Climate Change Flooding In Rick Scott’s Florida Is Now Routine -- Even As He Denies Its Cause

It’s not just "red tide" that’s plaguing the Florida governor’s run for Senate. "King tides" caused by rising sea levels are flooding southeast Florida every autumn.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. ― For a governor whose climate change policy has been to deny it, Michael Tilis has a river to show Rick Scott.

It’s the one that flows when Biscayne Bay laps up and over the concrete sea wall and rolls along Lincoln Road, down the ramp at Tilis’ building and into his parking garage.

“Water just kept going in and going down,” Tilis said.

Michelle DeLeon lives on Lincoln Road just a block from the bay, meaning the water gets to her building first. Her garage has a special plastic barrier installed to keep water out. Sandbags are piled in the building’s foyer, and a small notice on the bulletin board lists all the coming high tides. “The word on our street? This is Lincoln Lake,” she said.

As Scott has hunkered down in the Florida Panhandle, dealing with one likely consequence of climate change in the form of a historically destructive hurricane, residents in the opposite corner of the state this week are dealing with a second one. But unlike storms that develop and move erratically, the flooding in southeast Florida has become a regular, predictable occurrence: every autumn, for several full and new moons following the equinox.

Such flooding was rare a decade ago. Now it is a near certainty, at least a few times each fall ― the result, oceanographers and atmospheric scientists believe, of sea level rise caused by a warming climate.

Tilis, who has lived in Miami Beach for the last 30 of his 50 years, said the silver lining, if there is one, is that politicians must now accept what’s happening to the planet. “They can’t deny it,” he said. “Or they’ll sound like idiots.”

Nevertheless, that is exactly what Scott has done over his eight years as governor.

“I have not been convinced,” he said of global warming in 2010 as he ran for his first term.

“Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is,” he said last year.

Michael Tilis has watched tidal flooding in Miami Beach go from rare to an annual occurrence over the past decade. He said he
Michael Tilis has watched tidal flooding in Miami Beach go from rare to an annual occurrence over the past decade. He said he cannot understand how politicians can continue to deny climate change, given the evidence on the ground.

Scott’s Senate campaign would not say what his views on climate change are now, and instead countered that Scott focuses on solving the flooding problem. “Just this year, Governor Scott invested over $3.5 million to help local governments with sea level rise planning,” campaign spokesman Chris Hartline told HuffPost.

Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who Scott is hoping to unseat in November’s midterm elections, has used the governor’s “climate denial” against him in advertisements, speeches and the one debate they held before Hurricane Michael struck on Oct. 10. The storm devastated Panhandle counties after jumping from barely a hurricane at all to almost Category 5 strength in just two days.

“That extra strength fueled from that hot water of the Gulf of Mexico, and then that was what was so surprising to everybody and so deadly as it approached the coast,” Nelson said the following day. “Florida is ground zero. Look what’s happening down in South Florida on the mean high tide that is sloshing over the street curbs in places like Miami Beach.”

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Inhabiting a low-lying barrier island with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Biscayne Bay on the other, Miami Beach has never been a stranger to storm-related flooding. Residents are accustomed to the idea that any given day during hurricane season could bring catastrophic ruin.

The so-called “king tides,” though, are a new menace, only going back about a decade.

“The places that used to stay dry are now going to get wet. The places that used to flood are going to flood even more,” said Brian McNoldy, a climate researcher at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “From where we are now, it will get worse.”

Tides are always more dramatic at full and new moons, when the gravitational pull of the sun is added to that of the moon. Tides around the spring and autumn equinoxes, when the moon’s orbital plane around the Earth aligns with the Earth’s orbital plane around the sun, are slightly higher still.

The new wrinkle for South Florida has been measurably higher sea-surface temperatures and a slightly slower Gulf Stream current in recent years. Water expands as it warms, and the slower offshore current lets it pile up along the shore, McNoldy said.

Late September and October have some of the warmest waters of the year, he added, and also more frequent easterly winds that push it through the inlets into Biscayne Bay. When these conditions happen to coincide with a full or new moon, the result has been flooded streets and basements.

Miami Beach resident Michelle DeLeon points to where the "king tide" floods enter the parking garage beneath her building eve
Miami Beach resident Michelle DeLeon points to where the "king tide" floods enter the parking garage beneath her building every autumn.

McNoldy has been studying tide gauge readings at nearby Virginia Key from the past two decades. The highest tides are now four and a half inches higher than they were in the mid-1990s, he said. More alarmingly, the average increases in the past few years have been significantly larger than in the first decade or so.

“It’s happening more quickly than it was,” he said, estimating that while it took 40 or 50 years for water to rise six inches, it will only take 15 or 20 for the next six inches. “Miami Beach and Miami are pretty low-lying places. A half a foot or so makes a big difference.”

