Are the Florida Keys Sinking Into the Ocean?

In Florida, some people are getting that sinking feeling. And no wonder.

Recently saltwater flooded the low-lying streets of a Key Largo neighborhood for nearly three months.

The only way trapped residents could get out was by slowly driving their cars through water as much as one foot deep.

In the past, this annual flooding has disappeared after a few days. Not this year. Recent storms including Hurricanes Humberto and Lorenzo caused the Gulf Stream to back up into Florida Bay. The water got in but couldn't get out.

Raising Roads an Option

One option for countering flooding in the Keys due to rising waters is to raise roads. But this is easier said than done.

It's estimated that elevating less than three miles of Old State Road 4A on Sugarloaf Key by 2525 would be $75 million.

If the project were to be stretched until 2045, that estimate could rise to about $128 million. The end result would be approximately $181 million if it were completed by 2060.

And that's for fewer than three miles of road. Monroe County, which includes the islands of the Florida Keys, has 314 miles of road. About half of those miles are susceptible to sea rise over the next 20 years.

Complicated and Expensive

Why is the price so high for raising roads? Because a lot goes into it. Raised roads need pumps to drain water.

Plus stations to clean all that water. And injection wells to shove the water back underground.

In some cases, property would need to be purchased near homes to accomplish these things.

And there's also machinery and paying people to do the work. Plus funds to cover the inevitable lawsuits that will be filed.

Abandonment Issues

There is another option. But it's one many people would be upset about. That option is to abandon some roads altogether. And just let them sink.

The county might have to buy out homes along abandoned roads. That would be very expensive as well.

Roman Gastesi is the Monroe Country administrator. Here's what he says about the situation.

"It's that word nobody likes to use," he said. "Retreat. We're going to have to retreat from some areas. And that's going to be costly."

Flood Insurance Rates to Rise

Many of the people living in the Keys assumed their flood insurance rates would skyrocket in 2020.

Fortunately, they received a reprieve until 2021. But they know it's coming eventually.

The National Flood Insurance Program has multi-billion dollar debts due to all the claims in recent years. Thirty-five percent of its policies are written in Florida.

So, lawmakers will restructure it. That will mean higher rates for home and property owners. But at least that hike will be delayed by a year.

Oyster Industry Floundering

As if storms aren't doing enough by flooding Florida streets, they are beginning to take their toll on the Gulf Coast oyster industry as well.

The increased storms are crushing the Gulf of Mexico. They've made the sediment too soft and unstable for shells that oysters need.

Oysters prefer rakish water. And plenty of shells to which their larvae can attach. As well as a hard surface for the shells to set on.

The problem is widespread. It also affects Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. But one area particularly hard hit is Apalachicola Bay in Florida. At one time, hundreds of boats with full crews could be seen gathering in oysters.

This bay used to produce about 90 percent of Florida's oyster market. America's appetite for oysters still exists. But the oysters... not so much.

Saltwater-Freshwater Mixture Needed

Another factor crushing the Gulf Coast involves a battle with the state of Georgia over water usage. Atlanta is taking an increasing amount of freshwater from rivers that flow into Apalachicola Bay.

That lack of freshwater makes the bay too salty for a proper oyster environment. Oysters enjoy a freshwater-saltwater mixture.

And if that weren't enough to spell trouble for the oyster industry, there's more. The increased percentage of saltwater brings more fish into the Gulf of Mexico. And many of those fish feed on oysters.

On the other hand, too much freshwater flowing into the Gulf of Mexico can have the same negative effect. That has been known to occur when the Mississippi River spills over its banks.

'The Worst It's Ever Been'

Bob Bendick is director of the Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Project. He says the problem goes deeper than just fewer oysters to harvest for consumption.

"Oysters play an incredibly important role in the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and in Florida's bays by producing oysters to eat. But also by cleaning water and providing habitats for other species."

Chris Nelson is vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries on the Alabama gulf coast. Here's what he says.

"This is the worst it's ever been. It's worse than the oil spill, worse than (Hurricane) Katrina. Worse than after (Hurricane) Ivan by far."

Florida is still a very desirable state for people to visit. But those living in flooded neighborhoods in the Keys and those losing jobs due to the dwindling oyster market might be wondering if it's time to look elsewhere.

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