‘Water is coming’: Florida Keys face harsh reality as seas rise | Florida
Lngos famous for their spectacular fishing, sprawling coral reefs and literary inhabitants such as Ernest Hemingway, the Florida Keys now recognize a previously unthinkable reality: They risk being overwhelmed by rising seas and not all homes can be saved. .
Following a grueling seven-hour public meeting on Monday, held in the aptly named town of Marathon, officials agreed to push forward a plan to raise the streets in the Keys to keep them from perpetual flooding, while at the same time admitting they don’t have the money to do it.
The string of coral islands unfurling from the southern tip of Florida finds itself at the forefront of the climate crisis, forcing unenviable choices in a place that presents itself as a sunny idyll. The lives of residents of the Keys – a mix of rich and elderly white people, one in four who are Hispanic or Latin American, and those struggling in poverty – are in danger of being turned upside down.
If funding is not found, the Keys will become one of the first places in the United States – and certainly not the last – to notify residents that some areas will need to be ceded to rising tides.
“The water is coming and we can’t stop it,” said Michelle Coldiron, mayor of Monroe County, which includes the Keys. “Some houses will have to be raised, others will have to be redeemed. It’s very difficult to have these conversations with the owners because that’s where they live. It can get very emotional.
Once people are no longer able to get mortgages and insurance for soaked homes, the Keys will cease to be a habitable place long before they are completely underwater, according to Harold Wanless, geographer at the University of Miami. “People have no idea what rising sea levels will do to them. They just can’t design it, ”he said.
On Monday, the county gave details of its plan to spend $ 1.8 billion over the next 25 years to build 150 miles of roads in the Keys, deploying a mix of new drains, pump stations and vegetation to avoid that the streets are not flooded with sea water. The raised roads are eagerly awaited by the inhabitants who told the meeting of cars wrecked by salt water and of putting on boots to wade through to the front doors.
“The roads are blown down, they’re full of cracks, the water is seeping in,” said Kimberly Sikora, who lives in a vulnerable area of Key Largo called Stillwright Point who is still awaiting a full road elevation proposal. “I’m just looking for some kind of relief.”
Another resident, Robert Schaller of Twin Lakes, an area more advanced in the planning process, muttered that he “should have done due diligence” when buying his home last year. “I literally stand on my balcony and watch the water come up my street,” he said. “It goes up through the sidewalk.”
But the Monroe County budget will not cover the increase in all roads, nor any massive home buyouts, and a call on Florida state lawmakers to levy a new tax to cover these growing costs. been rejected. More costs will pile up as the county grapples with how – and who pays – to prevent critical infrastructure such as sewers and electrical substations, as well as people’s homes, from flooding. with the roads.
“If we can’t raise additional funds, then we’ll have to prioritize,” said Rhonda Haag, Monroe County Resilience Manager.
“For example, should we be spending money on raising roads if people don’t pay to expand their gardens? We are opening paths here. We are ahead of everyone else to have to think about this. “
As a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) scientist told county commissioners at Monday’s meeting, the Keys are threatened by rising sea levels, which are accelerating as the vast ice caps of the Greenland and Antarctica are melting. Man-made global warming means a further 17-inch sea level rise by 2040, according to an intermediate Noaa projection used by the county.
To compound this problem, the porous limestone of the islands allows the rising seawater to bubble from below, meaning that it only takes high tides on sunny days to turn roads into ponds, while global warming also causes more violent hurricanes that can sometimes hit the archipelago.
“The Florida Keys are one of the most vulnerable places to flooding in North America,” said Kristina Hill, an environmental planner at the University of California at Berkeley, who warned the islands would face severe flooding. increasing costs of maintaining roads and pipelines, more pollution leaks. and harmful algal blooms.
“Without a change in strategy, parts of the Keys will only become accessible by boat,” Hill said, adding that the islands may have to resort to floating structures and navigable canals to remain viable. “The islands will gradually disappear into a higher ocean, potentially leaving behind a crumbling landscape of leaking underground storage tanks, old pipes and stretches of road flooded to pollute the water.”
The threats facing the Keys are ignored by some of its wealthy retirees who view the situation with some fatalism, while others in this Republican stronghold openly question the science. Eddie Martinez, one of the county’s five elected commissioners, challenged Noaa scientist William Sweet on Monday over his sea level rise projections.
The sea level rise to date is “really zero,” said Martinez, who told Sweet: “You’re a little more on the CO2 side, I’m more on the actual measurement side. ” Another commissioner, David Rice, said “predicting the future is probably best done with a crystal ball” and speculated that global temperatures could change following several volcanic eruptions.
“There are people who don’t want to sell because they like it here, others who want to get out while they can and those who are in complete denial who call you a troublemaker who brings down the property values by talking about it, ”said George. Smyth, a retiree who moved to Key Largo ten years ago for his quiet, slow-paced lifestyle. In 2019, his neighborhood spent 90 days partially submerged in water.
The nature of the Keys changed during this time. While the islands still include pockets of poverty, an influx of wealthy second home owners has sprouted new properties around Smyth. “It used to be pretty tough and tumbling, you would see some fights on a Saturday night,” he said. “Now everyone looks like they’re out of the cosmetic dentist.”
Other new realities are more laborious – Smyth has to wash his car constantly to rid it of salt water and has to pay trucks to unload piles of crushed stones around his property as a buffer against the invading tides. While Smyth doesn’t consider himself particularly wealthy, these protections are beyond the means of low-income Keys residents, many of whom live in exposed mobile homes scattered along the islands.
Smyth is concerned the county will force poorer residents to fork out money for roads, rather than impose a tax on tourists who flock to the Keys. “We feel like we are being held hostage,” he said. “I feel sorrow for what is to come and the loss of what is a wonderful community.”
But the mayor defiantly insists that the keys can be saved, although it is not yet clear how. “We know we live in Heaven and we want it to stay that way,” Coldiron said.