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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]

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.”

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