As Miami Beach braces for Irma, mayor urges residents to evacuate

As South Florida grapples with the possibility of widespread flooding from Hurricane Irma, the mayor of Miami-Dade’s largest barrier island city on Tuesday asked residents to consider leaving the island immediately — before the county officially issues an anticipated evacuation order.

“I’m personally recommending to our residents that you consider leaving the city of Miami Beach in advance of the evacuation order that we anticipate will be coming from the county mayor,” said Beach Mayor Philip Levine in a press conference.

Hours after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said residents on the barrier islands and along coastal mainland communities should start preparing to leave, Levine asked Beach residents who have a place to go to begin evacuating now. He also told residents who don’t have a plan to make one quickly.

Levine said leaving now will help evacuees avoid the anticipated crush of vehicles that could clog the four causeways that connect to the mainland.

Meanwhile, the city is bracing for widespread flooding as the hurricane continues to move in Florida’s direction. Though it won’t be until later this week that the storm’s path becomes clearer, Beach officials are already shoring up the city’s drainage system for heavy rains that are expected to fall whether Irma hits the city directly or the storm’s bands swirl over the island.

The powerful hurricane would certainly overwhelm the city’s drainage infrastructure, some of which has received more than $100 million in upgrades in recent years. Electric pumps, raised roads and new pipes have been installed to mitigate tidal flooding that used to swamp low-lying areas even on sunny days with high tides.

Those improvements, however, would be completely outmatched by an onslaught of rain that would come with a hurricane.

“We’re coastal barrier island. We’ve installed pumps. We’ve raised roads,” Levine told reporters. “But I’ll tell you this: Our pumps, our roads raising, they are not designed in any way for a hurricane.”

Indeed, even the upgraded systems were flooded on several South Beach streets during a severe afternoon storm in early August. When rainfall totals surpassed six inches within an hour, water pooled in areas like Alton Road, Lincoln Road and Sunset Harbour. To make matters worse, anti-flooding pumps lost power, and no backup generators were in place, so standing water drained slowly.

A cornerstone in Miami-Dade’s tourism economy, Miami Beach is also among the region’s most vulnerable areas in tropical weather. Storm surge poses a serious threat to some of the county’s most valuable real estate.

City workers have already begun to prepare. Public works officials have already deployed 18 portable generators to provide backup power to stormwater pumps — a lesson learned from the deluge in August. Officials say more are on the way. Eleven temporary pumps have been installed in low-lying areas, and 20 more will be positioned Wednesday.