Atlantis of the Americas: Miami, Florida

Atlantis of the Americas: Miami, Florida
Published: May 06, 2018
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]


By Stan Cox and Paul Cox
The New Press. Hardcover, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 , 416 pages.



Rising Tide: Miami is Sinking Beneath the Sea—But Not Without a Fight

“When I started this job, people kept asking me, ‘Why do we have so much flooding now?’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s just one problem: the whole city’s four feet too low — that’s all!’” Bruce Mowry, Miami Beach’s city engineer, was driving us around the island, explaining his department’s strategy to keep it dry as sea levels rise. “If we get the four feet of rise that’s predicted, all of this area will be two and a half feet underwater.”3 He showed us parts of the city where the streets already can flood during twice-a-day high tides for weeks at a time, rain or shine. Clearly, Mowry had a lot of work ahead of him.

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


Mowry assumed the city engineer’s position in Miami Beach in 2013, and it has fallen to him to carry out an ambitious plan to pump water out of the city’s storm drainage system and into the bay whenever the drains get too full and threaten to flood the streets. Eventually it will require fifty to sixty pumps to keep the city dry. He had gotten a few pumps running by the time of the 2014 king tide, and they prevented some of the worst flooding. Three months later, as we stood at the west end of Tenth Street where it meets the bay, Mowry pointed to the two big Swiss pumps that had kept the notoriously flood-prone Alton Road area of the city relatively flood-free during the king tide. To protect the pumping station, he had put up a seawall rising 5.7 feet above mean sea level, which is an ample 4.5 feet above high tide; clearly, Mowry had built the wall with climate change in mind. Stretching north and south from the new wall, privately owned seawalls rose less than two feet above high tide, and that, said Mowry, will be a problem because “everybody in the world agrees we’ll be getting at least two more feet of sea level rise.” And while higher seawalls could keep high tides or small storm surges from pouring in over the top, they alone cannot prevent Miami Beach’s regular “sunshine flooding,” which comes up from below. Pumps are required to keep that water out.

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.

Unfortunately, if the bay continues rising, at some point too much effort and expense will be required to keep pumping the island’s low spots dry. So Mowry has made even more ambitious plans to raise the lowest-lying streets throughout the west side of the island. He showed us block after block that he planned to raise a full two feet: on West Twentieth Street, Tenth Street, Sixth Street, Purdy Avenue (down which residents had been known to kayak during high tide), West Avenue, and others. He even intended to take one block of Sixth Street over a hump, elevating it two feet at the ends and a full six feet in the middle, to allow level street access from new, well-elevated buildings that flood-conscious developers had planned for either side of the street. There’s a problem with all of this road raising, of course. Once they’re two feet higher, streets and sidewalks in many places would loom above the doorways of the buildings alongside, pouring water into them when it rains. In such spots, Mowry says, it might be necessary to leave the sidewalk low and place a short wall between it and the street. Many of the newer luxury condo complexes had been built on high mounds of fill, so their owners generally welcomed the road-raising plans. But so much elevation activity would require staggering quantities of fill soil. There are no sources on the island, and dredging Biscayne Bay for fill is now prohibited, so most would have to be imported from the mainland.

Some of the artificial dunes that overlook the beaches and the Atlantic on the island’s east side and adorn the fairways of Miami Beach Golf Club are among the highest elevations on the island. But Mowry has them beat. He showed us an artificial plateau rising fifteen feet above sea level that he’d built with recycled construction fill in a secluded spot behind the golf course, created to store the city’s critical machinery and the ultra-expensive pumps waiting to be installed—just in case there’s a storm surge. His most precious stuff will probably be safe there, he told us, but “I just have to hope there’s not a twenty-foot surge.”


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

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


Accounts of the 1926 hurricane tended to dwell on the terrible damage done by its 145-mile-per-hour winds, but even greater destruction came with the storm surge. It completely submerged Miami Beach and reportedly carried ships all the way across Key Biscayne without their hulls touching the ground. In height, it eclipsed all surges striking the U.S. Atlantic or Gulf coasts over the next eighty-six years, until Sandy came along. The surge had been set up by east and northeast winds that blew constantly for more than a day before the storm’s arrival and raised the sea level on the east side of Miami Beach to six and a half feet above normal, even before waves began pushing across the island. Miami Beach was fully submerged under two to four feet of seawater.15 The U.S. Weather Service later estimated that the 1926 surge hitting the east shore of Miami Beach reached as high as ten feet. As southerly winds coming behind the storm’s eye forced water up through Biscayne Bay, the surge reached almost twelve feet along mainland Miami’s southern shoreline.16 Had a storm with the path and power of the 1926 hurricane struck the far wealthier, far more built-up Miami of 2005, it would have caused more than $150 billion worth of destruction. That would make it the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, eclipsing twice over the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina that year.17

This has to be a joke. Given that we’re Ground Zero for climate change.

Today when Miamians think of hurricanes, they think of Andrew, which slammed into Florida’s coast south of Miami in 1992, causing about $40 billion in damage (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Although, like the storm of 1926, it ranked as category 5, Andrew was “drier” and faster-moving, did not make a direct hit on the city, and did not produce a large storm surge. If an Andrew-type storm struck Miami head-on today, the damage bill would be almost $70 billion—enormous, but still less than half of the destruction that a monster like the Great Miami Hurricane would cause today.18

The city recovered quickly from Andrew. Two decades later, rebound from the Great Recession brought another building boom to Miami Beach and low-lying parts of Miami’s coastal mainland. It was the biggest that the city had seen in the eight-plus decades since the original boom of 1925. Miami was more exposed than ever and had no intention of backing down.


