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Can South Florida Adapt to Rising Sea Levels Before It’s Too Late?

Cities like Miami grapple with how to make sure adaptation programs serve everyone

December 21, 2018
By Jonathan Hahn
From the Sierra Club

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 2017, as Hurricane Irma barreled down on Miami, a handful of residents went door-to-door from Little Havana to Liberty City, boarding up windows with plywood and delivering supplies. The unprecedented storm—the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic—plowed a path of destruction through the neighborhoods, ripping up trees, flooding streets, and leaving millions without power. In the days that followed, the same residents cleared debris and fallen branches off cars and rooftops.

Their services were so in demand that some of the volunteers later formed a collectively owned company called Konscious Kontractors, offering for-profit construction work while continuing to provide free cleanup and repairs to those in need. According to Michael Clarkson, a retired landscaper and one of the company’s founders, they do this work because nobody else can, or will; because few in Miami’s working-class communities can afford to pay someone else to do it.

IN SOUTH FLORIDA, FROM CULTURALLY RICH MIAMI NEIGHBORHOODS LIKE LITTLE HAITI TO THE POSH BUNGALOWS OF MIAMI BEACH, SEA LEVEL RISE THREATENS TO INUNDATE SOME AREAS AND GENTRIFY OTHERS. PHOTOS BY DARCY PADILLA (7); PHOTO IN BOTTOM RIGHT BY JONATHAN HAHN.

Two days before the one-year anniversary of Irma, I meet up with Clarkson and four other Konscious Kontractors at the Cultural Complex in Little Haiti—a warren of art galleries, classrooms, and exhibit spaces connected to the 9,000-square-foot Mache Ayisyen, also known as the Caribbean Marketplace. Near the lobby, where we gather in a circle, an elaborate painting by Haitian artist Ralph Allen swarms with life: A crowd intermingles amid merchant stalls and rainbow umbrellas; vendors sell wares from wicker baskets and wooden counters; musicians blow saxophones as a grinning woman in a red-and-white sarong throws her arms wide in a pirouette.

I ask why the men spell the company’s name with a k instead of a c. Uhuru Konsyan Alexandre, who was born in Haiti (the English for Ayiti) but grew up in the United States, explains that Creole spelled with a c is the French way of spelling Kreyol. “K’s are being used as an artistic expression of combining Kreyol and English without changing the sound and the pronunciation of the word. It’s to help introduce Ayisyen Americans to a style of writing that brings them back to their roots,” Alexandre says.

Those roots, according to him, are in jeopardy as communities like Little Haiti (the English for Ti Ayiti) wither amid Miami’s gentrification crisis and lack of infrastructure investment and affordable housing, all of which are getting worse because of climate change.

“We’re sitting here at the cultural center right next to the Mache Ayisyen,” he says. “We have concentrated our entire energy to make sure that we are here every day, that other people are here every day, because we are being erased.”

“Every aspect of our lives today is affected by climate change,” Clarkson says. “I don’t care what the problem is. It traces back to it. That’s what people don’t understand. They see it as something that is separate, but it is not.”

South Florida faces an existential crisis from global warming unlike that of almost any other place in the United States. Its geology is uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise, which is poised to inundate low-lying neighborhoods across the region. At the same time, climate change will dramatically amplify the social inequities—income disparity, lack of public transportation, and limited affordable housing—that have long plagued communities here.

The waters are rising in South Florida, and simply building a seawall isn’t going to solve the climate crisis that’s coming, or the socioeconomic one that’s already here.

KONSCIOUS KONTRACTORS, FROM LEFT: UHURU KONSYAN ALEXANDRE, RALPH JEAN, AND MICHAEL CLARKSON. “CLIMATE CHANGE IS AFFECTING OUR MENTAL HEALTH, OUR HEALTH CARE SYSTEM,” SAYS CLARKSON. “IT’S AFFECTING OUR SCHOOL SYSTEM, BECAUSE OUR CHILDREN HAVE NOT BEEN EQUIPPED.” | PHOTOS BY DARCY PADILLA

SOUTH FLORIDA’S THREE MAJOR COUNTIES—Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach, with a population of about 6 million people—rest on the Biscayne Aquifer, a highly porous layer of surface-level limestone encompassing some 4,000 square miles. While sea level rise is threatening to engulf low-lying coastal areas like Miami Beach, water is also intruding through the permeable rock of the aquifer, threatening inland communities with a water table that is rising up from under the streets. That water table is only three to five feet belowground as it is, even higher in certain areas. According to some estimates, if global warming trends continue, sea levels could rise by up to eight feet by 2100. In that scenario, much of the area would be underwater.

