Florida’s Flooded Future: ‘Retreat While There’s Still Time’

Florida’s Flooded Future: ‘Retreat While There’s Still Time’

Florida’s Flooded Future: ‘Retreat While There’s Still Time’

With sea levels rising, Miami will be underwater by the end of the century.


Florida’s time of climate change denial is over. You can buy mugs in Miami Beach souvenir shops that show a map of the world. Pour in a hot liquid, and Florida disappears. “Climate change is real” appears on the sides of Miami’s buses, and the issue is well covered in the local press; The Miami Herald appointed a special climate change reporter in 2017. Florida’s Republican governor, former climate skeptic Ron DeSantis, last year recruited scientists and “resilience consultants” to prepare the state for climate impacts.

The sea level here has risen by 2.8 inches since 1992, but the rate of increase has accelerated in the past 15 years and it could rise another 2.8 feet by 2060. And, for once, millionaires in their beachfront homes in Miami Beach or nearby Fisher Island, Star Island, and Indian Creek are not exempt from loss. Even President Donald Trump’s property is likely to feel the effects: By 2050, Mar-a-Lago, his private Palm Beach club north of Miami, is predicted to be under a foot of water for 210 days a year.

Miami is not viewing climate change just as a future threat; its effects are already part of daily life. Florida, former swampland that is just above sea level, is the US state at greatest risk from increasingly regular floods. The sea is rising fast, and “king tides,” huge surges in autumn, are especially destructive. Drain outlets are below high-tide level during the surges, so salt water enters the drainage system and bubbles up from storm drains, submerging roads and underground parking lots for days. In 2016 a photograph of an octopus washed up in a Miami Beach car park gained widespread attention. This recent surge phenomenon is called “sunny day flooding,” because it happens even when there is no rain. In some parts of the Florida Keys, the archipelago south of Miami, the 2019 floods lasted an unprecedented 90 days.

“How long can we stay here?”

There’s another, geological, problem: Miami, unlike other coastal cities such as New York and New Orleans, stands on a bed of silt that acts like a sponge, so the encroaching sea also gets into freshwater aquifers and septic tanks. The ever-higher seawalls erected by the city can do nothing to stop this, and in Hallandale Beach, seawater has already contaminated five freshwater wells. So Floridians may run out of drinking water even before they confront flooding. Encroaching salt water also threatens salt-intolerant vegetation. Rising sea temperatures are already making this tropical region’s regular hurricanes longer and more destructive, as demonstrated by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Economist David Letson, who studies hurricane evacuation, said, “The short-term fear is the combination of a hurricane and a tidal surge, as happened with Hurricane Sandy in 2012.” He and his wife live in the island town of Key Biscayne, south of Miami Beach. “We’ve been in our house 25 years, even though we’re not well-off enough to live by the sea. We’ve started wondering how long we can stay here. My neighbor’s thinking about having his house raised, but that’s really expensive, at least $100,000. But there’s the dilemma that by investing to protect your home, you increase the value of the thing that’s exposed to the more powerful weather shocks that will inevitably come. Sooner or later, we’ll have to consider moving out.”

Philip Stoddard, former mayor of the City of South Miami, one of 34 incorporated cities that make up Miami-Dade County, is one of the few politicians willing to use the term “managed retreat.” “Few political leaders are prepared to tell people the truth,” he told me. “The median household income in Miami is $50,000. We don’t have the means to finance the infrastructure that would be needed to adapt the area to the sea-level rises of the coming decades. The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] has a national budget of $125 million. Just in this small city with 13,000 people, it would cost $75 million to replace the defective septic tanks with a municipal sewer system. We need to tell people it’s time to think about retreat while there’s still time to do it calmly.”

Some people never had that luxury. In the Florida Keys, the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma displaced several hundred people. In theory, FEMA has a home buyout program for those living in vulnerable areas, which declares the land unfit for building, ending the cycle of destruction and reconstruction. But the application process takes an average of five years. Stoddard points out that “FEMA doesn’t have the money to buy up the homes of everyone who needs to leave.”

“People won’t be able to sell their homes”

Stoddard is not the only one recommending departure. Wealth management adviser Marc Singer encourages his clients, in more guarded terms, to “limit their exposure.” “Your house used to be your safest investment, but not any more. Climate change isn’t cyclical like the stock market, unless we’re prepared to wait for the next Ice Age.” He remembers the first time he saw sunny day flooding: “Developers who build on the seafront have a three-to-four-year horizon, but I have a long-term relationship with my clients, and they’re starting to worry about rising sea levels. Sooner or later, insurers are going to drastically increase premiums, banks won’t want to lend over 30 years, and people won’t be able to sell their homes.”

