Before Superstorm Sandy flooded New York City subway tunnels and streets, a surge from the storm combined with a high tide to swallow the beach, palm trees, parking meters, sidewalks and a chunk of A1A near Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. During a similar storm on Thanksgiving weekend, part of A1A and the sidewalk gave out.

About 34 miles south, the same weather system flooded roads in Miami Beach, and stormwater drains were spitting the overflow back into the streets for days.

The same surging ocean stole part of Carlin Beach Park in Jupiter, where public restrooms and a lifeguard stand will probably have to be relocated.

Extreme weather is inflicting increasing damage on South Florida’s infrastructure, and various climate-change scenarios have it getting worse as the sea level rises. For a region built only a few inches or feet above the water table, thrashing storms riding high tides are a recurring threat — not only to coastal cities, but also to western suburbs perched on canals that push floodwater east to the Atlantic Ocean.

Little by little, South Florida’s elected officials are waking up to the reality that a rising sea has become a critical issue with short- and long-term impacts.

For the first time, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties have joined forces to develop a road map to help deal with the encroaching ocean. The four-county alliance known as the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact has produced a regional climate action plan. The document, masterminded by scientists and public agencies, spells out strategies to adapt to the challenges caused by the rising sea level. The action plan could guide decisions on what, where and how structures should be built or rebuilt in vulnerable areas.

Participants believe the regional effort is the first of its kind in the country.

The action plan recommends counties and cities amend their comprehensive development master plans to include language about the rising sea level and climate change. That would influence decisions and policies on land use, zoning, water management, flood control, clean energy and more.

The plan also recommends that counties and cities identify the areas most vulnerable to inundation and determine the kind of public investment needed for roads, bridges, flood gates, storm drainage and sand dunes, among other things.

Increments In Inches

More importantly, the compact provides scientific data on sea-level rise that all the parties seem to embrace. Tides have risen about 3 inches in the past 30 years and about 6 to 7 inches over the past century, according to data collected in Key West, said hydrologist Jeremy Decker with the U.S. Geological Survey.

While Decker concedes “projecting future sea-level rise is quite difficult,” the compact projects a rise of 3 to 7 inches by 2030, and 9 to 24 inches by 2060.

With images of crumpled sidewalks on A1Astill fresh in their minds, some elected officials are paying more attention to climate change.

There is enough understanding of the problem among South Florida politicians to suggest the issue will move forward regionally but not at the state level, said Leonard Berry, director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter.

“The local level is where the rubber meets the road, where the problems become visible,” he said. “Mayors and commissioners on a bipartisan basis recognize that they have problems that they need to deal with.”

Miami-Dade County commissioners unanimously approved a 2013 legislative agenda to lobby federal and state elected officials to adopt policies in line with the regional climate action plan. Commissioner Sally Heyman sponsored the item at the Jan. 23 meeting. Her district includes the coastal cities from Miami Beach to Golden Beach. Commissioners plan to discuss adopting the compact’s action plan to align Miami-Dade’s sea-level rise adaptation and mitigation plans with the region Tuesday.

Climate change “is a real concern to me,” Heyman said. “Storm Sandy and Hurricane Sandy was a real awakening. We didn’t get hurt bad, but it really eroded our beaches in Miami-Dade.”

The erosion is dangerous because beaches, especially those with dunes, protect coastal development and infrastructure from flooding.

Sandy, which built into a Category 2 hurricane, was the biggest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, with winds spanning 1,100 miles. The damage estimate stands at $65 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“About 80 percent of our state is coastal,” Heyman said. “It really got our attention with what happened in New York.”

The storm didn’t land in South Florida but coincided with extreme high tides in late October. In November, mid-Atlantic storms again combined with extreme tides to cause a second round of flooding around Thanksgiving.

Planning Changes

Until recently, hardly anyone was talking about incorporating sea-level rise into a city or county’s comprehensive development master plan, Berry said. “In the last five years we have seen major progress and it’s partly because the problems have become more apparent.”

The fact that elected officials are discussing sea-level rise is a victory, said James Murley, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

“There is a change in the attitude that people have,” said Murley, a senior associate for energy and climate change at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies. “The most important thing that the compact does, it allows for a healthy discussion about what’s going on based on science, and allows different opinions to be proffered.”

In November, Miami Beach approved a stormwater management master plan that takes into account the rising sea. The plan will be implemented over a 20-year period at a cost of about $206 million.

“It sets a new design standard for all future projects,” said Miami Beach public works director Fred Beckmann. “It takes into account sea-level rise projections for the next 20 years.”

The new stormwater system will include backflow preventers, more pump stations, higher seawalls and stormwater storage.

Miami Beach, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Biscayne Bay to the west, is considered a pioneer in making climate change part of its capital improvement planning.

“We are one of the few, if not the only one in Florida, that has taken sea-level rise into consideration when [creating] a stormwater master plan,” said Mayor Matti Herrera Bower.

