The Rising Tide in Miami: One of Many Communities Impacted by Climate Change

Jun 26, 2018

Living with climate change in downtown Miami

Gail Tucker has lived in the same low-rise condo building in downtown Miami since 1979. As a biologist, she is acutely aware of the environment around her and the ways it has changed over the past 39 years. From where Gail stands—with the spoil islands and Miami Beach to the East, and Miami’s airport and the Florida Everglades to the West—the impacts of climate change, sea-level rise in particular, are noticeable and increasingly menacing for her community and the infrastructure they rely on.

“Yes, the people who live in Miami enjoy their views and ambiance, but many of the homes and low-rise buildings like mine were built well before the real threat of coastal effects from global climate change were clearly understood.” And, Gail reminds us that all the residents of the new high-rise buildings that dot Miami’s shore will need “fresh water, expanded sewage disposal and protection from the intrusion of the sea during high tides and hurricanes, issues that are already plaguing nearby Miami Beach, including economically disadvantaged areas of North Miami Beach.”

In Miami, tides are higher than when Gail moved there 39 years ago. “It is not just a perception, it is a reality,” she says. Engineering reports of the sea wall at her building demonstrate that the median high tide line has crept up more than eight inches since the 1980s. It now often reaches the bottom of the cap of the seawall.  These changes are etched into the concrete as bands of biological material.

Gail’s photos of the tide lines from left to right, were taken in February of 2015, January 2018, and March 2018. Gail points out that though the tide lines look similar, close review shows that the lines in the more recent photographs are denser and higher marks are being left by algae and suspended sediment.


When the realities of climate change surpass the sea wall

With climate-fueled weather, like Hurricane Irma last year, tidal surges have breached the sea wall and waterlogged the streets. In fact, it is estimated that, by 2100, nearly 33,000 Miami homes could end up submerged if sea levels rise the predicted six feet. And, essential pieces of Gail’s life—the things that keep her and her community safe, healthy, prosperous and happy—are at risk: “Schools, businesses, first responder installations, our brand new Museum of Science, and downtown Arts and cultural centers are all subject to flooding in the event of a major hurricane.”

However, Gail also points out that it’s not just Miami’s downtown communities, which are located directly on the coast, that will be affected by rising sea levels—people from communities all around the city could feel the effects of increased flooding and higher tides. “The school system headquarters for Miami Dade is two blocks west of Biscayne Bay, where it is easily imaginable they will be flooded if a major hurricane makes landfall here, given how far inshore the storm surges from direct hits have gone in the past, like during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In addition, several major hospitals are near the coast.”

The climate realities flow inland

Gail’s story does not take place in a vacuum. While Miami’s coastal homes are most directly impacted by sea level rise, other parts of the city at higher elevations suffer wind damage and indirect consequences that are equally challenging. Just West of downtown Miami, in well-known residential areas like Liberty City, Little Havana and Little Haiti, there is concern that these neighborhoods, which sit at higher elevations, may begin to feel the pains of climate gentrification. For a myriad of reasons, including the appeal of less flood-prone ground, the price of property is increasing; family-run businesses are being replaced with new commercial and residential construction, and those with less wealth are being displaced from their neighborhoods.  

In the city of Sweetwater, a community locally known as Little Managua that is sandwiched between a major highway and Miami’s C-4 canal, streets and homes flood regularly during rainy season downpours and hurricanes.  The community has yet to acquire adequate city drainage capabilities and people’s homes and businesses are constantly at risk from flooding. The list of Miami communities impacted by climate change, especially low-income and communities of color, goes on and on.

And these climate impacts, as Gail notes, alter people’s lives: “Whether from flooding or wind, if you lose your entire home and all its memories, you often lose your neighborhood, friends and established social and cultural heritage.”

And those climate realities are everywhere

Localities and regions outside Florida are also feeling the very real distress of climate change. Scores of families in Staten Island, New York remain displaced, unable to rebuild and return to multigenerational family neighborhoods nearly five years after Superstorm Sandy. In Hampton Roads, Virginia, tidal flooding obstructed, at one time or another, about half the residents from leaving their neighborhoods. Houstonians are still piecing together their post-Hurricane Harvey lives, with many residents still living in hotels as they are unable to return to their flooded housing. In Puerto Rico, nine months after Hurricane Maria, a fragile electric grid means island-wide blackouts are still a reality for residents, whose exclusion from federal political representation has been reflected in their slow and arduous recovery.

It’s clear, from Gail’s community in Florida to New York to Virginia to Texas to Puerto Rico, we need to plan our infrastructure to withstand the reality in which we live. This is a reality where water is reaching the cap of Gail’s seawall, but also a reality where discriminatory and inequitable social and economic conditions have put low-income and communities of color in a position of greater risk. All too often, our country’s deeply rooted inequities have left the most impacted communities, communities of color and low-income communities, without the infrastructure to protect their property and without the resources to rebuild after a storm, compounding and extending their suffering.  

We can fight for solutions for all

Earlier this year, the Trump administration pedaled an infrastructure proposal that prioritizes polluters and ignores the climate change resiliency needs of our communities.  While we need to fix our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, we must do it in a smart way that plans for a changing climate and promotes sustainable solutions; Trump’s plan would compromise communities’ clean air and water, and neglects the pain climate change is already inflicting on communities.

On the other hand, Senate Democrats have introduced a plan that invests in strong infrastructure that will adapt to a changing climate and help to rectify some of the structural neglect that low-wealth and communities of color have endured for far too long. From Florida to Virginia to Texas to Puerto Rico, this is the type of leadership we all need.