Since the day Damien Hirst’s Gone but Not Forgotten, the gilded skeleton of a mythical 10-foot-tall woolly mammoth, was installed in a sealed glass coffin as the showpiece of the extravagant $1 billion oceanfront Faena development in Miami Beach, not a few cynics have noted that the extinct creature was a portent of our own demise, 80 years from now, when, scientists predict, this strip of sand will vanish into the sea.
Miami-boosters will have none of it. Developers, real-estate brokers, hoteliers, and hustlers talk up the town incessantly. Art Basel! Global city! Paradise! And now that winter has come, New Yorkers are fleeing the coronavirus and its constraints, and buying up $1 million homes and condominiums in Miami, packing coastal enclaves and harming the already frail environment.
“They dance around the climate issue,” the architect Reinaldo Borges, pensive, clicking stills of Biscayne Bay on his studio screen, told me. “It’s a situation we have to face. The future has changed on us. It could be catastrophic.” To put it mildly, the sea is rising, the air warming, and Miami, which lives off those bright-blue coastal waters, will soon see more devastating floods and hurricanes, threatening the lives and property of the 2.7 million people in the metropolis. Already, the bay, which has endured mega–cruise ships, cargo carriers, toxic waste, plastic spills, weekend boaters, and dredging, is sick, some say dying.
Metaphor and Warning
Miami is a metaphor and a warning, a laboratory and a case study. Miami is the future of the United States. “It’s end days, what Berlin was in the 1930s, capital of unease and foreboding,” a friend of mine says. But it isn’t Berlin. It isn’t L.A. noir. It is Miami, a Potemkin village of delusion.
Sometimes on brilliant Sunday mornings, as the thwacks of tennis balls echo through the sun-bleached condo canyons on the precarious southern edge of South Beach, you should take what some down here at ground zero of the unfolding cataclysm like to call the “Doomsday Flood Tour.” Amble over to the South Pointe Pier, gaze across the softly rolling tide, and walk up the brick path that winds along the beach, along built-up, vegetated sand dunes that shelter wildlife and shield us for now from storm surge, but for how long?
“It’s end days, what Berlin was in the 1930s, capital of unease and foreboding,” a friend of mine says. But it isn’t Berlin. It is Miami, a Potemkin village of delusion.
Miami mayor Francis X. Suarez addressed that point at a climate-change forum last year at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, when he admitted that Miami was not prepared to protect itself from “super hurricanes” such as Dorian, in September of 2019, which veered off at the last minute and devastated islands in the Bahamas instead.
Florida’s population of climate-change deniers, among them its most famous resident, the soon-to-be former president of the United States, doesn’t help mobilize residents and politicians. Up until the last few years, state officials and politicians in Tallahassee had refused to officially acknowledge climate change or take major steps to tackle it.
The seas are rising, and Miami is pretty much screwed, reads the headline of an article about a June 2019 Center for Climate Integrity study. The sea will swell 3 to 10 inches by 2030. That’s just 10 years away, and record-high temperatures will continue climbing. We’ll have dead coral reefs and seagrass, fish kills, and contaminated drinking water. “Poop on the beach!” warned stories over the summer.
None of this has slowed down Miami’s relentless selling and buying of waterfront real estate, or the 20 million or so tourists who descend here every year and drop close to billions into the region’s economy.
Climate Change? No Effect on Sales
“Climate change is definitely in the conversation,” a broker in the lucrative Miami Beach luxury market said. “It’s been happening in the past two years, especially with people from the North. They’ve read all the bad publicity. But it has had no effect on sales.” Real-estate reports released late in the year confirmed that high-end sales are still climbing—they doubled in July—despite the prospect of higher construction costs, steeper flood-insurance premiums, and other climate-related expenses.
This is not to say that Miami is doing nothing. There’s the Resilient305 plan, part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program. Stormwater systems and guidelines for raising buildings and roads are under study, and the city says it will commit to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Civic movements crop up here and there, like the millennials-driven Extinction Rebellion, which held hunger strikes to prod Miami to pass a climate-emergency resolution. (The city endorsed it just a year ago.)