In South Florida, none of this is controversial anymore. Miami Congressman Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, is a co-founder of the bipartisan “Climate Solutions Caucus,” and has even sponsored a carbon tax to reduce the country’s carbon dioxide emissions and address the root cause of rising sea levels.

“People in South Florida acknowledge it. It’s no longer taboo to talk about it,” McNoldy said. “At the state level, we’ve got Rick Scott.”

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In the 2010 elections, opposition to President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions was a defining feature of the tea party movement. And in Florida, former for-profit hospital chain executive Rick Scott was the movement’s charter member.

While the Republican governor at the time, Charlie Crist ― now a Democratic congressman from St. Peterburg ― was a national leader on climate change, Scott campaigned on taking Florida in the opposite direction, reversing Crist’s attempts to impose cap-and-trade rules on carbon at the state level.

Even as scientists around the globe coalesced around the consensus that human-generated carbon dioxide is behind climate change, Scott’s administration banned the very phrase, according to Miami Herald reporting based on public records and interviews with former employees.

Ironically, anti-environment positions that may have helped Scott win two terms as governor may now keep him from the Senate.

The reality is, these issues are only going to impact everyday Floridians more as years go by. Steve Schale, Democratic consultant

Scott’s slashing of budgets and easing of water quality enforcement at his Department of Environmental Protection is at least partly behind the increased flow of nutrients into Lake Okeechobee. That has led to blooms of toxic blue-green algae that are choking key waterways on both Florida coasts and likely exacerbating an ongoing red tide that has killed millions of fish, sea turtles and even dolphins while causing respiratory problems for residents and tourists alike.

Similarly, Scott’s denial of global warming could hurt him both in the Panhandle ― where Hurricane Michael rapidly intensified in superheated coastal water before coming ashore at Mexico Beach, and where hundreds of residents remain unaccounted for ― and in South Florida, where “king tides” have entered the popular lexicon.

“Where Nelson has hurt Scott isn’t specifically on his climate denials, but more on what his climate denials have led to, such as the increased problems with red tide, as well as coastal flooding. Honestly, the race was going the wrong way for Nelson until they leaned in on these issues,” said longtime Democratic consultant Steve Schale.

“Eighty percent of the statewide vote lives in the I-4 markets and south,” he said, referring to the interstate that connects Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach. “And that is where these issues are more directly playing out politically ― and the reality is, these issues are only going to impact everyday Floridians more as years go by.”

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Rick Scott, of course, is not the only Republican in Florida who challenges the idea of human-caused climate change. Aside from Curbelo and some other Republicans from coastal cities, climate change has remained a clear partisan divide in Florida since Crist was essentially forced from his party during his run for Senate in 2010. Crist had championed alternative energy, including the imposition of a carbon tax, in his first years in office.

Since then, state Republicans have coalesced around climate “denial” ― insisting there is no solid evidence that the planet is warming, and that even if there is, there’s no proof that human-generated greenhouse gases are the cause. And because Republicans maintain a solid lock on the state legislature in Tallahassee, cities like Miami Beach have been largely on their own in dealing with the rising sea.

“There hasn’t been a lot of leadership on this from Tallahassee,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. “Just a lot of denial of what’s obvious to the world.”

A pump station in South Miami Beach sucks up seawater coming up the storm drains during a recent king tide and sends it back
A pump station in South Miami Beach sucks up seawater coming up the storm drains during a recent king tide and sends it back out into Biscayne Bay. At full capacity, the pumping station can move 14,000 gallons per minute.

It was Gelber’s predecessor, Philip Levine, who aggressively pushed to begin a half billion-dollar program to harden the city against the coastal flooding. A special tax paid for raising the level of major roads and installing massive pumping stations to collect the water as it comes over the sea walls and up the storm drains during high tides and to pump it back into Biscayne Bay.

As the tide hit its peak Wednesday morning, coming within a few inches of cresting many sea walls, the pumps thrummed madly. A key one located in South Beach where Alton Road crosses 17th Street siphoned up seawater and pumped 5,000 gallons per minute into a canal leading back to the bay. The city has 23 such stations already, with plans to build a total of 80.

“For what they’re meant to do ― which is make the streets not have a foot of salt water on them ― they’re working,” said McNoldy, the University of Miami climate researcher.

The machinery has improved South Beach resident Tilis’ life. The flooding does not happen as frequently. But he acknowledged that the problem is only going to get worse as the years pass, and will require even higher roads and even more pumps.

Tilis says he is resigned to that future. “Venice is proof that it can be done on a large scale,” he said with a shrug.

That’s certainly doable, said climate change consultant Joyce Coffee ― for a city with Miami Beach’s tax base, at least. Speaking at the 10th annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, which this year happened to coincide with a “king tide,” Coffee said not every city and town in South Florida can afford that.

“While Miami Beach has enough wealth to engineer their way out of this crisis, many of the communities in this region do not,” she told the hundreds of city officials, consultants and activists in attendance. “This is an existential crisis. It is sobering what is ahead of us.”