Atlantis of the Americas: Miami, Florida

Atlantis of the Americas: Miami, Florida

Part II in our series focusing on the work of father and son team, Stan Cox and Paul Cox, whose new book, How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe's Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia, answers some of the questions we're all asking these days, as the increase of hurricanes and other natural disasters changes lives in a matter of hours. In this chapter from the book, the authors dig deeply into an urgent case of urban vulnerability, the southern tip of the eastern United States. There the drama between the social and economic (not to mention political) stories compete equally with what's at play with water and land.

Mural on a building at NE First Avenue and NE Seventh Street, Miami, by artists five and Kemo, 2014, after Paul Cézanne2. [o]

The city of Miami Beach consists of a long, low barrier island accompanied by a scattering of man-made islets. It’s one of the lowest-lying municipalities in Miami-Dade County, and its residents are leading the way into the region’s wetter future. By 2013, people living and working on the low western side along Biscayne Bay had come to dread full-moon high tides, when salt water would seep into street drain outlets and the porous limestone that provides the island’s foundation, forcing water from the ground and drains up and out into the streets and sidewalks, putting them deep underwater and threatening buildings and infrastructure. It’s a phenomenon that the island’s sixty miles of seawalls could do nothing to stop; the water was slipping in quietly from below.4 The October “king tide,” when most flooding occurred, was not only a danger and a nuisance but also a national media event.

There’s a problem with all of this road raising, of course. Streets and sidewalks in many places would loom above the doorways of the buildings, pouring water into them when it rains.

Miami Beach is just a small part of a region that’s in big trouble. If sea levels rise as projected, no major U.S. metropolitan area stands to rack up bigger losses than Miami-Dade County. Sixty percent of the county is less than six feet above sea level. Even before swelling of the seas is factored in, Miami has the greatest total value of assets exposed to flooding of any city in the world: more than $400 billion. Its projected average annual losses, taking into account vulnerability to flooding and existing protection measures, are equaled only by those of New York City and Guangzhou, China. But with future sea level rise and continued economic growth, the exposure of property in Miami and Guangzhou will far outstrip that of any other urban area, reaching almost $3.5 trillion in each city by the 2070s.5 The sea level around the South Florida coast has risen nine inches over the past century. Experts expect the sea level to edge up another three to seven inches in the next fifteen years and nine inches to three feet in the next forty-five years. Even the very gradual rise of recent decades will make necessary extensive infrastructure reengineering; however, Florida’s own Department of Transportation forecasts that it will become difficult, expensive, and maybe impossible for road and property-raising efforts to keep up with the accelerated sea level rise that’s expected.6

A portion of Miami-Dade County, Florida. Stippled areas are projected to be either underwater or frequently flooded if the sea level offshore rises five feet above its current state—an event that some expect to occur by the end of this century. Drawing by Priti Gulati Cox.


In Miami, the possibility of a twenty-foot storm surge is not necessarily a science fiction nightmare. And looking back at the area’s geologic history, the slow version—twenty feet of gradual sea level rise—would be a routine occurrence. In recent times, Miami has enjoyed much longer interludes between monster tropical cyclones and floods than has the central Philippines. But over the long term, southern Florida has had a pretty eventful run. Miami is perched on the southeast corner of a formation jutting from the southeast corner of North America called the Florida Plateau. A geologic time-lapse video of the plateau would show it bobbing in and out of the Atlantic: for a while it’s dry land; for a while it’s seafloor; and in between it’s part one, part the other. A mere 125,000 years ago, at the peak of the last interglacial period, Florida was a narrow, ragged stump reaching not much farther south than present-day St. Petersburg. But by the time of the most recent Ice Age, which reached its zenith eighteen to twenty thousand years ago, sea levels had dropped and the peninsula had swelled to almost twice today’s width. The world’s oceans have been creeping up again since the Ice Age, but when humans first made their way into the region more than ten thousand years ago, Florida’s landmass still stretched much farther west into the Gulf of Mexico than it does today. Along the west coast where some of those early arrivals settled, archaeologists who study their villages have to wear scuba gear. In recent times, the continuing rise of the seas surrounding Florida has been accelerated by human-induced warming of the world’s oceans and melting of ice at high latitudes.7