People have noticed, however, that the ground is slightly higher a few miles from the sea. West Coconut Grove is a world away from touristy Miami Beach. In this residential district, originally home to immigrants from the Bahamas, the highest point is about 10 feet above sea level. That may seem insignificant, but it’s a critical advantage over Miami Beach, where most of the land is just two to four feet above the sea. West Coconut Grove’s wooden houses, built in the shotgun style (with rooms arranged one behind the other) typical of the Caribbean, have no sea view, but they have never flooded. The Reverend Nathaniel Robinson, pastor of the local Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, praises the durability of these narrow single-story dwellings that can withstand hurricanes: “You just have to open the doors and windows and the house breathes. The wind blows through, it doesn’t blow it down. That one even survived [Hurricane] Andrew in 1992,” he said proudly, pointing to a faded white shotgun.

Can it survive the developers, though? “Realtors send letters and call every week, trying to get me to sell,” said Thaddeus Scott, a semi-retired gardener in his 60s who has lived here since childhood. Ten years ago, he took on a 30-year mortgage for a house costing $130,000. He’s still there, but developers are buying up and demolishing homes all around his to build square white townhouses. He feels threatened by the encroachment of a hundred of these luxury “sugar cubes” that dwarf the existing homes: “These new houses cost $2 million. They’re not for people like us.”

Scott calls it “climate gentrification,” a term that has gained currency in the press and academic research in the past year. Are the rich actually retreating from the flood-prone coastline to higher ground and displacing the original inhabitants? According to Tulane professor Jesse Keenan, originally from Miami, the value of single-family properties rose more between 1971 and 2017 in districts at higher elevations than those closer to sea level. A report from McKinsey estimates that homes in Florida’s flood zones will lose 15 to 35 percent of their current value by 2050.

Climate gentrification has mobilized a small group of activists in Little Haiti, a working-class neighborhood known for its Caribbean market and botánicas, which has been home to Haitians since the first arrivals fled Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship in the 1970s. Little Haiti is also six and a half to 13 feet above sea level. “For Miami, that’s the Rocky Mountains,” said Caroline Lewis, founder of the CLEO Institute, an organization trying to improve climate change understanding. In this part of the city, the flagship climate gentrification project is the Magic City Innovation District, a 15-year, 17-acre, billion-dollar megaproject that aims to construct “a mixed-use…walkable campus [with] retail, office, residential, hotel, art, park and other public spaces.” The website of this “revitalization” project boasts that the district’s elevation will help “protect [it] against storm surges and respond to climate change environmental impact in years to come.” Despite three years of vigorous protests from Haitian residents, developers got the green light from the City last year. One of the few concessions was agreeing to retain the name Little Haiti instead of using Little River, as the district was known before the Haitians arrived.

Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, a support group for Haitian families, works tirelessly to persuade residents not to sell up. “Developers offer to buy homes that cost $40,000 in the early 2000s for $150,000 or $200,000. They think they’re getting a great deal, but after they’ve sold, they discover there’s nothing left in Miami that they can afford.” Some people move elsewhere in the county, to North Miami Beach, Homestead, or Miami Gardens; others go further, to Fort Lauderdale in neighboring Broward county, or even to Georgia.

Warning signs of gentrification

With sea levels rising, Miami City Hall thinks it is common sense to develop districts that are not only higher but also served by one of Florida’s few train lines. Francisco Garcia, Miami’s city planning director, said, “Miami initially developed as a winter vacation destination and then became a permanent residence city, largely because of the availability of air conditioning in the 1960s. But the city planning of those early days, based on single-family homes, isn’t viable any more. We absolutely need to densify.”

The inhabitants of Liberty City, eight and a half feet above sea level, believe they are next for climate gentrification. This is a mostly African American neighborhood, where half the population earns under $20,000 a year. In 2018 the average price of real estate per square foot rose by 26 percent. In 2017 the City, in partnership with private groups, began to renovate public housing from the 1930s on the nine lots that form Liberty Square. Developers have also started buying up single-family dwellings. “A veterinary clinic has moved in,” said Samantha Quaterman, principal of a local school. “When you see white people walking their dogs, you’ll know time’s up. I don’t know anyone round here who owns a dog.” Liberty City, unfortunately known for the race riots of 1979, gangs, and crack cocaine (and for being the setting of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight), does not seem close to this stage of gentrification. Dunkin’ Donuts is the only place serving food, and it has installed bulletproof glass to protect its staff. It has a different customer base from Starbucks’, but Quaterman sees the arrival of the coffee shop as a warning sign of gentrification. “It used to be a KFC. We’re screwed.”

