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The Realities of Sea-Level Rise in Miami's Low-Income Communities

While Miami Beach pours money into adaptation, residents in other parts of the county are waiting for the help they need.

Karina Castillo, an activist for the group Mom's Clean Air Force, standing in tidal flooding in Shorecrest, Miami. (Dayna Reggero for Clean Air Moms Action)

This story originally published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

MIAMI—The water rose quickly. At noon on a brilliantly sunny day here, several blocks from the beach, a lake of salt water suddenly appeared in the street, filtered up from the porous limestone that resides underneath the whole county of Miami-Dade. On the corner of 79th Street and 10th Avenue in the Shorecrest neighborhood, people wandered outside their apartment buildings to stare at the rising water, sloshing through in rain boots to take out their trash.

“It’s been like this for a few days now, rising and then receding and then rising again,” says Jessica Benitez, a resident who moved to Miami from her native Venezuela about a month and a half ago. She says she didn’t know these apartments would flood before she moved into them, and she still doesn’t know how to predict when the water is going to rise. She got home from the store a few days ago to find her street completely flooded, and she tied plastic bags around her feet to get to her door. “[The city] has never told us anything. The water just sits there. It’s like there are no drains, and I don’t understand why,” she says.

She’s not the only one who feels that way. This is just one neighborhood of many in Miami-Dade dealing with the effects of Florida’s King Tide last week, the highest tide of the year. Coastal neighborhoods are hardest hit, but the flooding also reaches farther inland, to less affluent communities. It’s here where the consequences of climate change and sea-level rise could in fact be most grave, says Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a climate researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Middle- and low-income households tend to be less resilient to shocks such as flooding, and they also run the highest risk of being forgotten in the rush to save the millions of dollars in real-estate investments on the waterfront.

“It’s getting worse. When you visit places that weren’t flooding 30 years ago, they’re flooding now,” says Hammer. Today, the Miami area experiences about six of these sunny-day flooding events per year. But the Union of Concerned Scientists projects that by 2045, they’ll be happening 380 times per year. “That’s two times per day in some areas,” she says.

The water at its highest point in a lower-income part of Shorecrest, Miami. (Climate Listening Project. Cinematographer and editor: Adams Wood, Producer: Dayna Reggero)

These tidal flooding events are just one of various ways low-income communities are sure to be affected by rising sea levels and climate change in Miami (and in all coastal, low-lying cities). The city government has recently made an effort to include low-income neighborhoods in planning and discussion around climate change. But according to some activists in the county, more needs to be done, and it needs to be done quickly.

***

The city of Miami Beach (a separate city from Miami, where Shorecrest is located) is famously ground zero for sea-level rise in the U.S., in part because of the severity of its tidal flooding events and in part because of the fortune in luxury real-estate at risk. Here, the city has set aside some $400 million toward adapting to sea-level rise, including new pumps designed to drain streets more efficiently, plans for street elevation, and private building regulations that consider flood risk.

“This is not just about pumps and raising streets. This is about how can we start to look at all the operations of the city through a lens of resiliency,” says Susy Torriente, the city’s Chief Resiliency Officer. Miami Beach enacted its resiliency plan about three years ago, and Torriente says she has since turned her attention to increasingly comprehensive solutions (though she maintains the city is still not considering that it may be necessary to give some neighborhoods wholly back to the sea, as some experts have suggested).

In spite of all these efforts, Miami Beach remains in grave danger from sea-level rise. Floods still occurred during this year’s King Tide, though residents acknowledge that the water has begun to drain faster. Hurricanes, storm surges, and projected sea-level rise seriously threaten communities where seawalls are no more than two feet above high tide.

An area just behind an apartment complex in Shorecrest as the water began to recede. (Climate Listening Project. Cinematographer and editor: Adams Wood, Producer: Dayna Reggero)

Still, it’s clear that the city is investing a huge amount of resources into dealing with the problem. National media and political attention has also been focused here, almost always discussing the luxury property investments at risk as the seas advance.

Shorecrest, on the other hand, has not been quite so widely talked about. It’s a mixed income community, with higher income homes clustered by the water and middle- to low-income residents a few blocks west. On the canal at King Tide time, private boats bob in the water and the sea slowly begins to swell over the wall and into the street. Driveways are elevated here, but even so the water reaches the tires of a few cars. Walking through, you’re in up to your ankles.

Some residents told me they prepared for the flooding by parking their cars farther up the street or out of the neighborhood. But mostly, no one wanted to talk about it. “We don’t really want people to know about this if the city isn’t going to correct it,” says one woman who didn’t want to give her name. “People around here are worried about their property values.”

