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Florida Keys may abandon some roads to sea rise rather than raise them

Elevating less than 3 miles of Old State Road 4A by 2025 could cost $75 million.
Motorists head north of Key Largo on U.S. 1, in anticipation of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6, 2017.  Keys officials announced a mandatory evacuation Wednesday for visitors, with residents being told to leave the next day. [Associated Press]
Motorists head north of Key Largo on U.S. 1, in anticipation of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6, 2017. Keys officials announced a mandatory evacuation Wednesday for visitors, with residents being told to leave the next day. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 6, 2019
Updated Dec. 6, 2019

Last month, the Keys asked the state for $150 million to address sea level rise. Newly released cost estimates show the county could blow that entire amount on a few miles of road elevation.

Elevating less than 3 miles of Old State Road 4A on Sugarloaf Key to withstand sea rise and king tide by 2025 could cost $75 million, Monroe’s head of resilience revealed at a sea level rise conference in Key West on Wednesday. Elevating for 2045 could cost $128 million. And by 2060, that price tag could soar to $181 million.

The county has 314 miles of road to care for — or choose to abandon. Half of them are susceptible to sea rise in the next 20 years. The cost to keep them dry has county government officials openly questioning whether the math is worth it.

RELATED: Don’t travel to the Florida Keys, tourism website says

“Are we really going to spend $128 million to elevate 3 miles of road where 30 people live? It’s not up to me, but I don’t think so,” said Rhonda Haag, Monroe County’s head of resilience.

In cases where the costs of flood-proofing the roads overcome the benefit of keeping communities dry, Monroe officials said, the answer is buying out homes.

“It’s that word nobody likes to use — retreat,” said Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “We’re going to have to retreat from some areas, and that’s going to be costly.”

Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers, on the other hand, sees alternate ways to preserve neighborhoods. She suggested Monroe could establish water ferries or taxis to raised homes, likening it to the historic community of homes in Biscayne Bay off Miami known as Stiltsville.

“I think it’s a reconfiguration of our community over a long period of time,” she said. “This doesn’t happen tomorrow. It happens over generations.”

She also noted that these costs are simply an extrapolation of the price to elevate a third of mile of road in another neighborhood, and she expects them to drop considerably as more calculations are done. But the price tag is still a hurdle for the county.

“Even if it’s half the cost, it’s still extremely high, and it’s hard to justify that cost for 15 properties,” she said. “We have some hard decisions to make.”

The Keys knew road raising was going to be expensive. They just didn’t know it was going to be this expensive.

A few years ago, Monroe was quoted a cost of more than $3 million to elevate less than a mile of road in two different neighborhoods. This latest estimate for a road that will remain dry in 40 years is about a dozen times as expensive.

That staggering price for short stretches of road is due to everything that goes to support the road: pumps to drain the water, stations to clean it and injection wells to shove it back underground. It doesn’t include costs to harmonize the high roads with neighboring homes (like Miami Beach’s storm drains on private properties), acquiring property alongside the road or the legal fees the county may face.

And those legal fees might be pretty steep. Few places around the country have stopped servicing roads because of climate change, and it could lead to a legal backlash from homeowners who can no longer access their homes.

“Policy-wise, how do you tell somebody you’re not going to build the road to their home?” Gastesi wondered aloud during the conference. “And what do we do? Do we buy them out? Is it eminent domain? Is it voluntary?”

Those are questions the Keys is going to have to answer fast. Buyouts have already begun in the Keys.

This week, Florida announced the Keys would receive more than $20 million — twice as much as the state originally set aside for the region — to buy out homes damaged by Hurricane Irma and demolish them. The Keys prioritized buyouts for homes that were most at risk of sea rise.

But that’s just a fraction of the demand. Sixty-one people signed up to sell their homes initially, and 10 more people are on a waiting list.

The state may open the program again, since only $44 million of the original $75 million pot has been spoken for. If so, Monroe hopes to buy out the rest of its willing homeowners.

So far, Monroe doesn’t have a strategy for where and how it will buy out homes beyond looking for the most at-risk properties. Spreading out individual buyouts over various neighborhoods can create a “checkerboard effect,” said Katharine Mach, a University of Miami professor who studies managed retreat. It’s also not the most cost effective way to spend limited money.

“Buying out the biggest houses is certainly going to break the bank,” she said. “And you don’t want to be handing out giant checks to people for their second or vacation homes.”

But buying out lower value properties, even though it may be more cost-effective, can raise issues of gentrification and unequal access to waterfront communities.

It’s unclear what the state’s role will be in managing retreat from the Keys, or if the administration is even considering a broader plan or additional funding.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was scheduled to speak at the climate conference but dropped out last minute with no explanation. His chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, gave a brief speech about the state’s response to climate change. In it, she talked about how the bill for seawalls alone in Monroe County “could cost hundreds of millions, making it too costly to really be a realistic solution for the future.”

The governor’s office declined to make her available for an interview about the state’s strategy on retreat and buyouts, but when asked by a reporter at a panel if her state resiliency plan will involve managed retreat, she called it a sensitive topic.

“I believe it’s a local decision. I rely on the mayors and the local officials on that,” she said. “But it’s a reality, it’s something we have to address.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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