Two of Miami’s chief north-south thoroughfares, Biscayne Boulevard and Interstate 95, follow the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, which rises to dizzying heights of eight to fifteen feet above sea level along much of its length, dipping a little at each glade.19 This strip of land will be among the last to be submerged as the seas rise. But routine flooding has come to plague other parts of the county. Miami Beach has gotten most of the headlines, but in some mainland communities flooding has become a chronic problem. The metropolitan area that runs north-south through Miami-Dade and Broward counties is sixty miles long, narrow, and hemmed in by water from the left, from the right, and from below—trapped between the soggy, low-lying Everglades to the west and the Atlantic to the east, while sitting atop the porous, water-laden limestone that forms the Biscayne Aquifer. The aquifer is the area’s source of potable freshwater, but as the seas rise more and more saltwater will force its way in, not only threatening the water supply but also raising the water table; in inland neighborhoods, saltwater is creeping noticeably toward the surface.

Harold Wanless, a professor of geology at the University of Miami, is well known around southeast Florida as the indefatigable Paul Revere of the climate crisis; he is to Miami’s future floods what David Bowman is to Tasmania’s future wildfires. According to Wanless, what many see as Miami’s worst-case scenario is actually a conservative estimate. Using the latest U.S. government projections, which include ice melt, he is confident that the waters offshore will rise two more feet by 2048, three feet by 2064, and four to six and a half feet by the end of the century. At five feet, more than half of Miami-Dade County will be submerged. Miami Beach will be gone. For the rest of the region, the worst will still be yet to come, Wanless says: “When we’re at five feet, it will mean we’re on an accelerating curve because of ice melt. The sea will be rising at a foot per decade. Now if that’s happening, try to make any grand scheme work in a place like this.” But problems will begin arising much sooner, even after a foot or two of rise, he adds. “Inland areas will see more and more days of flooding after big rains, because drainage will become more and more sluggish. And we’ll be more and more prone to storm-surge damage from a hurricane.”20 Another geologist, Peter Harlem of Florida International University, told us that severe disruptions can result even from the kind of “nuisance flooding” that’s already occurring in some places and will spread to many more with even small increases in sea level. He said, “People don’t understand six inches. Six more inches can make life miserable.” 21

In dealing with the Everglades, Miami is faced with a delicate balancing act. Freshwater flows out of the giant Lake Okeechobee in central Florida through the Everglades, and from there it pushes eastward to keep the Biscayne Aquifer filled. Were the aquifer to be ruined by saltwater intrusion, Miami would be doomed. So water managers adjust the flow from Okeechobee and the Everglades to apply back pressure against westward intrusion from the rising waters of Biscayne Bay. But that vital water flow also helps complicate Miami’s future flood problems. Henry Briceño, a research scholar at the Southeast Environmental Research Center at Florida International University, puts it this way: “Around here, the flooding’s not just coming from the sea. It’s coming from behind us. We’re gonna get our asses wet—with water coming from the Everglades!”22

Miami Beach, then and now. [o]

For decades, Wanless, Harlem, Briceño, and other scientists met with frustration when trying to draw attention to the sea level problem. Then, once enough Miamians found themselves wading through the fallout of global warming, it seemed everyone was questioning the city’s future. A Rolling Stone headline waved “Goodbye, Miami,” while The Guardian announced, “Miami, the Great World City, Is Drowning.”23 The immersion that everyone knew would repeat someday in the course of geologic time seemed to be happening right now. And it was just about the worst possible news for anyone connected to the pillars of the area’s economy: tourism and real estate. Miami Beach, where those industries converge in a very big way, had its effort going to pump the waters out of the storm drains, but more was needed. So in February 2014, the city commission voted to create a beefed-up flood prevention infrastructure capable of handling peak tides of 2.1 feet, plus future sea level rise of seven inches. That new plan, under which Bruce Mowry was installing all those new pumping stations, back-flow prevention valves, and other features, would cost $400 million, doubling the price tag of the city’s existing flood plan.24 The massive costs of the many other planned flood prevention projects, including extensive road raising, would not be covered by those appropriations; a lot more money would be needed for that.

The pumps installed in 2014 achieved a large reduction in flooding during the October king tide, and a surge of relief swept over the island.25 Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a climate researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told us, “[U.S.] Senators Whitehouse and Nelson and the EPA director, they had all come down to see the October flooding, and there wasn’t any. It was like, ‘Ah, OK, I guess they took care of it,’ and they went home. But look at the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to prevent just this little bit of flooding, which is only a small fraction of what we’re going to see in thirty years.”26

Hammer was referring to the fact that Miami-Dade faces not one but four related flood hazards. There is Miami Beach’s tidal flooding, which affects parts of the mainland’s coastal areas as well. There is the rainy-day flooding that increasingly plagues low-lying mainland communities out west. There is the possibility of a big storm surge, a threat that looms larger with every inch of sea level rise. And then, as the Atlantic continues to warm and swell, there is the long-term prospect of seawater pushing up from Biscayne Bay into mainland glades and canals, flooding more and more of Miami’s coastal areas while backing up the whole hydrological system and causing the western suburbs of the county to be permanently inundated from the Everglades side. That last form of flooding will occur gradually over an extended period, but Harlem and his colleagues have modeled the endgame: with a two-degree-Celsius rise in global mean temperature, the Florida Keys, the entire Everglades, and all of Miami-Dade County will be submerged. That, they predict, will be the situation sometime after the year 2100—it’s hard to say exactly when.27

Mayor Levine, over on Miami Beach, said, "The best and brightest are buying. Sounds like it must be a good idea!"

