On Climate Change: The View from Miami

Words & Photography by: Martha Molfetas


FOR MORE ON THIS, SEE OUR MIAMI SEA LEVEL RISE PROJECT


It was only June, but it was hotter and more humid than the Augusts of my childhood. I knew once I got off the train – I was in Miami. You can feel the thick blanket of humidity envelop you the moment you step outside the air conditioned cocoon of your car, house - or in my case, train.  It feels like you can cut the humidity with a knife. Some say Miami is one part paradise and one part hell, only now the heat is much worse, and poised to get even hotter.

Miami has always been a special place for me. My parents and my grandparents had made a life there, opened businesses there, had their children there, are buried there… Miami is and will always be where my family’s roots are – even though only two of my siblings remain. My parents and the rest of us live elsewhere in the Sunshine State – or in my case – have decided to flee as far as possible from home, first to London and now to New York. The funny thing about home is, no matter where else and how far you go, it’s always a part of you. Where you’ve lived and loved, where you’ve grown up – it all becomes a part of who you are and who you become. I may not live there now, but a big part of me will always call Miami and Florida home.

When I was young, my parents moved to Central Florida, but I would still spend many of my summers visiting family in Miami and Dade County. At the time, those summers didn’t mean a lot to me, it was an opportunity to do something different over the summer. Looking back on that time as an adult – I got to experience places and things that may not exist for my future children.

 Watson Island Park, a building is slowly succumbing to the Bay, you can see the old sea wall completely submerged at low tide.

Watson Island Park, a building is slowly succumbing to the Bay, you can see the old sea wall completely submerged at low tide.

I got off the train and checked into my hotel for that weekend. I had everything ready to go for the interviews and had identified the areas worst affected by sea level rise. One of my best friends from undergrad picked me up and we did a very Florida thing. We ate seafood on a pier overlooking the Atlantic. It was picturesque, but it was also an experience that future generations may not have.

The next day, we drove all over Miami Beach – trying to find evidence of sea level rise. What we found shocked me, even though I knew what to expect. I read the reports, I saw the sea level rise projection maps, I had done all my homework; but it could never prepare me for what I experienced. That place of my childhood, where my family called home – it’s all at risk.

When you work on policy issues, you disassociate problems from yourself. You sometimes get wrapped up in the details and at times forget the big picture of how it affects real people. Typically the problems you’re working on have no real relation to you personally – so that helps you sleep at night. For me, this was personal.

 In the Venetian Islands of Miami Beach, you can see new upgraded residential docks some three feet above high tide levels, while the older dock in the background is completely submerged.

In the Venetian Islands of Miami Beach, you can see new upgraded residential docks some three feet above high tide levels, while the older dock in the background is completely submerged.

In the days prior to my arrival in Miami and the days I was there, it hardly rained. I knew we would not experience the King Tides, since they happen in October and May, when the moon is closer to the equator and pulls water inland. I knew we wouldn’t see fish swimming in the street this time. I knew we wouldn’t see storm surges, or flooding from storms. But I knew we’d see the scars of those past incidents, we’d see sea walls that once were, and major works to buttress whole communities against what could be.

I saw the crumbling infrastructure of decades old sea walls holding back water that was inches away from poring over. I saw what was considered the highest point water would reach in the 1940s and 50s when they were constructed – even during a storm – barely hold off a high tide when there was no rain to add to its burden. I saw buoys as far as the eye could see lining canals and creeks that in some ways have always made Miami Beach Venice-esque.

The local policy response was very apparent. On Alton Road and along small canals – you could see big blue signs reading ‘Flood Solutions, Miami Beach Rising Above’. They were elevating the roads, adding height to sea walls, and replacing old sea walls entirely. In fact, many of the areas that were struck worst by the October King Tides had new storm and flood defenses. You could walk on newly elevated roads on Purdy Avenue and sit on new sea walls at various small marinas, like the Maurice Gibb Memorial Park. Some areas were a little lower on the totem pole. Areas along Indian Creek were left with their crumbling sea walls, and buoys marking where construction will happen next.  

Already, the City of Miami Beach has spent and plans to spend an unprecedented $400 million to fortify sea walls and elevate roads, in some cases as high as five to eight feet above the original roads. There is a lot being done, but a lingering question in the back of my mind remained – will this all be enough for what’s to come? And the answer to that is – no one really knows.

The planet is warming; every year has been a record hot year, with 2016 poised to be the hottest yet. The Arctic and Greenland have begun to see record ice losses. El Niño and La Niña coupled with climate change have amplified water displacement, increasing rains and adding oomph to storms that are hitting Miami, while causing record droughts and displacing whole towns in places like Bolivia and forcing 36 million people in Africa to be food insecure. What will the future hold for South Florida, with its porous limestone bedrock that allows water to come up through the ground? What will happen to the place I was born, and the six million people who call South Florida home?

I’ve already made plans to return home in October, to see what Miami Beach will look like during a King Tide with these new fortifications. I hope with all my heart that it’s enough, but I know what’s being done is only for now – not for tomorrow.