On a walking tour of Sunset Harbour, a low-lying bayside zone of high-end condos and design shops, I crossed raised streets that seem lopsided along sidewalks that fall a few feet below, the original level of the roads. An industrial-size water-pump contraption rises above the ground near a dock. The raised streets and water pumps have been warding off floods, Elizabeth Wheaton, my tour guide and Miami Beach’s director of environment and sustainability, said.
Seawalls Are Expensive!
Across the bay, in downtown Miami, Jane Gilbert, a Connecticut transplant who fell in love with Miami’s culture and climate, was the city’s chief resilience officer, juggling multiple projects, working with developers, politicians, community organizations, and businesses. It’s a scramble, but she’s an optimist. “Miami Beach is wealthier than Miami,” she says. “It’s farther ahead of us as it is more vulnerable to sea-level rise and experienced tidal flooding earlier than we did on the mainland. But we’re also now tackling this head-on.”
The finances are staggering. The Center for Climate Integrity study estimates that Miami alone would pay $173.3 million for just 14 miles of seawall. Miami Beach would pay $83 million for nine miles. (Florida’s costs could reach $76 billion, more than twice the cost for the next-most-endangered state, Louisiana.) The ultimate cost is nearly impossible to predict. For Miami alone, “the risk profile is in the billions,” Mayor Suarez has said.
Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, a marine biologist and conservationist at the University of Miami and a co-author of Will Miami Survive?, studies the intersection of climate and finance, which Miami exemplifies. She says the rich have the money to rebuild or relocate, but low- and middle-income mortgaged residents are stuck. How much time before Miami has to confront a catastrophe? “Nobody knows that, but it’s coming––40, 50 years. But this will not be one single event but a series of things…. Everybody needs an exit plan from Miami.”
I crossed raised streets that seem lopsided along sidewalks that fall a few feet below, the original level of the roads.
Borges, the architect, wants to build galactic platform cities raised above the sea on columns of iron, steel, or reinforced concrete, to ward off storm surge and ripping winds. After ticking off several “solutions for the masses,” like elevated buildings, higher seawalls, and upgraded drainage systems, he said the biggest challenge is the toxic chemicals spread everywhere.
While Borges imagines platform cities, Rene Gonzalez, a fellow Cuban architect, draws from Florida’s natural environment. Over a cup of cortadito in his renovated two-story warehouse studio, he mentions the Prairie Residence, a luxury home he built for a Detroit businessman, which is elevated on stilts and accessed by a retractable staircase that lifts up to the center of the house. “My earliest impressions, growing up in South Florida, are of the natural environment. My family’s home was on a canal, and there were frequent trips to the beach and numerous fishing trips to the Keys. Rather than architecture, it was the connection to the environment there that made the earliest and deepest impact in my mind.”
Sunburned cruise passengers on a holiday binge. South American burguéses on a stopover on the way to New York or Madrid. Couples wrapped tight, bulging breasts, hairy forearms, clunky gold watches. Locals showing off out-of-town guests, lapping up Moscow Mules and Tito’s ’tinis. This is the scene most every evening at Joe’s Stone Crab in the October–May season, when the hordes descend and lay siege on the centerpiece of the place, the mahogany bar.
A veteran barman named Jeff takes multiple shouted orders, filling them quickly, with the jerky movements of a silent film, his black vest buttoned up over his black long-sleeve shirt and Paisley tie. The crowd stands five feet deep, a human tsunami rising over the bar, roaring in his direction, slamming credit cards on the counter. I catch Jeff muttering something under his breath. “It’s coming.” I laugh.
Jeff is from Newport, Rhode Island. He arrived in Miami when he was 27, bought his first boat, a daysailer. He now owns a Precision 28 Hull No. 1 named Sloop du Jour. He docks it at a private pier in the bay. He’s been sailing in and around Biscayne Bay and the Keys much of his life. He notices every little change. “Coral reefs are devastated. The seagrasses are dying.” One evening he showed me a postcard of young women on the beach, a scene from the 1930s. He pointed at the surf in the background. “Now that tide would be over them.” When he whispers, “It’s coming,” I know what he’s saying.
Luisita López Torregrosa, a journalist and columnist, is the author of Before the Rain: A Memoir of Love & Revolution. She recently moved from Miami to Dallas