What can Miamians expect in the meantime? Harlem, who passed away in 2016, thought in terms of a five-stage timeline, while taking care not to attach precise time periods to the stages. In stage one, only the lowest-lying areas, mostly out-of-sight, out-of-mind natural landscapes, flood frequently. In stage two, more private property is being affected. Harlem maintained that Miami-Dade County is now passing from stage one to stage two. In stage three, the majority of people become affected; at that point, sea level becomes a political issue and collective action will replace individual responses. Impacts become increasingly dire in stage four, until the region arrives at stage five, when the only exposed land in Dade and Broward Counties will be a string of islands inhabited by a relatively small population of easygoing but hardy hurricane veterans, a place Harlem has nicknamed “Margaritaville.”28


As 2015 rolled around, the construction and real estate booms rolled on, most visibly in Miami Beach and other low-lying coastal areas. Home prices had surged by more than 10 percent in the previous year. With the rise in real estate values slowing nationwide, Miami was the only major metropolitan area in the nation to have maintained double-digit growth.29 Much of the increase was at the high end of the market, and it didn’t seem to matter whether properties were in badly exposed waterfront locations or on higher ground. In mid-2014, throughout eastern Miami-Dade County, forty condominium projects comprising almost 6,800 units were under construction, and plans for almost 11,000 more units were in the works. In the trendy, mostly low-lying Brickell area south of downtown, prices per square foot were up 50 percent over 2012.30 The market was projected to remain strong for another decade or two, according to local real estate experts.31 Local geologists and climate experts weren’t so sure.

What was sustaining the boom? About half of the investment was coming in from Europe, Russia, and Latin America. This was normal. Miami has long been viewed as a thoroughly international city. Within a single 2001 Time article titled “Miami: The Capital of Latin America,” the city was also referred to as “the capital of Hispanic TV and music,” “the cruise capital of the world,” and “tomorrow’s business capital of the Americas.” 32 With economic and political chaos gripping much of the planet, Miami was looking like the world capital of lucrative, safe real estate investment, too—as long as you had an exit strategy. Miami Herald reporter Karen Rundlet put the situation bluntly: “No one wants to kill the market with negative talk about one of the region’s primary economic drivers: growth. . . . When it comes to real estate, the market—meaning buyers and sellers—neither is likely to respond to the crisis of rising sea levels until the final hour.” 33 And of course such a situation can persist so long as no one knows precisely when that final hour will come.

Philip Stoddard is a biology professor at Florida International University and mayor of South Miami, a small city situated on what (in South Florida anyway) is considered high ground. Although South Miami itself faces no imminent flood crisis, Stoddard is the most climate-active mayor in the region. Miami, as he sees it, bears a grave responsibility; he likes to tell his fellow residents, “Everyone is watching us, so we have to do something that matters. We’ll go under, but other cities will learn from us.” In 2015, Stoddard watched with frustration as the real estate frenzy continued to grip the coastline and islands just to his north and east. He had heard plenty of American and international investors talking about a ten-year window to invest, make money, and get out before it’s too late. He calls that “a dubious calculation,” but almost every person we met in Miami did talk about a ten year horizon. And like all horizons, it appears to recede as you approach it. In Miami’s economy, catastrophe is always ten years away—or rather it will be until it isn’t. Stoddard told us, “There’s going to be someone out there thinking, ‘They’re saying ten, so I’ll get out in nine.’”34 Of course, he said, someone else starts thinking eight, or maybe seven, and then one day someone’s left holding the bag of sand.

As well as a key destination for Latin American emmigrants, the city of Miami has become a vital strategic enclave for Latin American economies. [o]

The developers have their own calculations; for them, Stoddard says, the worst that can happen is to lose money on the last project before things go bust. So they have already gotten their investment and profit out of the previous ones: “If you lose badly on your last one or two projects out of seven, you’re OK. It’s a Ponzi scheme mentality. Mayor [Philip] Levine over on Miami Beach said, ‘The best and brightest are buying. Sounds like it must be a good idea!’” Stoddard believes his fellow mayor is bringing in development as fast as he can, because “he wants a city that’s too big not to save.”

Like all Ponzi schemes, Miami’s depends on no one pointing out that the emperor is wearing no robes, or even a swimsuit. As Stoddard says, “There’s a big ‘shhhh’ philosophy.” Among Miami’s working majority, most of whom aren’t involved in the real estate boom, unawareness of the sea level threat is a matter of information access, according to Nicole Hammer. When they see flooding, she says, many in Miami mistakenly believe that it’s simply the result of poor engineering or maintenance. Sea level rise is discussed in academia, in policy forums, on public radio, and the like—that is, in places where many of the people most under threat never encounter it.


