DELRAY BEACH — C.J. Johnson wades from his home on Marine Way after king tides flooded the street and brought water into his home last October. Johnson went to get more supplies to try to stop the water from seeping into his home of 27 years. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)
No graver threat faces the future of South Florida than the accelerating pace of sea-level rise. In the past century, the sea has risen 9 inches in Key West. In the past 23 years, it’s risen 3 inches. By 2060, it’s predicted to rise another 2 feet, with no sign of slowing down.
Think about that. Water levels could easily be 2 feet higher in 40 years. And scientists say that’s a conservative estimate. Because of melting ice sheets and how oceans circulate, there’s a chance South Florida’s sea level could be 3 feet higher by 2060 and as much as 8 feet by 2100, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It’s not just a matter of how much land we’re going to lose, though the barrier islands and low-lying communities will be largely uninhabitable once the ocean rises by 3 feet. It’s a matter of what can be saved. And elsewhere, how we’re going to manage the retreat.
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You see the evidence several times a year in Miami Beach, the finger isles of Fort Lauderdale and along the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach. During king tides on sunny days, seawater bubbles up through storm drains and over seawalls into lawns, streets and storefronts. That didn’t happen 20 years ago, but it’s going to happen more and more.
Of the 25 American cities most vulnerable to sea-level rise, 22 are in Florida, according to the nonprofit research group Climate Central. They’re not all along the coast, either. Along with New York City and Miami, the inland cities of Pembroke Pines, Coral Springs and Miramar round out the top five.
Flooding also is increasing in South Florida’s western communities — like Miami-Dade’s Sweetwater and The Acreage in Palm Beach County — because seawater is pushing inward through our porous limestone foundation and upward into our aged flood control systems, diminishing capacity. Sawgrass Mills, a huge shopping complex in western Broward, closed for three days last year because the region’s stormwater system couldn’t handle a heavy afternoon thunderstorm. You’ve never seen that before.
A growing reality
More than the rest of the country, South Floridians get it. The Yale Climate Opinion Maps show 75 percent of us believe global warming is happening, even if we don’t all agree on the cause. We understand that when water gets hotter, it expands. And warmer waters are melting the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. If all of Greenland’s ice were to melt — and make no mistake, it’s melting at an increasing clip — scientists say ocean waters could rise 20 feet.
The problem is, too few of us are convinced sea-level rise will personally harm us in our lifetimes. We’ve got to change that mindset because it already is. Lila Young, who has lived on the Intracoastal in West Palm Beach for 30 years, said she’s seen the king tides progressively getting higher and flooding her neighborhood more often.
One reason sea-level rise feels like a distant threat is because construction cranes still dot our skylines, the population keeps growing and politicians keep approving new waterfront developments.
Yet government officials see the danger ahead. South Florida’s four counties have created a forward-thinking climate compact that, among many things, requires new construction to anticipate that minimal 2-foot rise in water levels by 2060.
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However, sea-level rise is not yet on the short-term horizons of the mortgage and insurance industries. Perhaps that’s because lenders generally recoup their money within 10 years and insurers can cancel your policy year to year.
But government officials well know their successors will be stuck with abandoned properties when the water rises. And part of their responsibility will be to clean up the debris to ensure pristine ocean water for future generations.
Perhaps you think you’re safe because the flood map shows your home is on high ground. But you will still need infrastructure — things like roads, power plants, water treatment facilities, airports and drinking-water wellfields. So while your house may be high and dry, good luck getting to the grocery store, the doctor’s office or out of town.
Good fortune gave Palm Beach County a slightly higher elevation, which means the risks aren’t quite so acute here as for our neighbors to the south. Still, the high-priced real estate on the barrier islands is equally vulnerable, along with the low-lying mainland along much of West Palm Beach’s Flagler Drive. As the sea level rises, the agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee will drain more and more slowly after a major rainfall. And when significant hurricanes and floods hit farther south, we may see a sudden flood of people from Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
It’s tricky to trumpet the threat headed our way. Scientists like Harold Wanless, a noted University of Miami coastal geologist, have the freedom to be blunt. “If you’re not building a boat, you don’t understand what’s happening here,” Wanless told science writer Jeff Goodell, author of The Water Will Come.
But local leaders fear scaring people and damaging our economy. Though our region is certain to be reshaped, they express confidence that we can adapt if we start planning now to raise roads, elevate buildings, update the region’s 70-year-old flood control system, buy out flood-prone properties and make smart choices about what to save and where to invest.
Political, business leadership needed
At the federal level, little leadership is being shown on this critical issue. President Donald Trump recently rolled back the Obama-era order that requires infrastructure projects, like roads and bridges, be designed to survive rising sea levels. And though membership is growing in Congress’ bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus — of which U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, is a founding co-chair — too many Republican members still deny the reality of climate change and sea-level rise, perhaps fearing political retribution by right-wing deniers. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio resides in that camp.
In Tallahassee, after years of silence on sea-level rise, Gov. Rick Scott this year finally requested $3.6 million — a pittance, really — to help local governments plan. But despite the efforts of some South Florida lawmakers, the issue wasn’t on the Legislature’s agenda, partly because of the politics of climate change and partly because term limits create a revolving door of lawmakers who focus on today’s hot buttons, not tomorrow’s existential threats.
“It’s not something we’ve taken a position on,” Cragin Mosteller, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties, said when asked about sea-level rise. “We represent 67 counties who have differing opinions … So for us, we’re trying to focus on the things counties need to manage like stormwater, water treatment.”
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Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, says that to get Tallahassee’s attention, public awareness must first be raised. Then, people need to make their voices heard.
“I travel the state more than anybody but the governor. I promise you that people are not demanding that their local House member and their local senator drop what they’re doing and do something about sea-level rise,” Wilson said. “The solution is to raise awareness.”
To that end, the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post — with reporting help from WLRN Public Media — are joining hands in an unprecedented collaboration this election year to raise awareness about the threat facing South Florida from sea-level rise. In drumbeat fashion, we plan to inform, engage, provoke and build momentum to address the slow-motion tidal wave coming our way.
Sea-level rise is the defining issue of the 21st Century for South Florida. Some of us might not live long enough to see its full effects, but our children and grandchildren will. To prepare for a future that will look far different, we’ve got to start planning and adapting today.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, with reporting and community engagement assistance from WLRN Public Media. For more information, go to TheInvadingSea.com.
No greater threat faces South Florida than sea-level rise. Local governments are stepping up, but it’s not on the agenda in Tallahassee or Washington. Our unprecedented media collaborative seeks to elevate South Florida’s voice on the need for action.
Coming Monday: Our main protection from sea-level rise is a flood-control system built 50 to 70 years ago. It needs expensive upgrades.
Coming Tuesday: What needs to be done so that the National Flood Insurance Program can protect its policyholders without running up huge debt.