don't call it a basement

Resiliency

Susan Askew
Susan Askew
The City took it on the chin in some of the media coverage of last week's storm and flooding… and now it’s fighting back. In a new Letter to Commission, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote, “[T]wo local media outlets have erroneously reported that drainage improvements in Sunset Harbor have created basements in some of the older and lower lying buildings, like Sardinia.”
 
Sardinia, located at 1801 Purdy Avenue in a building constructed in 1940, has been involved in an insurance dispute with its carrier since October when the restaurant experienced flooding from another heavy rainfall during a storm preceding Hurricane Matthew. 
 
Sardinia’s claim was initially denied because insurance adjusters saw the newly elevated road in front of the restaurant and determined its location qualified as a basement. The carrier – Allstate – offers flood policies under FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program and must abide by the Federal regulations set forth by NFIP. The adjuster determined that with the elevated road Sardinia’s space qualified as a basement under NFIP guidelines. The City’s resiliency team went into action explaining its efforts to combat sea level rise, which include new stormwater pumps and elevated roads, to Allstate’s Flood Department manager and FEMA NFIP staff.
 
In last week’s storm, Sardinia (and other businesses) again experienced flooding. Since then, the City has both attempted to set expectations for what the pumps can and can’t do and explain why generators have yet to be installed in Sunset Harbour. On the former, the pumps are not designed to handle extreme weather events such as last week’s in which rain fell at a rate of 9 inches per hour at one point. However, in those cases, they are expected to drain the City fairly quickly… if the power stays on. As we learned last week when the pumps failed due to a power outage, plans to purchase backup generators have been tied up in what Mayor Philip Levine dubbed “bureaucratic paralysis”. He has since directed staff to proceed with emergency procurement procedures to acquire the necessary equipment. Morales indicated in another Letter to Commission that purchase, delivery, and installation of the generators is expected to take 90 days. City Commission approved those pumps back in February after the October flood experience. In that case, only one of six pumps in the area was working due to nearby construction, a faulty pump out for repair, and another that had its emergency shutoff switch activated, cutting off power to that pump. One commonality in both cases of flooding was that intense rainfall was experienced during high tide.
 
Those issues, however, are different than the battle over the basement claim. Regarding the October flooding, Morales wrote, “[A]s soon as the City was notified of Sardinia’s insurance claim issue, we immediately began advocating for the truth. This included conversations with FEMA and obtaining an official elevation certificate for the establishment proving that the City is not creating basements.”
 
The 23-page letter includes four attachments. The first highlights FEMA’s definition of a basement: “‘any area of the building having its floor subgrade (below ground level) on ALL sides.’ The capital letters are added for emphasis,” Morales wrote.
 
Attachment 2 includes Sardinia’s elevation certificate indicating, Morales said, “The bottom floor is higher than adjacent grade. Therefore, it is not a basement.”
 
The third attachment is the second engineering report conducted for Allstate which Morales quotes as indicating “the interior finished floor elevation is ABOVE grade on ALL sides when considering the grade to be the point adjacent to the exterior wall.” (Again, upper case letters were added by Morales for emphasis.) The last attachment includes the FEMA flood claim process.
 
Sardinia has three exterior walls with concrete slabs surrounding them, one is an alley behind the restaurant and two are City-owned right-of-ways which include drainage. Like other restaurants on the block, Sardinia uses that area as sidewalk café space. Adjacent to that outdoor café space is an elevated sidewalk and road.
 
“The actual status of Sardinia’s claim, denial and appeal to Allstate remains a private matter between the insured and the company, the details of which we are not privy to, despite requests for information,” Morales stated.

“The City will continue to work together to ensure that we have not and will not create basements as part of the stormwater improvement program in residential neighborhoods or commercial areas,” he wrote.
 
Finally, he said, “The work we’re doing in Miami Beach is ground breaking, and other industries need to catch up – from the media to the private sector (insurance). We are constantly educating and communicating to best simplify these complex issues, from science to engineering.”
 
Sardinia owner Tony Gallo said his insurance claim from October has still not been paid but he’s confident it will be resolved soon. “The City,” Gallo said “has cooperated from the beginning. I don’t say that they haven’t. We just still have the problem.” It’s been nearly ten months and he had to hire a company to help him settle it but he said. “I think it’s going to be solved based on my conversations with the company I hired.” He agreed with Morales on the lack of understanding about what the City is doing. “It’s just a matter of time because this is something new for FEMA and everybody. I’m sure it’s going to be solved… it’s just a matter of time.”
 
That said, Gallo is not happy with the what he calls the lack of homework on the City’s part about what might happen with the below grade properties after the roads were raised. “My thing is that I’m a little upset because this type of work should have been done before it started… do some homework on what would happen to the property … We as a small business owner have to solve for this because you didn’t do your homework.”
 
The ability to keep the pumps working is “a separate issue” from his insurance claim, Gallo says. In a meeting a year ago to educate local businesses on the resiliency efforts, he asked City leadership and engineers about the potential for the electric generators to lose power. The answer left him shaking his head. “They said the Sunset Harbour Neighborhood Association was concerned with aesthetics. I said you must be joking… this is South Florida with power outages. How many times does that happen? Many times.”
 
“Why do we have to go through all this… my kids know it’s electric, we need a generator. So that’s the upsetting part,” he says. “Why do I have to go through all this in order to fix something that is common sense. I’m not an engineer but anything electric, such a big problem we have, just put a generator in. Don’t tell me its aesthetic. That doesn’t make sense at all.”

The City has ordered two generators which are 5' x 12' x 6', and will be "elevated to 2' above base flood elevation which is about 5' above the street," Morales indicated last week. Assistant City Manager and Director of Public Works, Eric Carpenter, told RE:MiamiBeach, "I am aware of other groups in other areas of the City being resistant to the aesthetic of the generators but not the Sunset Harbour Neighborhood Association.  As a matter of fact they have been one of the most receptive groups to the generator concept which is one of the reasons why we were moving forward with the generators in this Neighborhood first."
 
As to Morales’ letter correcting the media reports of Sardinia being in a basement, Gallo says, “They are the upset ones? Hello. The City gets upset because the media is writing an article on something. We’re the ones suffering, economically and everything else. Hopefully we’ll solve it soon.”
 
**This story has been updated to include Eric Carpenter's comments with regard to the generators in Sunset Harbour.