Hurricane Andrew is given a lot of credit for prompting much-needed changes in building codes and zoning laws in Miami-Dade and around the country, but that storm hit very early in the greenhouse-aware era, and Florida spent much of the next quarter century acting as if there were no climate crisis looming. In fact, after Rick Scott took office as governor in 2011, officials of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in reports or communications, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and the Miami Herald. The paper reported in March 2015, “The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department with about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.”35

Living as they do in the most badly exposed region of one of the states most threatened by sea level rise, many Miamians have long been frustrated by the attitude of fellow Floridians who oppose taking any action on climate. To keep future flooding scenarios from growing even more dire, many in Miami have been urging their city to thumb its nose at the legislators up in Tallahassee and start slashing southeast Florida’s own emissions. (As American cities go, Miami has a typical, meaning hefty, greenhouse gas output.)36 A Miami-Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force was appointed in 2006, and its 2010 report contained many recommendations for emissions reduction, as well as identification of “adaptation action areas” threatened by sea level rise on a fifty-year rolling time scale and of engineering solutions to deal with immediate flooding problems. Then in 2013, the county created a Sea Level Rise Task Force, which urged that the recommendations of the Climate Change Advisory Task Force, among others, be put into practice. Finally, on January 21, 2015, the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners met to vote on a set of resolutions based on the task force’s recommendations.

The commissioners that day faced a forty-six page agenda covering a vast array of issues from affordable housing for the elderly to controls on assault weapons. But when the meeting kicked off with an open mike for citizens’ comments, almost all attention focused on the six resolutions related to sea level and climate change. Miamian after Miamian stepped to the microphone in support of the motions, which directed local officials finally to begin acting on the climate and sea level measures after so many years of talk. As the comments continued for an hour and a half, not a single person rose in opposition to the resolutions. Even representatives of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce and the Builders’ Association of South Florida gave their full support. All six resolutions passed. Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin, who had chaired the task force, saw that day’s action as much more than a formality, telling reporters, “People are going to look back at this day as a turning point.” He said the effort Miami needed would be on the scale of New York’s post-Sandy initiatives; however, this time the effort would come before, not after, disaster.37 Celeste De Palma, now of the National Audubon Society in Miami, expressed strong support for the resolutions in the meeting’s comment session. Once they’d been passed, she told us, “My overall sense of these resolutions is that they are a baby step we should have taken years ago. However, it is a welcome step forward, since we were getting nowhere. The next step would be to address the sources of carbon dioxide—that was left out of the resolutions on purpose to, in the words of Commissioner Rebecca Sosa, ‘avoid making this a partisan issue.’”38

There’s going to come a time when the insurance companies are going to walk. They’ll say, ‘Look, we’re not a charitable organization.'

Sosa, who as mayor had written and sponsored the resolutions, indeed acknowledged that she had tried to ensure broad support from her fellow commissioners and the public by avoiding references to the human hand in climate change. Nevertheless, a new day may have dawned in Miami, at least as one looked up from the grassroots. When the new mayor, Carlos Gimenez, unveiled his budget in September 2105 and it contained only a single mention of sea level rise—in a list of “unfunded capital projects” buried on page 265—his negligence made headline news. A few years earlier, no one would have noticed, but now an uproar was raised across the county. As a League of Women Voters representative told the county commissioners, “This has to be a joke. Given that we’re Ground Zero for climate change.”39

Grassroots activists like De Palma are noting that the climate resolutions were not far-reaching, certainly not in proportion to the predictions of climate modelers. If implemented, they will reduce Miami’s emissions footprint and provide near-term flood protection, but the city still has not awakened to the prospect of the wholly new landand waterscape that will become local reality later in the century. We asked everyone we met about this, and most, while they certainly did not wish for a storm surge from a major hurricane, seemed to believe that an event like that would sound a loud enough wake-up call. Stoddard was one: “A big storm would do it. A lot of water washing over people makes an impression. And as you raise the sea level, the likelihood of that happening goes up.” Hammer was another, saying, “A storm surge will give the biggest shock.” Even though the floods from a storm surge don’t stick around long, Hammer believes the sheer terror created by a surge like that of 1926 would have a bigger impact than creeping inundation, despite the fact that the latter is permanent. Maybe, by providing a tangible preview of the future, a surge would do much more to jolt Miamians out of complacency than, say, previous awareness campaigns that included painting high-water lines on the city’s streets.40

This oft-used range of estimates puts a 6-10 inch rise by 2030 as a likely scenario (Credit: Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact). [o]

Wanless said, “We don’t appreciate how powerful storm surges are. Andrew passed south of the city, it was a fast-moving storm, it didn’t have waves and currents attached to it, and it was gone. It didn’t go on for hours. It was not a good representative of what a storm surge could be.”

Very few people are alive who remember the enormous surge from the hurricane of 1926, but with higher seas (even today, but especially in the future), a wall of water that size or worse could be produced by a much less powerful storm. No one knows what an even stronger storm might do. On the other hand, Wanless told us, “I thought Sandy would prompt some change here—and it did for a little while, bringing some greater awareness. But then in six months property values went right back up.” All of this is not to say that the gradual but inexorable rise of the Atlantic wouldn’t also get Miamians’ attention. Hammer noted, “Now we are having three to six of those scary tidal flooding events each year. When we start having two hundred a year, this is going to be a very different place.”

One often hears in Miami that the city’s steep decline will be triggered by neither storm surge nor irreversible inundation but instead by economic panic. Many believe the crisis will come when the big insurance companies decide they can’t afford Miami anymore. Wanless says, “Certainly there’s going to come a time when the insurance companies are going to walk. They’ll say, ‘Look, we’re not a charitable organization.’” But more and more, there is worry that the collapse of the mortgage market will come first. Philip Stoddard told us, “Investors who buy packages of thirty-year mortgages are wagering big that the property will be worth as much in thirty years as it is today. At some point that confidence will disappear. It has to.” He believes companies will start bundling mortgages on coastal and other low-lying properties separately from those that are safe from sea level rise. “Someone will start selling mortgage-backed securities that are free of climate-risky investments. They don’t want to do it yet, because it would mean losing a big chunk of their market. But as soon as they do that, boom! The market bifurcates and no one will buy the riskier thirty-year mortgages.”


