Monday, October 14, 2013

"Goodbye, Miami": it's getting realer and realer ... by Guest Blogger

Howard Wanless, Caroline Lewis, Sebastian Eilert, Katy Sorenson, Laura Reynolds, Marta Viciedo

It would be hard to find a more poignant example of the contradictions over sea level rise and its impact on South Florida than those presented at the “Goodbye Miami?” event last Wednesday night in the Brickell district of downtown Miami.

The marquis for the get-together read, “The world says we’re doomed. Come hear what the local experts have to say.” Its impetus seemed to be the Rolling Stone article depicting Miami as the American Atlantis. It drew an audience of about sixty; mostly twenty or thirty-somethings plus a few old folks like me drawn by the inclusion of the venerable Katy Sorenson on the bill. Sorenson spells integrity.

But integrity alone can’t overcome the contradictions, which came alternately from the local experts:

Katy Sorenson: President & CEO, The Good Government Initiative
Caroline Lewis: Executive Director - The CLEO Institute,
Dr. Harold Wanless: Chair, Univ. of Miami Department of Geological Sciences
Laura Reynolds: Executive Director, Tropical Audubon
Sebastian Eilert: Architect
Marta Viciedo: Urban Planner
plus added attraction Philip Stoddard, Mayor of South Miami

I’ll get to the contradictions in a minute, but first a word about the sponsors. “Goodbye Miami?” was organized by three groups ...

New Leaders Council, which describes itself as “Training the Next Generation of Progressive Political Entrepreneurs. NLC fellows are young professionals most of whom have already shown leadership. … Emphasis is on teamwork, and there is an opportunity to meet with local and national leaders, and be paired with a career mentor.” Ok, Progressive Political Entrepreneurs pretty much says it; young folks finding their career niche in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Fine, better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Next on the list is Whereby.Us, a local organization promoting downtown events, supported by the Knight Foundation. Richard Florida’s “Creative Class.”

Finally there is Highwater Line Miami, an apparent outgrowth of a 2007 NYC event by artist Eve Mosher which visually dramatized the projected sea level in New York, now getting organized in Miami.

I describe the sponsors not to disparage them; indeed, they are to be thanked for organizing the event. Rather, it helps to understand the contradictions between the messages of the hopeful young urban professionals focused on a possible viable future (Reynolds, Eilert, Viciedo) versus the older professionals (Wanless, Lewis, Stoddard) who are looking at the science and understand the political and economic realities, less influenced by hopeful distortions.

So let’s get to the contradictions. Essentially it is the contradiction between resistance and acceptance. Resistance in this case means engaging in activities and planning that will resist sea level rise, such as Everglades restoration, higher urban density (holding the UDB) and coordinated transportation, water and building codes. In other words, progressive urban planning. All of which are good for future contracts and contractors. Acceptance in this case means, inevitably, a shrinkage in habitable land, relocation of population and a collapsing tax base due to disappearing real estate value.

If there was a commonality among the speakers it was that of encouraging engagement with the issue; Sorenson Stoddard and Reynolds emphasizing involvement with local political officials, Viciedo and Eilert talking mainly about engaging as urban planners and advocates in transportation and housing vocations. All of these things are important for a real democratic process and should be encouraged without hesitation.

Yet here are the realities as laid out by Wanless, Lewis, and Stoddard:

Wanless: “with a 6 foot sea level rise three quarters of Miami-Dade County will be uninhabitable. The actual numbers are 44% of the county will be underwater at a mean high tide with a 6 foot sea level rise. 73% of the remaining land is less than 2 feet above sea level and thus not habitable. So really only about 12% of the county will be sort of habitable.”

Stoddard: “I told my daughter [about the expectation of 5 meters [sic] of sea level rise]. She said ‘This is all gone.’ I said ‘That’s right’. She said ‘I’m not going to live here, am I?’ I said ‘No, you’re not.’ And you’re [the audience] not going to live here. All of you below the age of 30 are not going live here in Miami. It’s not going to end pretty. You know how it’s going to end. … But we’re going to give Miami a good life until it dies. The problem is the economics are going to kill us before the water does. We’re going to lose our insurance – can’t afford it; going lose our 30 year mortgages and we’re going to see the place go under economically before it goes under water. Unless we figure out what’s coming, come up with a decent economic plan to manage our relocation out of the low areas … and we have to figure out, step-by-step what we are going to do.”