The construction of Miami began on the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, a long, low backbone of limestone that runs along the coast, right through today’s downtown area. The ridge is oriented more or less north and south, and it’s cut through at regular intervals by east-west channels that were eroded by tides in earlier geologic times, when the ridge was a sandbar. Having been partially filled in by soil, the channels became small, fertile, but flood-prone valleys known locally as transverse glades. Through most of Miami’s history, the glades were used for grazing and agriculture, but in the 1970s they began filling with urban development. The barrier islands just offshore from Miami, including Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, were formed when ocean currents coming down the coast from the north deposited sediments on top of a submerged limestone ridge, the remains of an ancient coral reef.8

During and after the 1926 Miami hurricane. [o]

Miami was incorporated in 1896; three decades later it was suddenly a bona fide boom town. The year 1925 saw investment in new construction leap to more than $103 million (more than $1.4 billion in today’s dollars), from just $11 million in 1924. The city more than tripled its land area through annexation. Eight years earlier, developers had started stripping the long barrier island offshore of its mangroves and filling in low, wet areas to create the new city of Miami Beach. By 1925, the Miami area was home to more cars (105,000) than people (70,000) and had been swept up in a phenomenal real estate bubble.9

The boom was short-lived. By March 1926 the good times were already winding down, and speculators were departing for greener pastures. Six months later came the Great Miami Hurricane.10 In his history of Miami in 1926, Frank Sessa observed, “Miami, in truth, did need a period of stabilization, a chance to catch up with itself. That period did not materialize. Whatever chance the city might have had to recover some measure of its boom-time economy was wiped out by the hurricane that struck in September, 1926.” 11

In ecological impact as well, the boom was far more destructive than the storm. 

Hurricane-force winds started being felt late on Friday night, September 17. Many motorists were trapped overnight as a storm surge flooded the causeway between the mainland and Miami Beach. The winds roared and the sea poured in all night, but the calm that suddenly descended around dawn turned out to hold the greatest danger. According to the New York Herald-Tribune, when the eye arrived, many believed the storm had passed and decided to head out for work or start cleaning up debris; however, “none went far. Great waves, tangled wreckage and houses blown across their paths sent them scurrying to safety.” Once the storm had passed for good, Miami’s “ornate skyline was twisted into a wild medley of cocked roofs, crushed towers and suspended beams. . . . Of the estimated 55,000 homes in the greater Miami district about 40 per cent had been damaged.” 12

Miami’s overall economy recovered from the 1926 hurricane, but the great storm brought with it no rainbow. Many who suffered large losses never received adequate relief, because providing full compensation would have been a tacit acknowledgment of the true extent of the damage, and that, it was believed, would hurt the tourism industry. By the end of the 1920s construction activity remained far below pre-hurricane levels, and it plummeted further after the Wall Street crash of late 1929. Sessa characterized 1926 as the year of “recovery from the boom,” not necessarily from the hurricane.13 In ecological impact as well, the boom was far more destructive than the storm. In his book **The Swamp, Michael Grunwald characterized the architects of Miami’s rapid westward expansion as “declaring war” on the Everglades. They ended up almost destroying the great swamp, but the war wasn’t won easily:

The Everglades turned out to be a resilient enemy, resisting man’s drainage schemes for decades, taking revenge in the form of brutal droughts and catastrophic floods, converting the Florida swampland into an enduring real estate punchline. In 1928, a hurricane blasted Lake Okeechobee through its flimsy mud dike and drowned 2,500 people in the Everglades, a ghastly foreshadowing of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans. Mother Nature did not take kindly to man’s attempts to subjugate her.14

. . . 


The world of policy seems to parallel the world of science with about a fifty-year lag.
—Deborah Stone, “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas,” 1989

The times between disasters can be as turbulent, risky, and confusing as the depths of any stormy night, but they are certainly better times in which to live. They are the times for solutions to appear—times in which to act, not just react. In countries and regions where there is easy access to finances, energy, and materials, there may be many options open for preventing or protecting against the next disaster. The best approach often seems obvious—and that solution often turns out later to have been inadequate or even self-defeating.

