Scientist in the Field: On the Ground in Flooded Florida Neighborhoods

August 4, 2016 | 9:39 am
Astrid Caldas
Senior Climate Scientist

What is it like to do climate work “on the ground”? I interviewed Nicole Hernandez Hammer, UCS’s Southeast Climate Advocate, to find out. Nicole’s work engaging communities, community organizers, and other stakeholders is yielding a lot of results, and I thought our readers would enjoy hearing more about it!

You’ve been doing a lot of work on tidal flooding in Miami neighborhoods—can you tell me about that?

Photo: J. Meyersohn

Nicole Hernandez Hammer on the ground in Florida. Photo: J. Meyersohn

In my work I use elevation maps to identify low-lying locations at the block level. Then I overlay that information with income data to identify places that are both low-lying and low-income.

I use NOAA tidal information to identify the days of the highest tides. On those dates I go to the locations I’ve mapped to see if these communities are indeed experiencing sunny day flooding and, if so, begin education and resident-led advocacy work there in partnership with community-based organizations.

I also work with media to amplify the stories of folks dealing with climate change impacts and then leverage those news reports, along with research, to move decision makers at local and federal levels to take action on climate change.

What kinds of stories have you heard from local residents about how flooding is affecting their lives?

In some cases children couldn’t get to their school bus stops.

One resident had to walk through contaminated flood waters and subsequently had a leg infection.

Another resident told me that in order to take the trash out, she had to cover her legs in garbage bags and walk her garbage cans down two blocks because the trucks were not coming down the road due to flooding.

There are already so many stories of people struggling to deal with tidal flooding.

Resident in flooded street near Miami FL

A tidally flooded street near Miami, Florida

You’ve also done some similar work on extreme heat. How’s that going?

I wanted to see if the model I developed to do tidal flooding work would be useful in the context of other climate impacts.

I decided to look at heat impacts at the same granular level that I use with sea level rise. I partnered with Florida International University to do heat mapping of Miami-Dade County. We used NOAA information to identify when we might see the hottest days of the year.

A  week ahead of the anticipated hottest days we held an event in the city of Hialeah, FL (a hot spot) to educate local residents about the health impacts of extreme heat and how we will see hotter temperatures because of climate change.

We had a great group of organizations partner with us including The American Red Cross, Resilient Miami, well known artist Xavier Cortada, Moms Clean Air Force, and the City of Hialeah.  The event was held at the local library (which can serve as a daytime cooling center) and was full to capacity. Residents and our partners are interested in next steps as well as having similar events in other parts of Florida.

You are careful to match your communication style and language to your audience. Could you tell me more about how you do that, and why it’s so important?

We have a wide variety of audiences that need to understand the current and future potential impacts of climate change. Our shared future depends on it. So we have to make sure that we are connecting with people in the best ways possible. That’s different for each audience.

Being bilingual and growing up in a multicultural household has helped me to connect with many different types of audiences. Being able to switch back in forth between English and Spanish is pretty much a requirement for doing community outreach in South Florida and a growing number of places in the US.

We have done outreach events where we give each presentation in English and Spanish and folks not only better able to understand the material but are happy that we are making an effort to be more inclusive.

How have you worked to make sure that local residents are involved in decision-making?

Photo: Nicole Hernandez Hammer

Photo: Nicole Hernandez Hammer

I make sure that they are not only at the table, but they have a lead role in the discussion. I hold workshops that connect residents with local government and scientists. Residents lead the discussions by asking questions to better understand the problem and then to begin figure out possible solutions.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to UCS?

I’m originally from Guatemala. I grew up in the Southern US, mostly in South Florida. My family and I were in Miami during Hurricane Andrew. We were in an area that was not evacuated, but the storm took a turn and hit our neighborhood. We lost our home but luckily no one was hurt. My time in the Guatemalan highlands and my experience with a category 5 storm influenced my interest in the natural sciences.

I worked in academia for 15 years; most that time I worked on research, specifically sea level rise impacts. I realized that a lot of information about climate change and vulnerability was not getting out to the people that are most vulnerable. I decided to leave academia and work on more outreach-focused efforts. Now I’m here at UCS doing the kind of work I’m passionate about. I feel very fortunate to be part of UCS.

How do you feel about being out in the field as a UCS scientist?

It’s a great opportunity to do work as scientists and see firsthand how that work can make a difference in people’s lives.  I feel the work we are doing not only addresses the immediate impacts of climate change but helps empower communities to make the changes we need to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

What is the significance of all this work for you, personally?

I never thought that I would be able to combine so many aspects of my life in a way that can move important change forward. My job depends heavily on my scientific knowledge and skills but also connects with me as a Latina and as a person who wants to leave a better future for the next generation. It’s incredibly fulfilling work.