Frequent Flooding

She said she knew very little about the issue until she attended summits on climate change and had discussions with city staffers.

The staff turned its attention to the rising sea after a so-called 50-year storm produced flash flooding on June 5, 2009. The city got almost 10 inches of rain, its drainage system was overwhelmed, and flooding was reported in more than 20 locations, Beckmann said.

The stormwater pipes were unable to empty the runoff into the bay, and water backed up into city streets. The flooding was mostly on the west side of the island, since the east side is partly protected by beach dunes. Beckmann said the frequency and duration of flooding on the west side has increased in recent years.

Herrera Bower said adapting the infrastructure to extreme weather is expensive, and cities alone won’t be able to absorb the cost. She said federal and state funding should be part of the equation.

“The state and the federal government need to be involved,” she said. “They have to realize that things like this are going on. We have some roads that are owned by the state and some by the federal government.”

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora wants the city to explore using permeable road materials like a product used in Europe to improve drainage.

“I want to see how we can use those types of products on Miami Beach to help us control the stormwater,” he said.

City commissioners will discuss endorsing the compact’s regional climate action plan in February.

Inland Look

Broward County is developing computer models to project the impact of sea-level rise on the infrastructure, said Jennifer Jurado, director of the county’s natural resources planning and management division.

“This is going to be very significant in terms of guiding future investments and possibly looking at moving wells westward or developing regional water supply projects,” she said.

Her office is not just looking at coastal cities, but also at inland communities where draining systems depend on pumps that send water into canals where sea-level rise may have an impact.

“We need to look at mitigating that effect,” Jurado said. “The model will tell us what kind of improvements could mitigate that problem and maintain level of service.”

Saltwater intrusion, the underground flow of brackish water from the ocean, is nothing new to South Florida. It has been happening for decades, often threatening the drinking water in public wells close to the ocean.

“But sea-level rise only accelerates it,” said Jurado. She said saltwater intrusion modeling would help the county develop strategies to stave off the threat.

Taking It Seriously

Miami-Dade County and the South Florida Water Management District are identifying canals, pumps and flood gates that may malfunction during extreme weather.

“We have identified sea-level rise as the primary variable that we need to worry about in the near future,” said Jayantha Obeysekera, a hydrologic and environmental systems modeling specialist with the South Florida Water Management District.

The district’s priority has been figuring out which of its 50-year-old structures needs to be upgraded to meet the new challenge.

“We have done the basic science and assessment of what structures are more vulnerable,” he said, noting the district began looking into sea-level level in 2008.

Miami-Dade has experience with responding to natural disasters. After Category 5 Hurricane Andrew devastated southern Miami-Dade, the county adopted a stringent building code.

“The fact is that there is all kind of data showing that severe weather is happening, and it doesn’t really matter why it is happening,” said Nichole Hefty, climate change program manager at the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management. “What matters is that we need to take it seriously and do whatever we can to mitigate the impact of that severe weather.”

The challenge she sees is bringing the climate change argument to the forefront in cash-strapped communities.

“Some of the solutions are low cost, but others are substantial,” she said. “These longer-term issues, while they are extremely important, are a challenge to get traction and get consensus.”

West Palm Beach also is on board with climate change initiatives. “If we are going to be looking at long-term plans on capital improvement, we’ve got to take into consideration sea-level rise,” said Penni Redford, the city’s sustainability manager. She recently applied for a $150,000 federal grant to evaluate her city’s infrastructure vulnerability so that strategies to address them can be identified.

Beach Protection

Despite the growing interest in sea-level rise among elected officials, there’s a long way to go, said former Miami-Dade County commissioner Katy Sorenson, one of the forces behind the creation of the regional compact.

“Many elected officials are putting their head in the sand about that,” she said. “They are not taking the time to learn the importance of addressing sea-level rise and what it’s going to take. … It could be very expensive. There is no question about it.”

Term limits could discourage elected officials from focusing on long-term issues, said Sorenson, president and CEO of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami.

“If they think they are going to be out in a year, why should they deal with sea-level rise?” she asked.

Palm Beach County is behind in its response to climate change, said former county commissioner Karen Marcus, who also helped create the compact in 2010. The county has yet to hire anyone to focus on the issue.

“Sandy was certainly a wake-up call,” she said.

She is part of the Save Our Beaches Coalition seeking greater beach protection. The group is planning a countywide study on beach renourishment and the impact of climate change.

“Right now, we look at beach nourishment projects in piecemeal rather than on a coastal approach, and we don’t look at the effect of climate change,” she added.

For decades, the biggest problem for government-initiated beach restoration projects has been the time it takes to get permits.

“We can no longer take 12 years for a project that needs to be done a year after it was applied for,” Marcus said. “Eventually, if we don’t start coming up with some long-term solutions, the condos will have water in their first and second floors.”