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Downed trees in the yard of George's Miami home after Hurricane Irma in 2017. (George Leposky)

The Great Retreat


“Honey,” I announced, “we’re selling the house.”


My spouse was flabbergasted until I explained. I had just opened an envelope containing the 2016 renewal notice for our flood insurance. The premium was over $4,000.


We bought the house in 1986. It was on South Bayshore Drive in the Coconut Grove section of Miami, Fla. Our flood-insurance premium then was just $1,200 an amount we considered acceptable, especially given our location across the street from a park on the shore of Biscayne Bay.


Six years later, in 1992, the infamous Hurricane Andrew blew through. We had some water damage inside the house. After Andrew, we listed the house for sale. So did practically everyone else on South Bayshore Drive. After six months with no nibbles, we delisted the house and began focusing on repairs.


Months later still, we met with our contractor and the claims adjusters for the homeowners’ and flood insurance. We had a list and wanted to know who would pay for what.


The session took all day. Everyone threatened to sue everyone else. Then we got down to business and began apportioning responsibilities. Flood insurance paid a significant part of that claim.


Fast forward through Hurricane Georges in 1998, Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, Hurricane Isaac in 2012, and a variety of other hurricanes and tropical storms in other years. Through these years, I watched our flood-insurance premium rise and something else was rising, too. Call it “sunny-day flooding.”


Driveway and front entrance of George's old Miami home after Hurricane Irma in 2017. (George Leposky)

I owe my awareness of this phenomenon to Max, my dog. He’s an abandoned puppy whom I rescued in 2012. We began taking daily walks in the park. As we crossed the street at the storm-drain grate, we would speculate together about the origin and growing frequency of water puddling in the street on days with no storm in sight.


That grate is part of a drainage system collecting rainwater from the streets on the bluff behind our house. It empties into a mangrove swamp dividing the park in two. A long-time resident of the area told me the park had been built decades before on filled land.


Now the sea is trying to reclaim that land. For several days each month, water spills out of the swamp and backs up into the storm drain to inundate portions of South Bayshore Drive. The worst sunny-day flooding occurs in the fall when the sun and moon align to amplify their gravitational pull, creating what has come to be called “king tides.” At those times, the City of Miami puts out portable signs to warn hapless motorists of street flooding ahead.

A car drives through the flooded intersection of Franklin Street and N Ocean Drive in Hollywood, Fla. during high tide in September 2020. (George Leposky)

 

We began interviewing Realtors and were met with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The house was more than 60 years old, needed some work, and the biggest drawback of all everyone could see where it was located. Proximity to Biscayne Bay was an asset when we bought in the 1980s; by the 2010s, it had become a liability.


Finally, we found a willing Realtor, who happened also to be a dog-park friend. She listed the house, periodically tweaking the price down to refresh the listing. Finding a committed buyer at an acceptable price took over a year. We signed a contract, began house-hunting, and started to pack.


Then Hurricane Irma came to call, striking south Florida on the morning of Sept. 10, 2017. We evacuated to ride out the storm with friends who lived up on the bluff, out of the flood zone. When we returned, we found the house dry, with debris piled knee-high in our driveway.


A team of enterprising and well-equipped college students arrived soon after, offering to clean up the mess for a budget-busting but appropriate fee. Of more concern was the status of our contract, which the buyer could have canceled without penalty due to the hurricane. He opted not to do so. We breathed a sigh of relief and resumed house-hunting and packing.


The contract provided that after the buyer closed on our house, we could rent it on a nominal per diem basis until we found a new one. The catch was that after 60 days, the per diem escalated sharply. Desperation was beginning to set in.


We had told our Realtor not to show us any house that would require us to buy flood insurance to qualify for a mortgage. That greatly limited our potential housing stock. So did the age of dwellings in o