Everyone in West Coconut Grove, Liberty City, or Little Haiti talks about the historical irony of the situation. Caroline Lewis said, “During segregation, and then with redlining [policies that forbade mortgage lending to black people, except in specified zones, until the 1960s], African Americans couldn’t live on the coast. Now the water’s rising and they want to come and live in our neighborhoods and drive us out.” In this, Miami differs from cities such as New Orleans, where African American communities tend to live in low-lying, flood-prone districts.

Not everyone agrees that climate change is driving gentrification, as real estate speculation in Miami began in 2005, long before climate change was on the agenda. It affected all districts, not just the more elevated ones, as the population exploded. Within 15 years, Miami went from being a beach resort and tax haven for golfing retirees to a world city with a culture that attracted young high-flyers from the high-tech and finance sectors with a taste for contemporary art. The population of Miami-Dade County has risen by 300,000 to 2.8 million since 2010. Real estate prices have rocketed, boosted by strong demand from abroad. Luxury skyscrapers have sprung up. These factors mean that many neighborhoods have been gentrified, including Downtown, Wynwood, and the Design District. Between 2011 and 2017, rents in the county rose by 24 percent, but salaries and public housing construction failed to keep pace.

“Little Haiti is still cheap”

Mallory Kauderer, a real estate developer who has been investing in Little Haiti for 25 years, gets annoyed at mention of the climate factor: “We invest there because it’s one of the few districts that are still cheap. The 10-foot difference in altitude is negligible. In a hundred years it won’t make any difference, because the whole city will be underwater.” Professor Keenan, author of the study of the relationship between elevation and rate of house price increases, acknowledges that “in a district like Little Haiti, we’re probably talking about classic gentrification. Often the people who move out of Miami Beach to escape the effects of climate change don’t stay in Miami, but go to other cities such as Orlando or Atlanta. My best friend, for example, has just sold his house in Miami Beach and moved to Denver.”

The impact of climate change will reverberate far beyond Florida. According to research by demographer Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia, 6 million Floridians will be forced to move inland by the end of this century if the sea rises by six feet. Many may head for Dallas or Houston, so the effects of climate gentrification will be felt nationally. Across the country, 13 million people may abandon coastal areas such as Long Island, N.Y; New Orleans, La.; Charleston, S.C.; and San Mateo, Ca. The UN regularly issues warnings about the impact of global warming on small island states such as Polynesia, the Maldives, and the 7,000 islands of the Philippines, but the problem is acute in the United States, too, and may cause a population movement as large as the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the North and West in the 20th century.

Keenan acknowledges that billionaires do not quit their Miami Beach villas to move to Little Haiti or Liberty. “They couldn’t care less if one of their secondary residences worth $15 million floods.” When a hurricane strikes, these wealthy property owners will be far away in one of their other homes. “Meanwhile, the middle class are less and less tolerant of the increasingly frequent floods that destroy their cars, raise their insurance premiums, and close the roads they use to get to work.”

The wealthiest are not only staying put: Some are actually moving to the coast, where new luxury condos designed by high-profile architects sell for staggering prices, because buyers know they bear only part of the flooding risk. In the United States, flood insurance is provided by a public scheme, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), established in 1968, with rates that do not reflect the true risk. Mario Ariza, a journalist on the South Florida Sun Sentinel and author of a book on Miami’s “climate catastrophe,” joked, “I’m pretty left, but in this case, I’m all for Adam Smith’s invisible hand letting those premiums rise.… Almost two-thirds of the housing covered by the NFIP is thought to be second homes for the rich.”

As the sea level rises, new buildings are being planned to withstand climate change, such as Monad Terrace, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, a 59-unit development built to resist the strongest hurricane. The building overlooks Biscayne Bay, and will be raised 11.5 feet off the ground, with parking lots at ground level rather than underground. If there is flooding, excess water can be channeled to a central lagoon at the heart of the complex. The developers boast of the “resilience” of the building, which was scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. What they don’t mention is that its construction entailed buying up an existing apartment block and removing its tenants, who will not be able to enjoy that resilience, since the new units will sell for between $1.7 million and $14 million, depending on their size.