Her worries are more than valid. But the scene looks very different at an apartment building a few blocks inland.

“When I watch the news, they’re always talking about Lincoln Road this and that [in Miami Beach]. This is just as bad or worse!” says Eric Bason, a resident in an apartment complex affected by the flooding. “And a lot of people around here are middle or low income. We have to go to work!” he says, gesturing toward the water blocking his exit.

Cherlisa Battle-Marshall, outside her apartment complex in Shorecrest, Miami. (Dayna Reggero for Clean Air Moms Action)

Residents say they feel the city pays less attention to flooding problems in low-income areas. The day I visited, neighbors came out of their apartments to talk with me and Dayna Reggero from the Climate Listening Project, apparently eager to share what they’ve been experiencing.

“I even had to stay home from my dialysis appointment before because of this water,” says Cherlisa Battle-Marshall, another resident. “We need drains. The water doesn’t drain. And this is a Zika zone!”

“They do it by the beach, but they don’t do it over here,” chimes in a neighbor standing next to her. It’s hard to argue with their outrage. The water here in fact looks deeper than it did over by the canal. Residents with cars have no recourse but to park in their assigned spots, where at its highest the water could reach the undercarriage. Several people I spoke with appeared to be lacking information about the tides and the resources to adapt—one woman had no cell phone and couldn’t get a heads up from her neighbors when the waters rose, so she showed up that day in flip flops and had to wade through and get wet. No one appeared to know the water could be dirty and unsafe.

A car driving through saltwater in Shorecrest. (Climate Listening Project. Cinematographer and editor: Adams Wood, Producer: Dayna Reggero)

Shorecrest is far from the only low-income community at risk from flooding in Miami-Dade. On the west side of the city, nearer the Everglades, neighborhoods such as Hialeah and Sweetwater (where residents are mainly low-income and Latino) are facing freshwater flooding and the possible loss of their drinking supply, a risk that only gets worse with every inch of sea-level rise. All of Miami’s fresh water supply flows from the Everglades and underneath these communities to keep the Biscayne Aquifer filled; but the increasing pressure coming from rising seas in the east strains the flow, and puts the whole system at risk of saltwater intrusion. What’s more, it pushes the freshwater closer and closer to the surface, flooding the area with the slightest rain. With enough sea-level rise, these areas will be permanently inundated from the west.

***

Slowly, local governments have begun taking steps to adapt and plan for the inevitable advance of the sea. Miami-Dade County, together with the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, recently became part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, which has provided funds to finally hire a Chief Resiliency Officer for the City of Miami. Jim Murley, the CRO of Miami-Dade County, is currently the next best thing: he lives within the city of Miami and is involved in resiliency planning for the city as well. In the next three to five years, Murley says the city will concentrate on updating its stormwater infrastructure, to help floodwaters drain faster. At the county level, they’ll be focusing on updating sewer and water infrastructure all over Miami-Dade, making sure it works well with the new stormwater infrastructure.

“We want to design and construct a sewer and water system that’s resilient to six feet of sea-level rise and a Category 5 hurricane,” Murley says.

Until relatively recently, low-income communities did not have a designated voice in the city’s resiliency planning, which activists in the area campaigned to change. Three weeks ago, the Miami City Commission appointed Kilan Bishop, a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami and resident of Little Haiti, to its Sea-Level Rise Committee, specifically as an advocate for the city’s low-income communities. Everyone I spoke with was happy with this development, and seemed hopeful the city genuinely wants to be more inclusive.

Still, some expressed lingering frustration. Caroline Lewis, director of the CLEO Institute, a climate activist organization, organized four town halls with city leaders in the low income communities of Little Haiti, Liberty City, Shorecrest and Sweetwater. She says the worries residents expressed in these meetings haven’t been adequately addressed by the city, even though officials seemed sympathetic and understanding while they were happening. When the county released this year’s budget, she was dismayed to find a lack of line items specifically going to low-income neighborhoods’ concerns around climate change.

“It is frustrating that all the meetings, forums, town halls and workshops we held do not seem to influence budget priorities at all,” she wrote in an email to the county commissioners and mayor. Murley says that the budget did try to take into account the worries of low-income residents. “I know Caroline, and I understand her concern,” he says. “The budget addresses some of her concerns through funds for new personnel to deal with flooding events, and $800,000 for consultants that are going to do research on sea-level rise in poor and rich communities alike.”

But Lewis feels things should be happening faster, especially in poor communities. “I want to see the city say, ‘yes, there is a serious problem and we are going to fix it. And while we do, everyone keep your feet out of the water,’” she says.  

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