1. News
  2. /
  3. Environment

Florida Keys faces huge bill to survive sea rise. Will state help?

Monroe County is asking for $150 million to raise roads, elevate homes and even move critical buildings to higher ground.
This is a king tide at the Key Largo Kampground & Marina in Key Largo. (Photo by Nancy Snyder) [NANCY SNYDER  |  Photo by Nancy Snyder]
This is a king tide at the Key Largo Kampground & Marina in Key Largo. (Photo by Nancy Snyder) [NANCY SNYDER | Photo by Nancy Snyder]
Published Nov. 26, 2019

The initial bill for surviving sea rise in the coming decades has come due for the Florida Keys — and it’s far more than Monroe County can afford itself to keep the island chain dry.

Just for starters, Monroe is asking the state for $150 million to raise roads, elevate homes and even move critical buildings to higher ground.

It’s a huge request for a sparsely populated county, working out to about $2,000 per resident. County staffers believe it’s the largest resilience specific funding request in Monroe’s history. And that won’t even make a dent in the true cost of keeping the low-lying and lush islands a viable place to live and visit in the face of rising seas.

“If we asked for what we actually needed, we’d be in the billions of dollars,” said Helene Wetherington, head of disaster recovery for Monroe County.

If Florida is the most vulnerable state in the nation to sea rise, the Keys are the most at-risk chunk of the Sunshine State’s low-lying coast. The region is predicting 2 feet of sea rise by 2060, which is enough to swamp most of the Keys twice a day, according to a NOAA study.

In the next 20 years, half of the county’s 300 miles of road could be flooded by sea rise — not an attractive prospect for the two million-plus visitors drawn every year by the Keys’ legendary fishing, fabulous sunsets and colorful Conch culture. Elevating those roads alone is dauntingly expensive. The county’s pilot project to elevate less than a mile of road in two neighborhoods costs more than $3.5 million.

Rhonda Haag, Monroe County sustainability program manager, on Jan. 19, 2018, shows the height the roads will be raised under a new pilot program after Hurricane Irma flooded the area on Big Pine Key. [CHARLES TRAINOR JR. | Miami Herald]

Unlike in Washington, D.C., there is no debate about whether climate change is happening. Keys administrators have watched the trends for years, know the risks are real and that it’s time to do something about them, said Rhonda Haag, the chief resilience officer for the county.

“We’ve done a lot of the modeling and the data gap filling and all of the studies over the past decade,” she said. “We’re ready to rock and roll.”

Monroe asked Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity for the cash in a letter this month. It’s a slice of a $633 million money pot the state received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help the state rebuild stronger after Hurricane Irma.

In the Keys, that cash would be used to continue to elevate homes and county buildings, like the fire stations in Leighton and Sugar Loaf. The county is even eyeing it to relocate some buildings to spots less at risk from sea rise or hurricanes, like the public works building near the airport.

“We have a huge need to rebuild, and we need to build safer, stronger and more resilient,” Haag said.

The $150 million request is still lower than the two big climate change adaptation investments made by its northern neighbors in Miami-Dade. Miami is spending $192 million from the Miami Forever Bond and Miami Beach has committed more than $500 million toward pumps and pipes.

Money is expected to be a leading topic next week in Key West during the 11th Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. when Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties meet to discuss sea-level rise adaptation.

Monroe is also separately asking the state for more cash to buy out homeowners left stranded after Hurricane Irma tore through, destroying or damaging 4,000 homes. Many of those homes were one-story bungalows, and rebuilding means coming all the way up to the newest building code. That includes elevating new homes at least a story, a pricey prospect.

For many Keys residents, selling was the only option. The state recently offered a buyout program that paid pre-Irma prices to buy and demolish flood-prone and Irma-damaged houses. It even set aside $10 million just for the Keys.

It was so popular that 61 people signed up, but the state capped the funding to $5 million for each municipality, which means Monroe could only apply to buy out about a dozen homes. Since the application closed, 10 more people have been added to a waiting list.

“We have a huge unmet need,” Wetherington said.

The state agreed to reopen the program later next year, she said, which will hopefully give the Keys another shot to have more homes bought out. Two years after the storm, residents tell her those buyouts can’t happen soon enough.

“That’s a long time to wait,” she said. “Particularly if they’re still paying their mortgage in addition to rent elsewhere.”


  1. Kathryn Sharkey, 9, of Masarkytown, proves to have a swift hand in casting at the Family Fishing Festival held Jan, 18 at Withlacoochee River  Park in Dade City. Looking on, is her dad, Devon Sharkey (right). [MICHELE MILLER  |  Times]
    The family friendly event offered an outdoor alternative for those looking to unplug
  2. Smoke from the Levy County controlled burn travelled across three counties in order to reach Hillsborough. []
    Commuters saw the smokey, hazy skies as they drove home. Strong southern winds are carrying the smoke from a prescribed fire in Levy County.
  3. Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg listens as U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday. The 50th annual meeting of the forum will take place in Davos from Jan. 21 until Jan. 24. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber) [MARKUS SCHREIBER  |  AP]
    “The facts are clear," the 17-year-old Swedish activist said after the president’s speech, “but they are still too uncomfortable for you to address.”
  4. Researchers aboard the R/V Bellows work to bring a blacktip shark aboard during a research cruise on Monday, April 17, 2017, off the coast of Florida.  The blacktip shark are responsible for most unprovoked shark attacks in Florida waters.
    The drop may be a result of climate change, but it’s hard to say for sure.
  5. Sea rise is pushing inland and amplifying the threats from hurricanes, wiping out one of the rarest forests on the planet in the Florida Keys. [MATIAS J. OCNER  |]
    A recent study has found that the Gulf Coast has lost 57 square miles of forest over just more than a century.
  6. Flooding from an October king tide in Miami Shores fills streets, sidewalks and driveways at its peak. [Miami Herald]
    And it could lose up to 35 percent of its value by 2050, according to a new report.
  7. Two babirusa pigs are shown at Lowry Park Zoo in this photo from 1995. A Tampa Bay couple is accused of distributing remnants from exotic animal species, including a babirusa skill. [Tampa Bay Times]
    Novita Indah and Larry Malugin sold more than 3,000 items made from the animals over a period of more than five years, federal officials said.
  8. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,, center, speaks as fellow candidates businessman Tom Steyer, from left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. listen, Tuesday during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) [PATRICK SEMANSKY  |  AP]
    The candidates’ proposals reveal differences in how they plan to approach the issue.
  9. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumps new sand from Central Florida along the Miami Beach shoreline near 65th Collins Avenue on Monday. [MATIAS J. OCNER  |  Miami Herald]
    The idea is to build a buffer between the condos and the rising seas.
  10. Draped against the St. Petersburg skyline on Tuesday evening on January 14, 2020, the Bella Vita is visible as it docks in Port St. Pete. The yacht is nearly 250 feet long and costs about $650,000 to charter for a week in the winter, according to broker Moran Yacht and Ship. It can accommodate 12 passengers between its six staterooms and six decks, and a staff of 22. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times]
    Meet the Bella Vita, a yacht almost too luxurious to believe.