Chronic Flooding and the Future of Miami

August 2, 2018 | 2:21 pm
Photo: Ben Grantham/Flickr
Nicole Hernandez Hammer
Sea-level researcher, climate change expert and environmental justice advocate

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The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently released a report analyzing the impacts of chronic tidal flooding on U.S. coastal properties in the lower 48 states. The number of homes and businesses, their value, along with the amount of tax base and most importantly, people at risk is startling. They found that by 2045, 311,000 homes, worth $117.5 billion dollars by today’s market values, could be at risk of chronic flooding driven by climate change. By 2100, 2.4 million homes, worth approximately $912 billion dollars, and 4.7 million people will be at risk. Nowhere more than Florida, that bears 40% of the risk, are these realities being felt now and will be more so in the future as sea levels continue to rise. Ultimately, the impacts of climate change driven chronic flooding leads to a greater potential crisis for low-income communities.

In my time at UCS, I served as an on-the-ground researcher and advocate for low-income communities. I was lucky to be able to work in my hometown examining how climate-driven chronic flooding is changing Miami. I worked with local residents to better understand how they were already dealing with chronic flooding and how they could plan for an uncertain future.

The two faces of climate gentrification

Long time freedom fighter and community leader Paulette Richards, of Miami’s Liberty City, introduced me to the concept of climate gentrification. A term she coined in response to the issues her neighborhood was facing. When I met with her in 2014, she talked about how her community was changing under the pressure of expedited foreclosures. She understood that she was on higher ground and knew that this was becoming a desirable location for developers looking to capitalize on the public’s growing awareness of sea level rise. She said, “I’ve seen gentrification, but I call this climate gentrification”. Over the years Paulette and her fellow community leaders in Miami have tracked this shift.  As long-time Liberty City residents are being edged out of the community they built, they are being directed to the southern most point of the county, relocating to an area that is at a much lower elevation and neighbors Turkey Point, a nuclear power plant.

Now the media and others are taking notice and verifying what Paulette has known for many years. In 2017, Scientific American published a story called “Higher Ground Is Becoming Hot Property As Sea Level Rises”. The article details how climate driven gentrification is happening in Miami and how more people, including academics, are finally tracking these changes.

Only four miles away from Paulette’s home sits the neighborhood of Shorecrest, part of the City of Miami. It’s a low-elevation, mixed income community that represents what chronic inundation looks like on the ground. Much like Miami Beach, Shorecrest consistently floods during high tides. However, unlike high-end Miami Beach, it does not have the same access to the kind of funds needed to properly address chronic flooding.  In front of a strip of affordable rental apartments, I met with residents who told me about their frustration with chronic flooding. Many have seen their jobs affected by the, sometimes, impassable floods; there have been issues with accessing transportation, garbage collection and possible health impacts related to wading through waters that have tested for high levels of bacteria. Low-income residents of low-elevation communities without the proper resources to adapt to climate change are faced with the toughest questions. Do we leave? Where will we go? Can we afford to leave? How much time do we have to make these decisions? Local officials are also facing difficult questions. In some cases, the development projects that would build adaptively and could bring in the tax revenue needed to fund community wide adaptation projects are often the same projects that lead to gentrification.

How can coastal areas find the resources to adapt while maintaining the integrity of their communities?

The City of Miami recently passed bonds that provide funds of almost $200 million to deal with sea level rise. While this is a step in the right direction, the task of equitable sustainable adaptation will require much more funding and more collaborative support from state and federal agencies. Just in terms of sheer square miles, the City of Miami is roughly 4 times the size of Miami Beach, yet Miami Beach has allocated $500 million dollars in funds to deal with their sea level rise issues. Add to that the complex canal and drinking water systems and varied needs of many different communities, and the challenge is daunting.

What can be done?

Will my hometown still be the diverse, multicultural, thriving metropolis that I know and love or will it slowly become a monochromatic string of islands catering to the recreational fancies of the rich? When sea level rises it not only stands to wipe out miles of coastline and properties, but decades and even centuries of culture while displacing millions of lives by the end of this century.

Our greatest hope in avoiding the worst is that we, as a global community, adhere to the Paris Agreement, that holds warming to less than 2C. In this case the vast majority of homes at risk in Florida (93%) would be spared.

Additionally, not just property owners, but all residents and businesses in coastal communities must be aware of their vulnerability and when this type of tidal flooding will become disruptive to their daily lives. UCS provides a mapping tool for gathering this information.

Finally, elected officials must make equity a priority when designing and planning for the future to ensure resources are distributed not just to the wealthy but to those who have fewer resources to plan and implement solutions.

For more information about the study, including a discussion of solutions, please visit Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate

Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a sea-level researcher, climate change expert and environmental justice advocate. A Guatemalan immigrant, Ms. Hernandez Hammer works to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities across the US. Most recently, Ms. Hernandez Hammer served as the climate science and community advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She was the Florida field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, and an environmental blogger for Latina Lista. Before that, she was the assistant director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, and coordinated the Florida Climate Institute’s state university consortium.

She has co-authored a series of technical papers on sea level rise projections, impacts and preparedness. Her activism and initiative on climate change earned her an invitation from First Lady Michelle Obama to be her special guest at the 2015 State of the Union address.

Nicole speaks across the country on climate change issues. Most recently, she presented at the 2018 National Hispanic Medical Association Conference and the MIT Cambridge Science Festival. She has done extensive media work and has been featured in National Geographic’s The Years of Living Dangerously,  Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New Yorker, MSNBC, the Miami Herald, Telemundo News,, The Huffington Post, PRI Science Friday, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Grist, NPR and other major news sources.

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