going to be an issue, this whole flooding thing. And we’re going to have to start dealing with it now.”

 

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