By Joe Capozzi
Briny Breezes residents like to think they have a pretty good idea of how storms, king tides and rising seas can threaten their 43-acre community on the barrier island.
For a few days in September 2020, as a tropical system roiled off the coast at high tide, they watched the Intracoastal Waterway pour over the sea walls on the west side of town and into the streets. The water floated golf carts and flooded porches, air-conditioning units and cars. After a few days, the water receded.
As scary as that was for the co-op of 488 manufactured and mobile homes, a new consultant’s report suggests Briny ain’t seen nothing yet.
The resiliency planning guide, prepared by the Fort Lauderdale-based coastal engineering firm Brizaga Inc., calls for tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements and creative land-use changes to help Briny Breezes survive potential flooding over the next 50 years.
Among the measures outlined in the 144-page Flooding Adaptation Plan, commissioned for about $30,000 by the Briny Breezes Corp., are:
• Replacing and elevating more than 5,000 linear feet of sea walls on four basins near the most vulnerable parts of town along the Intracoastal Waterway.
• Enhancing the stormwater drainage system with larger pipes and pumps.
• Raising the streets and low-lying areas with tens of thousands of cubic yards of fill.
• Adopting alternative building methods that could include setting some homes atop concrete stilts, a strategy that helped one Key Largo community withstand a 2017 hurricane.
• Tearing the town down and redeveloping it (an option town and corporation officials consider highly unlikely) or abandoning the lowest-lying areas so they can be used for water retention.
In perhaps the report’s most eye-opening section, 12 forecasting maps show increasing levels of tidal flooding and storm surge over the next 50 years, based on models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the 2019 Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.
Some maps show low-lying areas on the west permanently under water in 2040. Another, for a Category 3 hurricane in 2070, shows the entire west side of town under up to 5 feet of water and sections on the east under more than 3 feet of water.
“If storm surge comes through at high tide as (some of) the forecast models continue to show, they’ll be waterfront properties. They’ll literally be sitting atop water in the Intracoastal 50 years from now,’’ said Mayor Gene Adams.
In all scenarios, the east side of town, between State Road A1A and the Atlantic Ocean, would fare better than the west side. But if the forecasted flooding throughout Briny were to occur, it could deal a catastrophic blow to the town.
Since Briny’s tax rate is already at the maximum allowed under state law, the town has relied each year on rising property values to generate extra operating revenue. If properties are swallowed by water, their values — and consequently the town’s tax base — will shrink.
“If your taxable value goes substantially down, your revenues obviously go substantially down and it could make it impossible for the town to exist,’’ Town Manager William Thrasher said in an interview.
“If they are forecasting correctly, from my perspective, the town of Briny would cease to exist. I don’t see how the town could survive that. So the report is a hypothetical forecast that could have dire effects on the town of Briny Breezes and its very existence and functionality.’’
The report also includes photographs of thousands of feet of deteriorating sea wall along the Intracoastal, some described in “poor” and “serious” condition, with “the most vulnerable sections along Mallard Drive South, Ibis Drive West, and Heron Drive’’ on the north end of the west side.
Despite those gloomy forecasts, town and corporation officials said they are optimistic the future will be bright.
In the months since the report came out in June, town leaders have already gotten started on Brizaga’s recommended “immediate next steps” — a master plan to replace the deteriorating sea walls on the west side and enhance the stormwater drainage system.
And the town’s Planning and Zoning Board has started looking into alternative building methods, as recommended by the Brizaga team.
“We feel this is a very positive tool for future short- and long-range planning and also a wonderful tool that will help the town work toward government funding and other grants related to coastal flooding,’’ Michael Gallacher, general manager of Briny Breezes Inc., wrote in a statement to The Coastal Star.
“Rather than predictions of fear, the report provides Briny with an analysis foundation on which both the town and the corporation can begin discussions with government bodies and for internal resource planning, prioritization and decision making.’’
But adequately preparing the town will come with a price tag. A high one. How high depends on which recommendations the town and corporation follow.
The Town Council on Oct. 28 approved two contracts with the West Palm Beach engineering firm Engenuity Group Inc., one for $85,000 to do a survey of underground utilities across town and the other for $60,000 for a stormwater master plan. Thrasher is trying to secure grant money for construction drawings, estimated to cost $250,000, for new sea walls and stormwater management improvements.
“Construction drawings can’t be created until you know the topography of the land and where utilities are located,’’ Thrasher said. “Once you have construction drawings, then you’re really able to start reaching out to legislators for appropriations.’’
The town has already initiated conversations with state Rep. Mike Caruso and state Sen. Lori Berman on securing millions of dollars for the long-term improvements recommended in the report.
Grants will require the town to put up matching money.
“If we really tackle this thing the right way,’’ Adams said, “there probably will be some degree of having to go up in assessments” paid every quarter by shareholders.
“The good news is property values are going up in Briny, so the tax base is going up higher and there’s more money available,’’ he said.
Thrasher said competitive markets might lower some of the cost estimates.
“I believe the cap the town can absorb or put into a project is between $25 million and $30 million. That’s it. That I believe can get us to 2040 and approaches 2050. That would be sea walls, stormwater management and a combination of land development regulations,’’ Thrasher said.
“With that amount of money in a project we could get in very good shape, in my opinion.’’
Since the report was completed in June, Gallacher said, there have been several Zoom presentations for shareholders, who have received a 14-page executive summary.
“We are hopeful for a larger-scale, in-person presentation when we are back in season and past COVID,’’ Gallacher said.
While the forecasts in the report are just that — forecasts with no guarantee that such severe flood events will occur — the town and its corporation aren’t taking any chances.
“Something needs to be done. We just cannot sit back and hope that these forecasters are wrong,’’ Thrasher said.
“It’s probably scary to some to think that we are thinking of this and yet at the same time when I see king tides and the effects it has on the property, that’s scarier to me.’’
Rubber boots and king tide charts have become household items for residents on the town’s west side, which already sees frequent tidal flooding.
“Seeing what that looks like in 2040, 2050 is eye-opening,’’ Adams said. “We are starting to tackle it right now, but it’s definitely a big number that needs to be tackled.’’