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Florida Sends $25 Million To The Keys and Miami-Dade To Buy Out Irma Flood Victims

Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys but caused severe flooding on Brickell Avenue in Miami.
Miami Herald archives
Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys but caused severe flooding on Brickell Avenue in Miami.

Florida is sending $25 million to South Florida to buy out homeowners ready to surrender to hurricanes and rising seas.

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity awarded $44 million in Hurricane Irma relief money to cities and counties around the state to purchase vulnerable property in an attempt to cut the cost of future damage. In South Florida, Monroe County will receive the lion’s share - $15 million - with another $5 million going to Marathon, about $4.5 million to Miami-Dade County and just over $200,000 to the Village of Islamorada.

The money is part of a $75 million pot of federal money set aside after the 2017 hurricane plowed across the state causing an estimated $50 billion in damage.

The Cat 4 hurricane made landfall on Cudjoe Key with 130 mph winds, but its winds extended nearly the breadth of the state as it plowed up the Gulf Coast and rolled ashore a second time on Marco Island.

The money to buyout property owners comes at time when a strategy to retreat from sea rise is gaining traction.

"“We can’t be afraid of that term, managed retreat. It’s something that’s gotta be on the table - if not today, certainly soon,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said during a break at the opening day of the annual conference for the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in Key West. 

“It just doesn’t make sense in some places to expand the infrastructure, when the old cost-benefit analysis doesn’t make sense,” he said.

It's unclear if the $20 million for Monroe County announced Tuesday is in addition to $10 million already slated for the county.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it planned to include buyouts in its plan to help armor communities around Biscayne Bay against storm surge worsened by sea rise. The Corps is expected to unveil a tentative plan in January.

This is the first time the state has offered federal money to buy out vulnerable properties, presenting a bit of a learning curve, said Miami-Dade County Resiliency Chief Jim Murley. The state also set a $5 million cap for Miami-Dade, a meager amount in the county’s pricey housing market.

To identify properties under a tight deadline, Murley said the county combed through flood-insurance records for houses catagorized as repetitive-loss properties and worked with the county stormwater department to identify other properties that flood repeatedly in unincorporated parts of the county. County staff also talked with homeowners near low-lying Arch Creek, who Murley said tried but failed to obtain federal money for buyouts about 10 years ago.

Ultimately, he said the county identified 10 willing property owners for a plan that will be presented to county commissioners for approval later this month or in January.

This initial round of buyouts could serve as a good test run, Murley said, in a county expected to face worsening flooding with increased sea rise. It’s also possible that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could put more money in the program, he said. About $640 million of the $1.4 billion in federal recovery money remains to be spent.

“We will learn everything we can about what to do and what not to do,” he said. “And inevitably we will be faced with situations in the future where these types of programs will be available.”

WLRN Keys reporter Nancy Klingener contributed to this report.

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.