Income inequality in Miami-Dade is higher than in any other large urban U.S. county other than Manhattan.41 Extremes of wealth and income are strongly related to race, and both race and wealth are associated, in a complex way, with flood risk. As in most coastal cities, properties close to the bay or beach are the most desirable and expensive. Recent research indeed showed that 59 percent of people living in areas at high risk for coastal flooding and storm surge are white, while 30 percent are Latino and only 8 percent are non-Latino black. (The three groups make up 40, 38, and 19 percent of the county’s total population, respectively, so whites are disproportionately exposed along the coast.) For flooding in inland areas, however, the numbers are very different: 41 percent of those at high risk are Latino and 20 percent are non-Latino black.42

Despite how Hurricane Andrew affected the leisure class, case studies highlight how race, ethnicity, and class inequalities shaped people’s experiences. [o]

The parts of the city that are relatively safe from flooding span the economic and ethnic range, from Little Havana to upscale Coral Gables to some predominantly black communities, including Liberty City and Little Haiti (leading a few to speculate that gentrification, not inundation, may be the chief threat to lower-income neighborhoods).43 Other predominantly black neighborhoods are down in the Glades, places that will be submerged by a couple of feet of sea level rise. But black Miamians also live in some of the most economically and environmentally harsh places in the county. For many, flooding remains low on the list of concerns.

Flood prevention typically focuses on the most affluent areas, and Miami Beach isn’t the only lucky coastal community to attract substantial investment for protection and resilience. In 2012, the town of Sewall’s Point, which occupies a narrow peninsula about a hundred miles up the coast from Miami, announced that it would receive a $3.2 million grant from FEMA to elevate ten houses and one office building. The median house value in Sewall’s Point is $750,000, so the announcement also elevated more than a few eyebrows around Florida. FEMA’s goal in providing the funds was to avoid having to make big payouts when, as is inevitable, those properties are flooded someday; elevation would also hold down the homeowners’ flood insurance premiums. Of course, raising the houses will also raise resale values, another benefit to the community.44 “The people in Sewall’s Point do get flooding, but not that bad, and they have a lot more access to resources already,” said Hammer. “Then you have places like along Sistrunk Boulevard near Fort Lauderdale, which floods a lot; you see people putting kids in shopping carts to go across the street so they don’t have wade through water to go to the store.” Sistrunk runs through a very low-income area, where more than 95 percent of residents are African American. They have gotten no help in building up their flood resilience, Hammer says.

This kind of discrimination has a history in South Florida. In a 2007 review of research on the roles of race, class, and ethnicity in disaster vulnerability, Arizona State University professor Bob Bolin wrote, “Throughout the Hurricane Andrew case studies, the authors highlight how race, ethnicity, and class inequalities shaped people’s experiences, from impact related losses to access to assistance, inequities in insurance settlements, the effects of pre- and post-disaster racial segregation, and the calamitous effects of disaster on an already marginalized and impoverished black community. Each of these studies documents how already existing social conditions in greater Miami shaped the contours of disaster and the ways that marginalized populations variously endured continuing or increased disadvantages in the recovery process.” 45


As the years wear on, municipalities with the highest property values and the most solid tax bases will follow Miami Beach’s lead—pumping, raising, and armoring. Other places may be considered expendable. Here is how University of Miami architecture professor Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk has recommended that state and county funding for dealing with rising waters be allocated: “It’s going to have to be a political-economic question, and you’re going to say, ‘What is the most meaningful to us in terms of economic development and the GDP of the region?’ And everyone would say, well, the airports, the port, the tourist industry, that means the islands, our white-collar downtowns, and you’ll start thinking about what to do for those. . . . The shopping centers or the houses that are, let’s say, out west—water will be coming up there as well . . . generally speaking, affecting the economy minimally. Those are the places that you might decide to give up.” 46

One such place “out west” is Sweetwater, a small suburban town that sits just north of Florida International University, at three feet above sea level. Less than nine miles farther west the Everglades begin. On maps, the landscape north of Sweetwater is largely blue, crowded with vast rectangular ponds up to a square mile each in surface area, in which the water management district attempts to corral the area’s excess. Under Sweetwater’s modest streets and lawns runs the constant eastward subterranean flow of freshwater from the Everglades, sustaining the aquifer under Miami. Sweetwater floods with every hard rain, and the reason is obvious. Walk along one of its residential streets, look through one of the many metal grates embedded flat in the asphalt, and there is the water table not far down, partially filling the system’s lateral conduits even during the dry season. With any significant rainfall, the drains fill instantly and the streets flood. Sweetwater’s population is 96 percent Latino, and its median household income is $30,000; its small slab-on-grade houses are a world away from the pastel-trimmed condo towers overlooking Biscayne Bay. Plater-Zyberk is almost certainly right: it will be the condo towers, not Sweetwater homes, that will be protected to the bitter end.

What could be the reason for police officials in Sweetwater buying armored vehicles, choppers, and weaponry? 

Many are arguing that the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the level of freshwater in the Everglades, should raise the water level, thereby increasing the flow eastward through the limestone under Dade County and pushing back more forcefully against the seawater that’s trying to intrude from the Atlantic. But that would quickly flood low-lying West Dade towns such as Sweetwater. For now, those towns are protected by law from being intentionally flooded. But Phil Stoddard sees the law as a threat to other communities, such as South Miami. Although he thinks Dade County’s future should be guided by the motto “Shrink carefully, depopulate thoughtfully,” he’s ready to consider sterner action if it will protect Miami’s groundwater: “One foot of sea level rise reverses everything.” After that, “if they were to raise the water up to the level they’d need to, Sweetwater floods. And the Corps is not allowed to flood out a suburban area . . . This one little community is going to cost us our freshwater supply many years earlier than it would otherwise disappear. . . . No one will do anything about it because of the politics.”

