HIGH WATERS

Miami middle school students offer their own plans to protect communities against rising sea levels. Local experts and officials are taking them seriously.


By Sofia Zuniga, Samantha Schalit, Yulia Strokova




“They call it Miami Lakes for a reason: a lot of flooding,” said Miami Lakes resident, Pedro Martinez.


After Hurricane Eta hit in November 2020, South Florida faced severe flooding that trapped people in their homes and left cars stranded on roads for hours, even days. Schools had to cancel classes and one even faced interior damage: Miami Lakes Middle School.

Mrs. Lisa DeYarza & Maurits Acosta, Stephanie Rodriguez, Lucia Bring, Rashelle Salnave, Gabriella Vega, Faremys Vazquez, Jocelyn Hernandez


Seeing how this flooding directly impacted their community, a group of Miami Lakes Middle School students decided to jump deeper into the problem to find their own way to solve the problem. Mrs. Lisa DeYarza, who leads Miami Lakes Middle School's Legal Department and mentors young leaders, encouraged the students to take on difficult challenges to strengthen themselves and improve their work.


“This along with her honest personality has helped our work flourish and has given us lessons to remember for the rest of our lives,” stated Miami Lakes Middle School students. “Mrs. DeYarza has always taught us that ‘challenges strengthen the mind, conformity weakens it.’ This lesson is represented in all the work we do. She has shown us the technique behind proper researching and how important it is to create a base before you can build onto it.”


Together, the students created a multi-sectional plan that aims to alleviate flooding in Miami Lakes. They received guidance from their teacher and consulted experts at Florida International University, South Florida Water Management District and the Department of Public works.


“Out of the 16 Miami-Dade schools that closed because of Hurricane Eta, three of them were in Miami Lakes. Our community is being affected and we decided to take action,” explained the students.


Over the last ten years, places that used to flood just once or twice a year now flood ten or twelve times a year. As sea levels rise, the frequency, duration, and depth of flooding will creep up to 20 or 30 days a year unless adaptation measures are implemented.


Miami-Dade County has released an optimistic strategy for living with more water which is focused on raising buildings and roads, working on construction further inland and making more room for flooding in low areas.


The county's strategy is divided into five adaptation approaches: raise the land on artificial fill, elevate structures on pilings and live with more water; promote new development in the least flood-prone areas along transit corridors; expand waterfront parks and make room for canals in our most flood-prone neighborhoods; create green neighborhoods.


The proposal prepared by Miami Lakes Middle School students details specific tactics that aim to improve infrastructure:


The first section of the plan includes banning non-permeable materials in moderate to severe flooding zones. They hope to prevent structures like patios, driveways and decks from being built with material like concrete since it doesn’t allow excess water to seep through.


“Updating policy through zoning codes to require further open green space or permeable pavement can create some of the large-scale changes within private properties that we need across South Florida,” says Aaron DeMayo, Architectural Designer and Urban Planner at Future Vision Studios.


“Incentivizing new development to include additional Climate Adaptation and Resilience Infrastructure can help offset the non-permeable space within older properties and to take the pressure off the stormwater system, further safeguarding our community.”


As a good example, Miracle Mile recently underwent a renovation to become more pedestrian-friendly and resilient. Large Caliper shade trees connected by a shared trench of substructure soils, along with porous pavement allows stormwater to be directed to the street trees. This network of Green Infrastructure absorbs and filters stormwater, combats the urban heat island effect, and defends the shops and restaurants from flash flooding.


The students’ plan also calls for the installation of backflow preventers in water outfalls. This allows the drainage system a higher water capacity and prevents water from going back into the system when it shouldn’t.


These backflow preventers ultimately protect water from becoming contaminated by backflow and are used successfully in the City of Miami(the Miami Forever Bond), Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, quickly becoming essential all over South Florida.


Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is crafting a rule that will lay out a standard for considering sea-level rise before starting construction on some publicly funded projects along the coast.


The plan also aims to replace the mainline pipes that lead to water outfalls with pressurized pipes in order to smooth the water flow and prevent pipe combustion: a similar system to Miami Beach’s. By using these pressurized pipes, clogging would be reduced, leading to fully flowing pipes.


In regards to financing, the students thought of options such as raising the Stormwater Utility Fee or crowdfunding. As explained by Matt Brosman, Civil Engineer at Kimley-Horn, “Stormwater Utilities are now common across the state and a good way to fund stormwater projects.”


After four months of working on the project, the students presented their plan at the Town of Miami Lakes’council meeting in early February. Manny Cid, Mayor of Miami Lakes, applauded the students and Mrs. Deyarza for being proactive in their community. Councilman Tony Hernandez called the plan a fantastic initiative and expressed his approval on the proposal.



“All of South Florida, and coastal cities around the world, are facing the issues that are occurring from sea-level rise and climate change. Plans of action need to be spoken about at the local and state levels. Innovative ideas from all stakeholders will be needed to solve our flooding issues,” said Spencer Teufel, Civil Engineer at Kimley-Horn.


Local officials say that doing nothing is untenable. Without action, more than $3 billion worth of property could be lost to daily tidal flooding by 2040 and $23.5 billion by 2070, according to a report last fall by the Urban Land Institute. For business, it means that we will either spend more money on insurance claims, or we can spend money on infrastructure improvements.


In order to push for long-term solutions, Spencer explains “You will also need community involvement and a clear vision statement that the public can stand behind in order to want to help fund and support these investments.”


Spencer also emphasized the importance of prioritizing areas such as emergency evacuation routes and school property as they will have the biggest impact. While the county’s plans focus on actions such as elevating homes on stilts or using dirt and rocks to raise the ground, it still leaves the roads at risk of flooding.


“This is our existential challenge. This is the one that trumps them all,” stated Daniella Levine Cava, Miami-Dade Mayor. “We must attend to our future, our resilient future, to continue to have all the success and enjoyment of paradise in our beautiful home.”


Engagement and involvement of diverse stakeholders and young, driven leaders will be key to enacting sustainable change.


“Anyone, anywhere can be a changemaker -- and with the right opportunities -- take action for the common good. I really believe in what these middle school students are proposing,” stated Silvio F. Pupo, Social Impact Entrepreneur and CEO of Logos Capital.


He attended that Town Hall meeting in Miami Lakes and expressed his support to the students in driving this project forward. “Making an impact in a community shouldn’t be limited to someone's age or access to resources; especially if it’s for the benefit of all.”


P.S. The cover photo is made by Anastasia Samoylova for her award-winning 'FloodZone' photoproject reflecting and responding to the problem of rising sea levels.