Saltwater has been flooding the low-lying streets of a Key Largo neighborhood for more than 40 days, leaving many residents there trapped unless they can walk or are willing to sacrifice their cars to the nearly foot-high corrosive seawater.
Those who choose to drive through the brine have developed a way they hope will ward off a rotting undercarriage — parking their car over rotating sprinklers when they get home and turning on the hose. They also drive slowly to minimize saltwater damage to the rest of the car.
“It takes me about as long to get out of here than it does to get to where I need to go,” said C.J. Ferguson, who lives in the Stillwright Point neighborhood.
The neighborhood, in the northern part of Key Largo on the Florida Bay side of U.S. 1, experiences these types of flood waters annually this time of year, but they usually ebb after a few days.
“The max is three, four, five days. Last year was mild,” said Emilie Stewart, who lives on North Blackwater Lane. “This year, it’s been 42 days and counting.”
“Really for us now, this is normal life,” Stewart said.
Chris Rothwell, lead meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West, said two factors are contributing to the chronic flood: “What’s predicted and what’s anomalous.”
Warm water, plus high tides
Forecasters expect higher than normal flooding in September and October due to warm ocean water temperature, which tends to increase sea surface, as well as the alignment of the sun and the moon.
“The orbit of the sun and moon line up to create higher tides in October,” Rothwell said. “We know that will happen. We know that will happen 20 years from now.”
But although the Keys has been spared from any hurricanes or tropical storms this year, activity in the Atlantic is nevertheless at play, creating misery for the people of Stillwright Point, which has about 150 middle-class to luxury homes dotted on canals.
Gulf Stream backup
The cumulative effect of three recent storms is causing the backup of the Gulf Stream into Florida Bay, which Rothwell describes as “like a cup,” meaning a massive amount of water has come in and can’t get out.
“The flow of water in the Gulf Stream is 60 times greater than all the fresh water rivers in the world,” he said.
The storms that caused the backup of water into the bay are hurricanes Humberto and Lorenzo in late September and Tropical Storm Melissa, which all spun northerly winds that countered the Gulf Stream, Rothwell said.
Lorenzo, which developed off the African coast on Sept. 22, stayed far away from the U.S., but the Category 5 storm produced huge swells that impacted tide levels up and down the East Coast.
From New York to Florida, tides are a foot to a foot-and-a-half higher than expected this time of year, Rothwell said.
And the Weather Service has bad news for those impacted by the flooding: It may stick around for a while.
For the water to drain fully from the bay and return to normal levels, it must be pushed out south to Vaca Cut in Marathon, more than 40 miles away. This will likely not happen until the first or second cold front moves in, probably some time in November, Rothwell said.
“Water kind of gets stuck there,” he said.
Rhonda Haag, Monroe County director of sustainability, said that although the flooding in Stillwright Point is probably worse than anywhere else in the Keys, it’s a problem up and down the island chain.
“This flooding has been higher and longer-lasting than any year in recent history,” she said.
Stewart, who’s lived in Stillwright Point for more than 20 years, compares this year’s flooding to 2015, when, she recalls, the floodwaters lasted about 22 days.
Stranded residents have been thankful, however, that the mosquitoes, which breed in standing water, have not been that bad this time. Stewart credits the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District’s decision to put larvicide in the streets.
“They’ve been on top of it, and we have not had mosquitoes,” she said. “They’ve been proactive and not let them get out of control.”
But residents are frustrated, and they’re aiming much of their ire at the county government, which they said should have raised the roads after 2015.
“Tell us what you can do to help us,” said Janice Darden, who lives on Center Lane. “Just say something. That’s what I don’t get.”
Haag, who works for the county, said Stillwright Point is included in the 300 miles of county-maintained roads that Monroe is analyzing to determine which ones will be “recommended for potential elevation, when to elevate and how high.”
That data will be combined with projections for future sea level rise, and then models will establish “the adaption plan,” Haag said.
“That work is underway and is anticipated to take about 15 months,” she said.
As far as short-term solutions, Kevin Wilson, assistant county administrator, said pumping the water out will not work since it will just flow back in from the bay until the tides go down naturally.
Drilling holes, as Wilson said some residents have suggested, will only create a new way for the bay water to flow back up through the streets.
“While I wish there were a way to wave a magic wand and make things better, there simply are no short-term, simple solutions,” Wilson said.
King tides lasting longer
The above-normal high tides Florida experiences this time of year are known as king tides. Normally, each above-average tide lasts about a week, with the highest tide happening when there’s a full or new moon. This year, they’re lasting much longer.
Brian McNoldy, senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Research, said the king tide during the end of September and beginning of October was the second-highest ever at the Virginia Key tidal gauge, following only the 2017 king tides.
This past weekend was another, albeit lower, king tide. The next one, at the end of October, is predicted to be as strong as the one beginning the month.
But NOAA’s forecasts on king tides rarely line up with the actual measured high tides. The most recent king tide came in 16 inches higher than NOAA predicted it would.
The predictions are made far in advance, McNoldy said, and don’t take into account onshore winds, offshore currents or the temperature of the ocean.
“I could crank out a chart with all the tide predictions for 2020 and 2021 right now. They are using known astronomical information,” he said. “It doesn’t get all the details of current events, because it can’t, but it does know water levels are higher than usual this time of year.”
The last two king tides also coincided with tropical systems that, although far away from Florida’s coast, played a role in the height of the tides. Hurricane Lorenzo, which became a powerful Category 5 storm thousands of miles away, was roaring through the ocean at the start of the month. For the recent king tide, Subtropical Storm Melissa stomped around New England.
“I don’t know the exact contribution to our tides, but it certainly has some contribution,” McNoldy said.
Another major factor in the disparity between predicted and actual tides: sea levels are already higher than the average used in the NOAA predictions — about 2.2 inches higher, McNoldy calculated.
South Florida is in for about two feet of sea rise by 2060, which will make everyday high tides — and these annual king tides — much higher.