Miami tries flood prevention

In Miami areas most prone to flooding rainwater can sit for weeks after a major storm.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | MIAMI, Fla. | January 9, 2003

"It rains and the water just sits. We had to figure out how to move this water."

—Frank Reddish

Miami residents are used to tropical weather. After all, they live in Miami.

Flooding, however, is one thing they have not gotten used to.

In the areas of Miami most prone to flooding rainwater can sit around for weeks after a major storm. That means serious property damage, as well as a nasty breeding ground for mosquitoes and an all-around annoying mess.

But thanks to the efforts of more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies, as well as various environmental groups, Miami's extensive canal system is being overhauled to prevent flooding in the future.

Frank Reddish, emergency management coordinator for Dade County, has been overseeing the work of these agencies for the past two years. According to Reddish, the work of all these agencies appears to be paying off.

The main reason Miami has such a flooding problem, Reddish said, is that it's totally flat, and it lies right at sea level.

"We're flat as a board here. We have no slope," Reddish said. "That's the problem."

To make matters worse, the canal system that snakes through the city doesn't expel floodwater as effectively as it should.

Since Miami lies right on the ocean, canals are continually assaulted with a backwash of saltwater at high tide. So these canals are equipped with floodgates in order to prevent saltwater from washing inland, where it can contaminate the groundwater and eventually the drinking supply.

Problem is, Reddish said, these gates also prevent floodwater from getting out to the ocean when a big storm comes through.

"It rains and the water just sits," he said. "We had to figure out how to move this water."

Thanks to a $50 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Reddish and the many groups he coordinates began installing massive pumps, which move 4,500 gallons of water per second, at these canal floodgates.

The first and largest project focused on the Tamiami Canal, Miami's largest, which bisects the city from west to east.

Other canals were then added to the flood mitigation program, and a battery of portable pumps was kept on reserve to be moved to areas that did not have permanent pumps installed.

The test came Dec. 9, 2002, when a major rainstorm hit Miami. In the past, Reddish said, the most flood-prone areas (West Miami, Sweetwater and Flagami) would have been submerged. This time, however, that didn't happen.

"It showed that what we were working on worked," Reddish said.

Miami resident Lesli Remaly, disaster response and recovery liaison for Church World Service, agreed that the flood mitigation effort appears to be successful.

"The flooding was significantly reduced in December, with the exception of a community in North Miami that was flooded out again along a canal that did not have the pump mitigation yet," Remaly said.

But areas that had pumps in place did just fine, she said.

Reddish said areas that have pumps installed in the canals can handle up to ten inches of floodwater. Before the installation of the pumps, any more than six inches of rain meant serious problems.

The question is-if flooding has been a problem in Miami for so many years, why has it taken so long to implement these measures?

Reddish said that Hurricane Andrew marked the beginning of a major change in disaster response, in particular, a shift toward prevention and preparedness.

Hurricane Irene forced further changes in this direction.

But the biggest impetus for change, he said, came in 2000 and 2001, two years in a row of major flooding for Miami. That really got people's attention. And that was also when FEMA made the $50 million grant, without which these changes would not have been possible.

"Miami-Dade has the best mitigation program for flood prevention in the country and we need it," Remaly said. "We are surrounded by water from the river of grass to canals to the lakes and ocean. Managing the water flow is crucial during the rainy season and hurricane season to keep the ever expanding population safe."

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