South Florida already has one of the most complex water-management systems in the world—a contiguous matrix of lakes and drainage canals that crisscross the region, stretching from south of Orlando to Florida Bay. Each county has its own major water-control structure, including flood channels and sluice gates designed to, on the one hand, prevent saltwater from intruding into the freshwater supply and, on the other, release water back into the ocean when it rains.

But that system was not designed for sea level rise. It relies on gravity-driven canals to work: The gradient, or distance, between the water in the canals and sea level makes the drainage possible. A rising water table will eventually squeeze that gradient down to nothing.

“The problem is very complex,” says Jayantha Obeysekera, a former chief modeler at the South Florida Water Management District who now serves as the director of the Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center. “Initially, the pumps and seawalls may work, but eventually we might have to do vertical retreats and raise the buildings because of those compounding effects of the stormwater and the water table.”

Low-lying communities are already suffering from “sunny-day flooding”—high tides that inundate the streets of neighborhoods like Shorecrest and Little River, sometimes as often as twice a day—and it’s only going to get worse. According to Underwater, a 2018 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, if Florida’s cities fail to take adaptive measures, by 2045 approximately 64,000 homes will be at risk of chronic inundation. By 2100, 1 million homes throughout the state—collectively worth $351 billion—will be at risk.

Not that officials in South Florida are sitting around waiting for that to happen.

In 2010, the area’s three major counties, plus neighboring Monroe County, created the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. It’s an extraordinary, first-ever regional climate governance initiative designed to pool research and resources around climate adaptation and mitigation. The compact issued its Regional Climate Action Plan in October 2012, featuring 110 policy initiatives for climate-adaptation efforts, to be implemented within an initial five-year period. The compact then released an updated RCAP2 in 2017. The first plan was heavily criticized for not including social justice and climate equity components, which RCAP2 tried to rectify.

The most vulnerable cities, including Miami, Miami Beach, and South Miami, have committed to or are already spending millions to install pumps and raise roads and structures. Climate scientists, engineers, and architects are conducting research into resiliency strategies, for both gray infrastructure, such as creating seawalls to keep water at bay and converting septic systems to municipal sewer systems, and green infrastructure: restoring seagrasses, mangroves, and coral reefs that can buffer wave energy. A restored Everglades could also help protect the freshwater supply from saltwater intrusion.

But as cities prepare adaptation programs to address the coming crisis, critical questions remain unanswered: Will they be enough? Will they be adopted in time? And how do you forge climate-adaptive strategies that serve all communities and leave no one behind?

At the Cultural Complex in Little Haiti, the Konscious Kontractors offer some answers of their own: For climate adaptation to work, it has to be a just cause, not simply a climate cause. That means adaptation can’t only be about responding to big hurricanes, hotter temperatures, and sea level rise. It must also address gentrification, such as when developers bring luxury condo skyscrapers into their neighborhood that they can’t afford, without their consent. Real adaptation would provide economic opportunities in neighborhoods where there are liquor stores on every corner and not a single bank.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the people who stand to lose the most in the next 30 years live in neighborhoods with “long-standing social and economic inequities.” Those inequities include the displacement, gentrification, and affordable-housing crises from which communities like Little Haiti are already reeling, says Zelalem Adefris, the resilience director at Catalyst Miami, a nonprofit antipoverty organization. Since 2016, Adefris has launched a series of climate outreach and education programs, such as Community Leadership on the Environment, Advocacy, and Resilience: a 10-week free training course on local climate threats, potential solutions, and how to be a community climate leader.

