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Corps Plan To Protect Keys: Raise Some Homes, Buy Out Others

Hurricane Irma destroyed or caused major damage to thousands of homes in the Keys, including Billy Quinn's trailer at Seabreeze trailer park.
Al Diaz
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Coping with storm surge fueled by rising seas in the Keys means elevating homes, buyouts in vulnerable areas, protecting important places like hospitals and wastewater plants and stabilizing parts of the Overseas Highway that could get washed out in storms.

Those are the proposals in a draft plan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The plan does not include structural projects such as floodgates and walls, like the plan proposed for Miami-Dade.

Those would be too expensive and wouldn't work in the environmentally sensitive Keys, according to the Corps planner.

Monroe's sustainability director Rhonda Haag said she is pleased with the plan.

"This is going to be the resilient program for the next 20 to 30 years here in the Keys — raising houses and raising roads," she said.

Raising the roads is the county's responsibility.

The projects under the Corps plan would total an estimated $3 billion. Of that, the federal government would pay 65% and Monroe County would be responsible for the rest.

First the project would have to be authorized by Congress. Then Congress would have to agree to fund it.

"There's no guarantees but when it comes down to this, if we don't get in line, we'll never get the money," Haag said. "So if there is a chance for appropriations, I'm going to be in line and I'm going to have my hands out ready for help. Because we're going to need help down here."

The Corps is scheduled to bring the plan back to the County Commission in May, and hold public meetings about the plan in June.

Several of the Monroe commissioners had serious concerns about one Corps rule — if they fund buyouts, the county has to be willing to take some properties by eminent domain, if necessary.

That means the county would force the homeowner to sell, on the grounds that buying the property serves a public purpose.

Haag said the county would approach willing buyers first — and that buyouts could help homeowners in areas that have seen repeated flood damage.

"There might not be a willing buyer for all of them in the private market, so this would be a way for those heavily impacted properties to have a willing buyer," she said.

The county is already taking part in a Rebuild Florida program to buy out homes that were impacted by Hurricane Irma. And it is studying which roads should be elevated, and by how much to stay dry as seas continue to encroach on the low-lying islands.

"None of these concepts are new to us. I think this is just some more additional help that we can get to continue to make our county resilient," Commissioner Michelle Coldiron said.

The draft plan assumes seas will rise by more than three feet in the next 60 years. At the annual Southeast Florida Climate Compact summit in December, the Keys were the focus of national attention for the projected costs of raising roads.

Coldiron said living in the Keys means coping with the effects of climate change.

"As we learned at the climate summit: embrace it. It's here, it's on its way. So what are we going to do to live with it?" she said.

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.