In Florida, resilience is the buzzword of the moment. Stephanie Wakefield, a geographer at Florida International University, said, “Developers and the authorities used to be in denial about climate change. Resilience gives them a way of talking about it, as they can claim to have found ways to tackle it.” The concept is from physics and describes a material’s shock-resistance. By the 1970s it was being used by environmentalists to describe how ecosystems change and adapt, and in the 1980s it was picked up by psychologists to explain how individuals overcome trauma. In the past decade, economists, city planners, and development experts have used it in public policy, in the context of climate change, natural disasters, terrorism, financial crises, and pandemics. French President Emmanuel Macron called the military operation he announced on March 25 to fight Covid-19 Operation Resilience. Wakefield said, “It’s an incredibly pernicious term that implies there’s no changing the economic regimes that exist, and that everyone is naturally vulnerable and has to live with the disasters these regimes create. All these resilience technologies that are created to manage the disaster sit alongside the existing regimes and the existing technologies that are creating climate change.”

Adaptation, not relocation

The idea of resilience owes much of its popularity as a response to climate challenges to the Rockefeller Foundation, whose president, Judith Rodin, published a book in 2014 called The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong. Since 2013 the foundation has created and funded a hundred chief resilience officer posts in cities worldwide.

Jane Gilbert, the first to hold this job in Miami, described the measures the City is taking to force, or more often encourage, property owners and developers to raise floor levels, increase the height of seawalls, or fit solar panels. She does not include the option of leaving the city: “People come here for the beauty of the ocean. They’re not going to move away from it.” Rather than the euphemistic term “relocation,” the word “adaptation” is in favor. In 2017 City Hall managed to convince residents to vote for the optimistically titled $400 million Miami Forever scheme to invest in infrastructure and housing for the future. But there’s a question about its funding. Florida is a tax haven, as the state does not levy income tax.

Frances Colón, a former member of the Climate Resilience Committee who is tasked with making recommendations to the City, said, “An enormous share of Miami’s budget, around 40 percent, comes from property tax. That’s where you see the absurdity of the system: The City is completely dependent on real estate and tourism, so it encourages building luxury hotels and apartments to get enough tax revenue to finance infrastructure to protect those same buildings.” The dependence on tourism also partly explains why Governor DeSantis waited so long before ordering a lockdown to halt the coronavirus, allowing tens of thousands of students on spring break to mass on the state’s beaches until early April and then go off to spread the virus across the country.

Miami Beach, Miami’s smaller, wealthier neighbor, has shown even greater willingness to embrace “resilient urbanism.” In 2015, it announced a $400 million plan ambitiously named Rising Above, an exact description of the desire of the mayor then, Philip Levine, to raise the city above the water level. By declaring a state of climate emergency, he short-circuited the usual approval processes and launched huge public works schemes, raising dozens of roads, installing giant pumps (including on a road where he owns property), and strengthening seawalls.

The results failed to match the promises. The seawalls were built hurriedly and without the proper permits, breaching wildlife protection laws, so construction had to be halted. The raising of roads worsened the flooding of buildings in lower-lying areas. The owner of the Sardinia Enoteca restaurant described how during the 2016 storm “the giant pumps they installed to get rid of the water didn’t work because of the power outage. The insurance company refused to cover the damage. Because the city had raised the road, we were classed as being in a basement.”

The City eventually installed generators to cope with power cuts and negotiated with the insurers. “Things have more or less got back to normal, apart from a rotting smell that constantly comes up from the drains.” The pumps do not filter the water they discharge into Biscayne Bay, so it is infected with fecal bacteria at such high concentrations that signs on several beaches warn bathing is “not recommended.”

Wakefield said, “All this serves to reassure the insurers and property developers, but it only buys us about 30 years. In the longer term, some engineers think we’ll have five luxury skyscrapers linked by bridges and it’ll be called the South Florida islands. Others talk of floating islands.”

Since 2018, French startup Arkup has been marketing 1,300-square-foot floating homes that are half-yacht and half-house, described on the company’s website as offering a “resilient and responsible green alternative.” The Arkup homes—”avant-garde life on water”—are powered by solar panels and have their own rainwater harvesting and purification system. They are designed to withstand a force 4 hurricane, and can be raised on hydraulic pilings. Rather than fight the rising tide, why not go with the flow? Resilience is possible—if you can afford $5.5 million.

Corrections: A previous version incorrectly stated the type of rock that Miami sits on; the city is built on porous limestone. It also incorrectly listed the FEMA budget; it is $19.4 billion.

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