Miami-Dade Walking the Walk on Resilience

Post-Irma reflections on Miami-Dade’s road to resilience from Miami-Dade County’s Deputy Director of Water and Sewer, Doug Yoder & Chief Resilience Officer, Jim Murley.

Hurricane Irma was a visceral reminder to the citizens of Florida of a fact that governs so much of our lives: the Florida Coast is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes. Miami-Dade was spared the worst of Irma’s wrath, and as we turn towards our neighbors in the Keys, Naples, Puerto Rico, and throughout the Caribbean as they’re reeling from Hurricane Maria, we’re breathing something like a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, science tells us — and other coastal communities around the world — to expect storms like Irma to happen again, with more frequency and severity, in the coming decades.

That’s why we feel compelled to share the progress Miami-Dade County has made towards becoming more resilient, and to share lessons on how we’ve made that progress, in the hope that other coastal communities can learn from our experience and jumpstart their own progress on the road to resilience.

Miami-Dade is Florida’s most populous county, and one of the most populous counties in the country. It is also one of the communities most vulnerable to the interrelated risks of hurricanes, tidal flooding, storm surge, saltwater intrusion, and sea level rise.

Miami-Dade started taking action to address these risks in the context of climate change as long ago as the early 1990s, when it was a founding member of ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives). Since then, Miami-Dade has completed significant strategic planning work, including the completion of regional modeling to better understand storm surge impacts that incorporate projected sea level rise over time, the adoption of GreenPrint (our Sustainability Plan) and the establishment of an Office of Resilience. More recently, Miami-Dade has transitioned from planning for resilience to implementing projects that actually reduce risk.

King tides, which typically arrive in the fall, are affecting low-lying areas of Miami-Dade County. PC: Katherine Hagemann

Many of the steps we’re taking now involve elevating and hardening our most critical assets. This means after storms like Irma, citizens can expect the airport to reopen quickly, drinking water to be safe, power to stay on, and wastewater treatment plants to remain operational.

The continued operation of critical assets like telecommunications, electric and water infrastructure can prevent a natural disaster from turning into a catastrophe.

On this front, Miami-Dade is starting to make serious progress to harden critical infrastructure. We’re:

  • Elevating assets higher above sea level, including critical parts of all three coastal wastewater treatment plants
  • Building and elevating or hardening emergency backup electricity generation at critical assets
  • Including water-tight protection for critical equipment like electrical switch gear and control systems

These investments are evidence that we’re walking the walk on resilience, not just talking the talk — as investments like these require significant financial commitment on the part of the County.

Further evidence of walking the walk: the Department of Water and Sewer will spend $13 billion on comprehensive upgrades to our systems over the next two decades and has committed to prioritizing essential resilience projects through our Capital Improvement Plan.

The Water and Sewer Department has been designing billions in capital improvements to their wastewater system. They are designing new infrastructure and retrofits to be above the height of future sea level rise and storms. PC: Miami-Dade County.

One important effort that is guiding Miami-Dade’s transition from resilience planning to implementation is our Rapid Action Plan, which is comprehensively mapping the critical infrastructure (like fire stations, fueling stations, key government buildings, data centers) in Miami-Dade County that’s most vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge, as well as highlighting the projects required to the address those vulnerabilities through our capital planning process. The fact that Miami-Dade is so thoroughly integrating and prioritizing resilience projects through its Capital Improvement Plan is very important, and unique among many of our local government peers — it means that these resilience projects are real, they’re moving forward, and the County is committed to funding and financing them.

Miami-Dade County’s Central District wastewater treatment facility sits on the barrier island of Virginia Key. New infrastructure on the island is being substantially elevated to be above the height of future sea level rise and storms. PC: Miami-Dade County.

How have we been able to move beyond endless planning cycles and transition from planning for resilience to implementing projects that address our vulnerabilities? We’ve reflected on our progress so far and have identified three major success factors:

1. Citizen Support: A groundswell of citizen support for pursuing resilience has been essential for moving forward in Miami-Dade. Of course some citizen support is a result of seeing sunny day tidal flooding in downtown Miami, but it’s also been the result of concerted efforts on the part of county leadership, in partnership with NGOs, to tell better stories. The Water and Sewer Department, for example, uses Twitter and Facebook to communicate with residents using pictures and short videos.

2. Champions: If not for a series of climate champions, we wouldn’t be nearly as far along in pursuing resilience projects. These champions rallied support both inside and outside of government, and have brought together a team of partners dedicated to tackling these issues together. Some of our most important champions have been elected officials — Mayor Gimenez, County Clerk (and former County Commissioner) Harvey Ruvin, Commission Chairman Steve Bovo, Commissioner Sosa, and the entire Board of County Commissioners, for example — but other essential champions have been technical leaders from government as well as local universities.

3. Ready Data: Having good data ready and waiting (in usable formats!) is perhaps not an obvious success factor, but it has been essential in Miami-Dade. Since we first started addressing our vulnerabilities in the early 90s, we’ve participated in or have led several large data, modeling, and vulnerability assessment efforts to better understand our risks and options for addressing them. The results of these efforts have been key, as they’ve positioned us to take immediate action as soon as it was financially feasible. Collaboration with the Information Technology Department, which has ensured that all of this data is accessible across departments, has been especially important in making climate data actionable in Miami-Dade. It’s also been beneficial to have taken a regional approach to data, modeling and vulnerability assessment — we’ve done this through the SE Regional Climate Compact with much better success than if we had tried to go it alone.

Engineers tour a new pump station that has been installed by Miami-Dade County to alleviate flooding in a low-lying area along the Little River. PC: Katherine Hagemann

We still have so far to walk on our road to resilience.

Despite the steps we’ve already taken and are taking, a direct hit from Hurricane Irma would have been catastrophic for Miami-Dade. As things settle down in the coming weeks, one of the most important things we’ll do is a “lessons learned from Irma” exercise, based upon the various storm impacts and facilities that either failed or didn’t fail as a result. It is essential to learn from actual experience to sharpen modeling and design considerations for the future — as Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

The good news in all of this is that we have a group of all-star public, private, NGO, and academic partners walking alongside us, including several departments at the University of Miami and Florida International University (including their Sea Level Solutions Center), and federal partners like the US Geological Survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Together, we’re walking the walk on resilience, and we’re confident we’ll get there.

Editors Note:

Jim Murley is Chief Resilience Officer of Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade County’s Office of Resilience collaborates with County agencies, business groups, nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders to effectively integrate resilience into programs, operations and policies.

Doug Yoder is Deputy Director of Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, the largest utility in Florida and one of the 10 largest in the United States.

The collaboration between the Office of Resilience and Water and Sewer Department in Miami-Dade County is a shining example of how governments can use collaboration, systems thinking and interdisciplinary approaches to tackle extremely difficult problems like sea level rise.