So far, no one has proposed a technological fix that can work for southeastern Florida’s low-lying inland communities. Are Plater-Zyberk and Stoddard right? If the fragility that is Greater Miami is to be conserved so that resilience (at least for a while longer) can be achieved, will there be no choice but to surrender Sweetwater and other communities to the Everglades? And if so, will there be any Staten Island–style provision made for compensation and relocation? Will communities be able to move together to a safer place and somehow keep themselves intact, as the mud volcano refugees of Renojoyo did?

To many who live in places like Sweetwater, the prospect of having to abandon their homes someday is a tragic one. When she was young, Hammer came with her family to the Miami area from Guatemala. Then, she told us, “We lost our home in Hurricane Andrew, and we left, moved two hours north and lived up there for several years. Now my family—my mom, my uncles—they are all moving back down to Miami. The best thing about Miami for the Latino community is that you’re among people who speak your language, literally and figuratively! It’s a very comfortable place.”

Hammer points out that if there is another monster hurricane, or when parts of Dade County simply become unlivable because of routine flooding and seawater intrusion, the economic impacts will of course run along class and color lines but may adhere even more closely to lines of home ownership. There will be something like a three-way split. Renters who find themselves in the position that Hammer’s family was in after Andrew can take their remaining possessions, leave, and find housing and employment somewhere else; they will suffer, but they won’t necessarily be wiped out. Affluent owners of properties in Miami Beach or Brickell will also come out fine if they can absorb their uninsured losses or if their losses are only on second homes or investment properties. It’s middle-class homeowners who will take a big proportional hit, according to Hammer, De Palma, Stoddard, Wanless, and others we spoke with. Hammer says their sad fate will be shared by low-income families, often immigrants, who have saved, scraped together a down payment, and bought a small place of their own. If they lose that, she says, they are broke and in deep trouble.

Book-walking Sweetwater residents appear to be committed to informing themselves about pertinent facts. [o].

In some Dade communities, chronic flooding has provided cover for actions that border on the shocking. In 2014, for example, the Sweetwater police obtained two armored military vehicles, two military helicopters, twenty-four military assault rifles, and a military grenade launcher. The source of the hardware was the same Pentagon surplus-equipment program that had supplied the armaments used by the Ferguson, Missouri, police against protesters that year. What could be the reason for police officials in Sweetwater (and adjacent Florida International University, which also took advantage of the program) for buying the armored vehicles, choppers, and weaponry? Sweetwater’s police chief said they would need them in flood and hurricane emergencies and to deal with assault-rifle-toting criminals. Asked when was the last time he’d had anyone shooting an assault rifle, the chief admitted, “In Sweetwater, none that I can recall.” In discussing flood disasters and assault rifles, law enforcement officials made no mention of the intense struggles over police violence that were then under way in several U.S. cities. The city of Sweetwater does have its flooding problems, but Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union told a local TV reporter that, as a basis for purchase of heavy military equipment, disaster preparedness in this case was obviously “an after-the-fact concocted rationale.” 47


At the end of September 2015, a climate change workshop held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami and hosted by former Vice President Al Gore coincided with an early king tide. But this was no ordinary full moon; it was a so-called supermoon, which not only lit the sky in its closest possible approach to Earth but also simultaneously swept through Earth’s shadow, resulting in a front-page-grabbing lunar eclipse. The close orbital approach also resulted in three days of extra-high tides that severely flooded several parts of Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Hillsboro, and Deerfield Beach. In Fort Lauderdale, fish followed the tide; a resident observed nonchalantly, “Look at that. A mullet in the street.” Miami Beach resident Robert Wolfarth was less pleasantly surprised: “We still have street flooding, even in a neighborhood where we have pumps that are online and working. It’s not just this neighborhood. It’s North Beach, it’s South Beach, it’s from the east to the west.”

At the Hyatt, Gore was telling the crowd, “The scientists have long since told us we have to change. But now Mother Nature is saying it with water in the streets in this city.”

In the southwest portions of Miami Beach where Bruce Mowry’s pumps and street elevation had been implemented, all was dry, and Mayor Levine was ready to double down on that success. Regarding the state-maintained Indian Creek Road in the northeast part of the city, which was suffering the worst flooding, he said, “We need to put pressure on our state to raise this road, put in pumps and of course we’re going to raise the sea wall as well.”48 Despite Levine’s can-do attitude, it was starting to dawn on communities across Miami-Dade County that any such engineering solution would fail to keep them high and dry in the long term.

