Fla. Keys prepare for rising waters

Touristy islands hard at work to find own answers
2013-07-03T00:00:00Z Fla. Keys prepare for rising watersThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

KEY WEST, Fla. - Hurricane storm surge can inundate the narrow, low-lying Florida Keys, but that is far from the only water worry for officials.

A tidal gauge operating since before the Civil War has documented a sea level rise of 9 inches in the last century, and officials expect that to double over the next 50 years. So when building a new Stock Island fire station, county authorities added a foot and a half over federal flood-planning directives that the ground floor be built up 9 feet.

Seasonal tidal flooding that was once a rare inconvenience is now so predictable that some businesses at the end of Key West's famed Duval Street stock sandbags just inside their front doors, ready anytime.

"It's really easy to see during our spring high tides that the sea level is coming up - for whatever reason - and we have to accommodate for that," said Johnnie Yongue, on-site technician at the fire station for Monroe County's project management department.

While New York City's mayor was announcing a dramatic multibillion-dollar plan for flood walls and levees to hold back rising water there, sea walls like those that encase the Netherlands wouldn't help much in the Keys, as a lack of coastal barriers isn't the island chain's only problem.

"Our base is old coral reef, so it's full of holes," says Alison Higgins, sustainability coordinator for the city of Key West. "You've got both the erosion and the fact that (water) just comes up naturally through the holes."

The Keys' plans for adapting to rising sea levels sound a lot like the way they prepare for hurricanes: Track the incoming disturbance, adjust infrastructure accordingly and communicate potential risks to residents - all, hopefully, without scaring off the tourists who treasure the islands for their fishing, colorful sunsets, eccentric characters and come-as-you-are social scene.

In many sea-level projections for the coming century, the Keys, Miami and much of southern Florida partially sink beneath potential waves. However, officials are quick to note that the Keys' beloved resorts, marinas and airport - with a runway averaging just over 2 feet above sea level - aren't disappearing underwater overnight.

The Keys and three South Florida counties agreed in 2010 to collaborate on a regional plan to adapt to climate change. The first action plan developed under that agreement was published in October and calls for revamped planning policies, more public transportation options, stopping seawater from flowing into freshwater supplies and managing the region's unique ecosystems so they can adapt, too.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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