Adefris says that an intersectional approach to climate adaptation would marry badly needed public improvement projects with initiatives that make them more resilient to sea level rise, leading to other benefits including more public transportation, better public health, and less reliance on fossil fuels.

“If we were to invest in public transit and rail, for example, that’s not only good for community members without cars that rely on a crappy public transport system, but it’s also good for the environment,” Adefris says. “If we invest in natural barriers, whether it’s reestablishing mangrove forests or planting trees in our neighborhoods, that’s good for community members. It’s good for public health.”

What’s standing in the way? It isn’t climate denial, she says; it’s lack of political will.

“I rarely run into climate denial,” Adefris says. “But even if you have other elected officials or staff that get it, it’s difficult to get initiatives moving.”

Miami is a case in point. In 2017, the city passed a $400 million general obligation bond that allocated $200 million to sea level mitigation and adaptation measures, such as storm-drain upgrades and pumps and seawalls, and $100 million to affordable housing. That money would seem to put real budgetary muscle behind the RCAP recommendations. But so far the city commission has focused on discrete projects it can address in the short term, such as fixing roads and parks, and has not yet addressed the bigger issue of sea level rise.

That slow pace seems all too familiar in light of another voter-approved public works project that turned into a public debacle. In 2002, voters in Miami-Dade County approved a half-penny sales tax that was supposed to fund more Metrorail lines for improved citywide public transit. Nearly 20 years later, there has been little rail expansion in a city that desperately needs more transit lines, and it turns out that the county has been using that tax money to subsidize existing transit operations instead.

Miami Beach, by contrast, is a test case for how a city can adapt to climate change in a holistic way, addressing other problems as well. With an elevation of just four feet, the city of nearly 100,000 is one of the most vulnerable in the world to sea level rise. In response, it has turned itself into a laboratory of climate adaptation. In 2013, the city rolled out a robust $600 million stormwater improvement program, and it’s in the midst of a multiyear project of raising roads, installing pumps, and improving seawalls. Miami Beach is also looking at changes to land-use and zoning rules and at how buildings can be elevated.

I meet with chief resilience officer Susanne Torriente at City Hall the day before the official start of the king-tide season—the period, between September and November, when the tides are the highest. When it comes to adapting to sea level rise, she says, the only thing that stands in the city’s way is siloed thinking.

“When we started, it was about climate adaptation, flood mitigation, and climate resilience,” she says in a conference room with bulletin boards pockmarked with Post-its. “But now we’re taking in a broader definition of resilience, reducing our shocks and stresses in a more integrated fashion.”

For example, last summer, in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, officials moved a stalled housing project on West Avenue through the Resilience Accelerator—a Columbia University program designed to connect experts and policy­makers. West Avenue, an aging zone of mixed-use properties and multi­family units with pipes close to 80 years old, was badly in need of repair. The Resilience Accelerator organized a three-day workshop at Miami Dade College that brought together the designer and the contractor on the West Avenue project and city staff from the transportation, planning, and environment departments. Together, they vetted comments from the public and made decisions on everything from how much to widen pedestrian paths to where to add bioswale (a kind of green infrastructure that helps reduce pollution in runoff). Renovations are expected to be completed by 2021.

DURING A KING TIDE IN MIAMI BEACH, WATER FILLS THE STREETS, FLOWING OVER A POORLY MAINTAINED SEAWALL AND UP THROUGH THE DRAINAGE SYSTEM. | PHOTO BY KADIR VAN LOHUIZEN/NOOR/REDUX

With a public works initiative as big as adapting to sea level rise, there are going to be unintended consequences. Miami Beach’s new pumping system, for example, has created concerns about water pollution. The pumps are draining water off dirty city streets directly into Biscayne Bay, and while they have chambers for filtering out large items like water bottles, they don’t catch finer particles. And after a flooding event last year, a restaurant owner in Sunset Harbour had his flood insurance claim denied when the adjuster determined that his property fell under the technical definition of a basement since the city had raised the nearby street. (The city eventually intervened, and the man’s claim was approved.)

Torriente, however, is not deterred, nor is she worried about doomsday predictions that Miami Beach is going to be the next Atlantis.

