Observations from Another Planet

Observations from Another Planet

Miami Beach is like another planet. The economy and culture are a party that never stops; a steady beat of pop music is everywhere, as is clothing that consistently provides too much information. People mob the beaches, the bars, the restaurants, while thousands board cruise ships to take the party out to sea.

But the party cannot continue, as the entire place is built on porous limestone only feet above a sea that is rising. Already, parts of Miami are flooding on sunny days at high tide (as are sites all along the Atlantic coast), as ocean water rises onto City streets through the storm drains. The rising ocean water forces polluted groundwater to the surface, creating a threat to public health. Families find their school bus stop down the street is on the other side of a fetid pond, or their garbage is not picked up because the trucks cannot drive down the street. The City of Hallandale has already lost several drinking water wells as saltwater intrudes into aquifers, a situation that will become more frequent throughout the region. Efforts to reduce flooding during rainstorms can exacerbate this problem.

Meanwhile, the Governor of Florida and many State legislators are willfully sticking their heads in the sand of their idyllic coastline and denying the reality of climate change (the Florida state government famously demanded that its officials not use the words “climate change.”) This active censorship prevents citizens from understanding what is happening in their own communities. Water in the streets at high tide results in calls to the City of Miami about broken water mains.

And yet, this region represents one of the hottest real estate markets in the United States. Floating in Biscayne Bay, between Miami and Miami Beach, everywhere you look you see construction cranes as investors (many from South America) pour money into high rise condominiums.

Physics is going to crash this party and cause problems. Among others will be the inevitable failure of septic tanks (used by 1.6 million Florida households), and these problems are projected to drive a northern migration of up to 2.5 million residents. The real estate market is a gigantic game of musical chairs, and many people owning property when the music stops are going to lose a lot of money.

To their credit, local governments are engaged with the reality of the problem, although they can only talk to State officials about “flooding” instead of “sea level rise.” The City of Miami Beach has substantially raised sewer rates to fund $100M for pumps that move water off the streets during tidal flooding, and the City of Miami has raised $200M from bonds to address sea level rise (says Jimmy Morales, City Manager of Miami Beach, “We have to prove to the world that we’re not drowning.”) In January 2016, a group of mayors from cities in south Florida sent a letter to Senator Marco Rubio calling on him to “acknowledge the reality and urgency of climate change and to address the upcoming crisis it presents our communities.”

But floating on Biscayne Bay and looking at the land, a sense of dread for the future of the residents of this region was inescapable. The rising sea and the vast number of expensive problems it is generating ensures an end to the nonstop party in south Florida, and the region will wake up to a hangover that will never go away. As Professor Henry Briceño of Florida International University notes in Jeff Goodell’s excellent book The Waters Will Come, to maintain the south Florida tourist economy “we have to keep our waters as clean as we can for as long as we can, and then use that time to plan how we are going to get the hell out of here.”

Professor Briceño was with us on Biscayne Bay. He and the boat’s captain were getting ready to sell their homes and move north to higher ground.