Confronted with a seemingly insoluble predicament, many locals have been looking in desperation to Dutch experts. After all, much of the Netherlands is even lower than Miami, and over centuries the country has developed an ingenious flood control infrastructure. The Dutch have been advising New Orleans and New York on dealing with their flood hazards. Most knowledgeable Miamians, however, seem skeptical. Philip Stoddard told us, “Yes, the Dutch are all over us. But they are still trying to figure it out. And they really want us to believe they can do it. Well, OK, they’re good at making things float.” Nicole Hammer said, “The Dutch are working hard to get some business over here. They came in, had a big workshop, and everybody was drawing diagrams and trying to figure it out, but they must have been annoyed, because we were like, ‘Well, what about water coming up through the porous limestone we’re sitting on top of ? What about the Everglades? What about the heat? If we create more ponds, what about the mosquitoes?’ So they’re working on it. They’re brilliant people, the folks who came down. So I’m sure they’ll come up with some very interesting, very creative solutions.” Pete Harlem viewed the Dutch invasion from a somewhat different angle, arguing that the best thing they could do for Miami is not to sell a particular technological fix but rather to explain how they had managed to get an entire country united behind an effort to deal with sea level rise—and then advise South Floridians on how to achieve their own consensus, even though the options are far more limited in Miami than in Rotterdam. At times even the Dutch seem to feel that in Miami they have met their match; Henk Ovink, one of the Netherlands’ most prominent water-management experts, has taken to calling Miami “the new Atlantis.” 49

There is also much talk of embracing the water by becoming more like Venice, Italy, a city that has in recent decades been attempting to protect its canal-laced urban area with a huge flood barrier. Wanless isn’t impressed. “Venice now has one-third the population it used to have. No Sandy, no Andrew, no Katrina, just rising seas, increasing frequency of flooding, rotting, disruption of infrastructure—that’s made it an unpleasant place to live.” Wanless concurs with the common characterization of Venice as a theme park rather than a city, adding, “And if it didn’t have the history it has, it would be a closed-down theme park. People come into the city in the daytime for you to visit it, because it’s a cool place. But it’s not what it was admired for originally, a vibrant, vital part of civilization and commerce.”

Few people we talked with in Miami believed that the city they all know and love would remain intact into the deep future. The question was not whether people will have to leave but when. When people ask Stoddard, “When should I think about selling my house?” he tells them, “It depends on whether or not you can afford to lose the capital in it. What happens to you? Are you ruined financially? It’s a question of risk tolerance. If you can afford to lose the capital in your house, keep it. Enjoy yourself! But if you’re counting on that house for retirement, or if you’ll end up destitute if you lose it, I say now would be a good time to sell your place. Then you can either rent here or move somewhere else.”

But if you’d had the opportunity to live in Atlantis, why wouldn’t you?”

Wanless has a concrete recommendation: “Every community, from Phil Stoddard’s South Miami to Miami Beach to Hialeah to Coral Gables, everybody needs to do a thorough mapping of the elevations of their businesses, of their communities, all aspects of their infrastructure, and then start to figure out what they need to do at each stage of sea level rise, to maintain connectivity of the communities.” Furthermore, he says, in today’s real estate market “there is no truth in selling, and there needs to be. If we plan, and if people buy property with the understanding that with another foot and a half of sea level rise the city will no longer be responsible, no longer maintaining infrastructure in your sector, then people will know what they are buying into. Cities, counties, states should start buying people out now.”

Stoddard would like to see what’s often called “managed retreat”: devising a schedule to take land lying one foot, then two feet, then three, then four, above current sea level and pulling them out of the economy over time, turning them over to aquatic parks, protective wetlands, or other uses. For this, he prefers the term “rolling easements,” because, he says, “Americans hate the word retreat.” Today in Miami’s political circles, he doesn’t see as much resistance to the idea itself as he once did: “Now no one’s even wincing now when you bring it up.” He expects that the Miami that remains above the floodwaters decades from now, if it has managed to remain viable, will have abandoned its famed flashiness, excess, and bravado to adopt a culture more like that of the Florida Keys: “Down there, people just accept storms and floods as part of life. They just board their houses up and ride it out. If we go the way of the Keys, the place will be a lot funkier, no longer the playground of the rich. But it could save the tourism economy—except of course they’d have to keep resupplying the beaches with sand.” By the time Stoddard’s vision comes to pass, if it does, the old Keys will have gone under the waves and Dade County itself will be an archipelago, becoming the new Florida Keys in both geography and culture.

Harlem also recommended retreat but, like Stoddard, he steers clear of the word, using the term “strategic withdrawal,” which he said he took from U.S. Marine Corps terminology: “It would be much better than a piecemeal retreat, which would be far more disruptive.” He didn’t necessarily think Stoddard’s “new Florida Keys” scenario, the vision he himself called “Margaritaville,” was the most desirable end point for Miami. But, he said, “that’s probably the future.”

If Miami does adopt an embrace-the-water culture, it will not appeal to the majority of residents, and there won’t be enough land left for everyone anyway. Some are already thinking about the fate of the refugees fleeing Margaritaville. Henry Briceño knows Miami’s predicament well, but rather than trying to spur action by creating awareness of the crisis, as Harold Wanless does (“I tell Harold, ‘Hey, cool it, you’ll scare the crap out of people!’”), Briceño emphasizes potential silver linings: “Everyone looks at sea level rise like Armageddon, but it’s also an incredible opportunity! People will move out of the flooded zones, we’ll have to found new cities with new engineering, architecture, materials. So what we need now is for people to sit down and think and then move ahead and try to solve things. We know, for example, that in a hundred years people will have to move out of this area. Where are they going to go? Where will we have the new cities? Where are we going to have these resources—freshwater, roads, telecommunications, schools, hospitals—where are we going to put those to be out of harm’s way? They have got to be high, first of all! But it’s a huge opportunity for the whole country, because you can have all the people and technologies and companies coming from all around, and we have to take advantage of it. The Netherlands has been the icon of this. They have the technology, they have the business. We can turn that around! The United States should be in the forefront of what countries should do to tackle sea level rise. We have the technology, we have the know-how, we have the entrepreneurial spirit, we have the greed of people who want to do business, and we have all different kinds of problems! It’s really great to be here, at this point in history, it’s great—whatever happens.”