“I’m not going to stand there and cry for somebody who hasn’t died yet,” she says. “I get it. I know what’s out there—that’s why I’m doing the today things for tomorrow. But I’m not going to leave.”

WHILE CITIES LIKE MIAMI BEACH are experimenting with an integrated, climate-resilient approach to construction, the private real estate market in South Florida is lagging far behind. Huge luxury homes pop up on the market in FEMA-designated flood zones seemingly every day. These new houses meet current building codes for the zones—with first-floor breezeways for floodwater and elevated living spaces. But that won’t do much good if the entire neighborhood is permanently underwater.

Miami real estate broker and contractor Marcelo Fernandes, who has lived in Coconut Grove since 1988, says that what bayside neighborhoods like his need instead is smaller, more sustainably built houses.

“You’ve got properties that are building 5,000 square feet of area on 5,000-square-foot lots,” Fernandes tells me as we drive around Coconut Grove, where historic single-story bungalows give way to cookie-cutter box-on-box town houses. “It’s just volume. In this industry, you sell by the square foot, so the more square footage you can sell, the more money you can make off it.”

Fernandes, along with the School of Architecture at Florida International University, helped start a nonprofit called Arc+, which advocates for green-building programs in Miami. He is also an elected member and chair of the Coconut Grove Village Council, where he is a voice for changing zoning laws to make density in the neighborhood relative to lot size.

A LEED-certified house he built on Bonita Avenue became an Arc+ case study. The project employed a climate-adaptive approach to new construction, using recycled steel instead of masonry or wood, high-efficiency air conditioning, and low-environmental-impact paints. The house has a synthetic lawn, drought-tolerant landscaping, and a roof prepped for water collection and solar panels.

Fernandes takes me to look at a mansion under construction near his house. The massive structure, which sits right on the bay, has him repeatedly shaking his head. He points out that during Hurricane Irma, the storm surge came in from the bay, but its dominant path was directly through the street drains from belowground. As we talk, I notice a manhole cover nearby: Water from the bay is right below, and I easily touch it with my finger.

“There’s an area here that is über-wealthy right on the bay, and within a block you have some of the old bohemian developments in the West Grove that are being totally gentrified because you can buy cheaper land there,” Fernandes says. “Instead of building reasonable little homes for the same people to be able to live there, they are building these million-dollar town houses. It’s gentrifying big-time, and it’s out of control.”

Fernandes recently put his house on Biscayne Bay up for sale, though he has no intention of leaving Coconut Grove.

In South Miami, the rising water table will require a very expensive overhaul of the city’s septic system. As water pushes up and out, the only other place it will be able to go is back into septic tanks. Mayor Philip K. Stoddard estimates that it could cost upwards of $78 million to fix the problem.

MARCELO FERNANDES NEAR HIS HOME IN MIAMI’S COCONUT GROVE, JUST A FEW FEET FROM THE RISING SEA. | PHOTO BY JONATHAN HAHN

The gravity of the issue, and what it would take to address it, has Stoddard grappling with whether communities in his city should hold their ground in the first place. It’s time to start thinking not just about climate adaptation, he says, but also about managed retreat. Coastal and inland cities should form their own compacts so that city leaders can start working out the logistics of such things as development patterns, land use, and zoning considerations, in order to accommodate the flux of migration from one place to another.

“If you’re thinking, ‘How do you do the most good for the most people?,’ you would start a migration program, get people out of harm’s way, especially those who have the least amount of resources to recover from an upset,” Stoddard says.

But moving people out of their homes into a climate-migration program raises the same questions the Konscious Kontractors are wrestling with in Little Haiti: How do you do the most good for the most people when some communities get flooded and others stay dry? Who gets to stay and who goes? Who decides?

The path to finding the answer, according to Uhuru Konsyan Alexandre, involves not only science and data, or policies around land use and zoning. It involves being awake. It involves joining in a collective awareness that will lift everyone up, together.

“There’s an Ayisyen proverb,” he says. “Men anpil, chay pa lou—with many hands, the load is not heavy.”

This article appeared in the January/February 2019 edition with the headline “Sea Change.”

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This article was posted on SierraClub.org.