So in whatever time we have left before the next superstorm hits Manhattan or Miami, or a killer quake hits Seattle or even Oklahoma City, how can the risk of catastrophe be reduced and the inevitable losses absorbed? Here we will sort through some of the big prescriptions that the physical, biological, climatic, and actuarial sciences have offered for reducing risk of rich-world disasters. (Meanwhile, we’ll reserve for Chapter 11 our discussion of proposals for the rest of the world.) Admittedly, we feature some illustrative failures. It should be clear enough that some big solutions do make people safer most of the time, but it may be more important to understand how big solutions can turn into even bigger problems.

The words of Deborah Stone above should also be remembered. Going by her estimate, most of the disasters written about in this book, while all relatively recent, occurred in a 1960s policy world—a world of concrete walls, earthen levees, dams, canals, pumps, bulldozers, helicopters, and water bombers. Large parts of the disaster research community began to drift away from a hard engineering approach decades ago, so that in reading disaster journals today it’s easy to get the impression that concrete has gone out of fashion. It hasn’t. Hard engineering solutions still hold a common sense sway over societies that have accomplished so much with them. ≈ç


1  Lucas Lechuga, “Rainbow over Biscayne Boulevard,” Miami Condo Investments, August 17, 2010, accessed February 25, 2015,
2  Observed by authors, January 2015. We immediately visualized a “rainbow of chaos” as a silver-lined cloud turned inside out. But for other interpretations, see article in Dwntwn Miami Arts and Culture, “Mural Sites Tour,” n.d., The article explains that “the artists five and Kemo revive thequote [from Cézanne], infusing it with contemporary meaning by suggesting we con-sider history from today’s vantage point. Looking at the words independently from the source, it could also imply that sunny Miami is bubbling with activity.” Indeed, rainbows are almost inherently positive phenomena in art and culture. Consider the promise made to Noah in Genesis 9: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant be-tween me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”
3  Bruce Mowry, interview with Stan Cox, Miami Beach, January 16, 2015.
4  Alfonso Chardy, “With Rising Waters in South Beach, FDOT Busy on Alton Road Drainage,” Miami Herald, April 27, 2014.
5  Stephane Hallegatte, Colin Green, Robert J. Nicholls, and Jan Corfee-Morlot, “Future Flood Losses in Major Coastal Cities,” Nature Climate Change, 3 (2013): 802–6;
S. Hanson, R. Nicholls, N. Ranger, S. Hallegatte, J. Corfee-Morlot, C. Herweijer, and J. Chateau, “A Global Ranking of Port Cities with High Exposure to Climate Ex-tremes,” Climatic Change, 104 (2011): 89–111.
6  L. Barry, M. Arockiasamy, F. Bloetscher, E. Kaisar, J. Rodriguez-Seda, P. Scarlatos, R. Teegavarapu, and N.M. Hammer, “Development of a Methodology for the Assessment of Sea Level Rise Impacts on Florida’s Transportation Modes and Infrastructure” (Boca
Raton, FL: Florida Atlantic University, 2012), 5–23.
7  John Edward Hoffmeister, Land from the Sea: The Geologic Story of South Florida (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1974), 19–26; Daniel Muhs, Kathleen Simmons, R. Randall Schumann, and Robert Halley, “Sea-Level History of the Past Two Interglacial Periods: New Evidence from U-Series Dating of Reef Corals from South Florida,” Quaternary Science Reviews, 30 (2011): 570–90; Michael Faught,
“Submerged Paleoindian and Archaic Sites of the Big Bend, Florida,” Journal of Field Archaeology, 29 (2004): 273–90.
8  Hoffmeister, Land from the Sea.
9  Paul George, “Brokers, Binders, and Builders: Greater Miami’s Boom of the Mid-1920s,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 65 (1986): 27–51.
10  Ibid.
11  Frank Sessa, “Miami in 1926,” Tequesta, 16 (1956): 15–16.
12  Ibid.
13  Ibid.
14  Michael Grunwald, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 5.


How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe's Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia

By Stan Cox and Paul Cox

Published 2016, hardcover, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 , 416 pages

The New Press


READ Part I of this series, an interview with Stan and Paul about the book, by Chellis Glendinning.



STAN COX a perennial grain breeder at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. He has written on environmental issues for newspapers nationwide, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and many online publications. He is the author of Any Way You Slice It, Losing Our Cool, and Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine. He lives in Salina.

PAUL COX is an anthropologist and writer whose work covers development and disaster around the world, with publications strewn all the way from the journal Disasters and The New Inquiry to Hyperallergic. He lives in Copenhagen.


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