But this very issue of relocation is the very subject which dare not speak its name in Miami Dade politics. When presented with the fact that buy-outs, repurposing and relocation of those low areas is not even on the table in the South Florida Climate Action Plan, the response from the participants ranged from Viciedo’s “We can’t even fathom that kind of work” to Sorenson’s “There’s a 12 billion dollar backlog of infrastructure needs in this county… so there is no [relocation] plan but it’s something that elected officials need to be aware of and asked for” (!) to Lewis’ “We need to start talking the hard facts. I would like to stay here forever. I love Miami. But we have to be realistic too.”

Now, if you were one of those under 30 urban professionals and you heard one set of messages that said ‘get involved by going to meeting with public officials in the effort to shape public policy’ and in the same event you heard the stark fact that within your career lifetime 75% of Metro-Dade will be uninhabitable, but the economics will kill us off before the water does, what would you do?

You’d get out with as much as you can and too bad about the folks who either didn’t see it coming (they weren’t told because it’s not on the table) or simply didn’t have the resources to move.

We are caught between the ocean and the Everglades, something that others in centuries past understood. They understood that Miami was not the place for a city.

** link to the audio of the event – without Wanless’ remarks due to tech failure. his quote was provided to me by email from him.


Anonymous said...

What I don't understand is why the developers aren't acknowledging this reality and why government officials aren't incorporating it and budgeting accordingly. Also, why news outlets like the Miami Herald and Business news outlets aren't including it in every breathtaking report on the latest luxury high rise on the coast and on barrier islands. Also, why international investors seem blithely unaware as they plunk down those 100 percent deposits on future penthouses with bay views?

Anonymous said...

If young upwardly-mobile corporate and entrepreneurial Miamians want to do something about sea level rise, they have to do something about carbon. That means picking up the phone and calling Congress and the White House.

Anonymous said...

What about house boats and developing the fishing industry?

Anonymous said...

First Anon.

Developers, government officials, and international investors (aka real estate specualtors) all share one thing in common, They could not care less about the long view. For them, it's about the next dollar and the next election. Miami is doomed.

Anonymous said...

Venice is a huge tourist attraction. Maybe we can become the next Venice. Folks will pay attention when they start building stilt houses in Doral.

Emily said...

I don’t think this is an either-or. There is a lot we can learn about how other places have dealt with sea level rise.

5 things Miami can learn about sea level rise from the Dutch

Anonymous said...

This guest blogger is good - who is it?
Some thoughts for the commenters:
Houseboats are fun for retires and counter-culture types, but not so good for running a business or diverse economy. Fishing? Read up on oxygen-free dead zones and ocean acidification. What about the Dutch? They are not built on porous limestone, and they are now planning how to give back the low ground as it becomes increasingly indefensible. Miami is already indefensible. Carbon? Look at the other "sequestration" hapening in Washington - few signs of the broader national-level competence needed to address the problem. I'd like to be more optimistic, I really would. The geography, geology, and hydrology are just not cooperating with my understanding of economics and political functionality.

Anonymous said...

There is much we can learn from other places BUT our geology is unique to us. Those other places do not have porous limestone. In our zest to focus on adaptation, we should not forget that our best defense is curbing carbon. That means mobilizing this community to influence Congress and the White House.

Malagodi said...

excellent piece on what we're up against.

Anonymous said...

I think we all need to shrink our individual carbon footprints in addition to making sure we hold our local elected officials accountable for every decision they make. If we are all in this together it will not feel so overwhelming...and maybe we can stay here for an extra 50-100 years!

Anonymous said...

It's a problem of credibility. The elders remember the "coming ice age" and how they were all going to freeze to death. As the years move along and the warnings are rendered meaningless because the condos and the hotels that sit directly on the beach still stand after 50 years despite the dire predictions of their imminent collapse, one can understand how it's possible for people to get jaded.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I live on the Silver Bluff Ridge in Coconut Grove, the highest natural point above sea level in Dade County.

The next time you drive down Bayshore Drive from 27th Avenue to US1, look to the side of the street opposite to Biscayne Bay. It is about 19' above sea level at the peak of the ridge.

Anonymous said...

The Miami Chapter of Surfrider Foundation is hosting two screenings of the documentary film, Shored Up, by director Ben Kahlina, about climate change and sea level rise.

There is a screening at FIU tonight (10/16) and tomorrow (10/17) at the Museum of Science.