Despite Briceño’s enthusiasm, a cloud of foreboding seems to be settling over Miami. At one point in our tour of Miami Beach’s flood prevention efforts, as Bruce Mowry was steering his car slowly through the Flamingo Park neighborhood, his mood, which up to that point had been buoyant, became more reflective. He told us, “You know, I drive around a lot, looking at all these streets and trees and homes and thinking about what’s coming. Even before we’re underwater, within just twenty, maybe thirty years, the salt water’s going to get those trees. This whole beautiful landscape’s going to change.” He couldn’t stomach the thought that even if all of his engineering feats succeed in keeping the city’s streets dry, it still won’t be the same city. “We just can’t make that sacrifice,” he said. “We’ll have to put our trees up in planter boxes.”

Miami flood prevention efforts . . . There's the thumb in the dike, or (Shhhh!) what no one wants to think about. [o]

Many share Mowry’s desire to stay and make the most of a place they love, while the good times last. Could it be that what appears on the surface to be typical Miami recklessness may actually be a city adopting a Filipinostyle culture of disaster—not in response to catastrophe but in anticipation?

Maybe. Stoddard says of his home, “Our floor is ten feet above sea level, so we have more time than some. But at some point this house will become unsellable. We could get a lot for it right now, but then I look at how pretty this place, South Miami, is, and I don’t want to leave.” Wanless agrees: “Compared with whatever is going on up in the rest of the country, this is just a wonderful place to live. We’re all going to enjoy it as long as we can.” Another Miamian echoed his city’s bahala na outlook better than anyone: “People say Miami’s a proto-Atlantis. I say maybe so, but if you’d had the opportunity to live in Atlantis, why wouldn’t you?”


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.
15  Sessa, “Miami in 1926.”
16  Aslak Grinsted, John Moore, and Svetlana Jevrejeva, “Homogeneous Record of Atlantic Hurricane Surge Threat Since 1923,” Proceedings of the National Academy of
109 (2012): 19601–5.
17  R. Pielke, J. Gratz, C. Landsea, D. Collins, M. Saunders, and R. Musulin, “Normal-ized Hurricane Damage in the United States: 1900–2005,” Natural Hazards Review, 9
(2008): 29–42.
18  Ibid.; Ken Kaye, “Could Another Hurricane Andrew Sneak Up on Us 20 Years Later?,” Sun Sentinel, May 26, 2012.
19  Hoffmeister, Land from the Sea, 27–53; McPherson and Halley, “South Florida Environment.”
20  Harold Wanless, interview with the authors, Coral Gables, Florida, January 12, 2015.
21  Peter Harlem, interview with Stan Cox, Miami, January 20, 2015.
22  Henry Briceño, interview with the authors, Miami, January 12, 2015.
23  Jeff Goodell, “Goodbye, Miami,” Rolling Stone, June 2013; Robin McKie, “Miami, the Great World City, Is Drowning While the Powers That Be Look Away,” The Guardian, July 11, 2014.
24  Christina Viega, “Miami Beach to Spend up to $400 Million to Deal with Flooding Issues,” Miami Herald, February 12, 2014.
25  Joey Flechas, “Miami Beach Streets Stay Dry During King Tide Peak,” Miami Herald, October 9, 2014.
26  Nicole Hernandez Hammer, interview with the authors, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, Boca Raton, FL, January 8, 2015. Hammer was to make national news reports twelve days after this interview when she was invited to sit next to First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address.
27  Randall Parkinson, Peter Harlem, and John Meeder, “Managing the Anthropocene Marine Transgression to the Year 2100 and Beyond in the State of Florida U.S.A.,”
Climatic Change, 128 (2014): 85–98.
28  “Margaritaville” was a hit song written and performed by troubadour of the semi-tropics Jimmy Buffett on his 1977 album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.
Two years later, Buffett would record the more explicitly prophetic album Volcano at Montserrat’s AIR Studios (see page 261).
29  Michael Gerrity, “Miami Bucks National Trend as U.S. Home Prices Decelerate,” World Property Journal, November 25, 2014; Christopher Rugaber, “US Home Price Gains Slow for 6th Straight Month,” Associated Press, July 29, 2014. For one explanation of continued high real estate prices, see Devin Bunten and Matthew Kahn, “The Impact of Emerging Climate Risks on Urban Real Estate Price Dynamics,” National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014,
30  Martha Brannigan, “Miami’s Condo Boom Redux,” Miami Herald, July 6, 2014.
31  John Dorschner, “Rising Sea Levels, Falling Real Estate Values,” Miami Herald, No-vember 9, 2013; Tom Hudson, “Underwater Real Estate,” WLRN, November 14, 2013,
32  Cathy Booth, “Miami: The Capital of Latin America,” Time, June 24, 2001.
33  Hudson, “Underwater.”
34  Philip Stoddard, interview with the authors, South Miami, January 6, 2015.
35  Tristram Korten, “In Florida, Officials Ban Term ‘Climate Change,’ ” Miami Herald, March 8, 2015.
36  Miami ranks twenty-ninth among sixty-six metropolitan areas nationwide in per capita carbon emissions. Emissions caused by heating are small, of course, but Miami is number one in emissions from electricity generation to run air-conditioning systems. Emissions from private motor vehicles are close to average, but for emissions from public transportation, Miami trails only New York and Washington, DC. Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn, “The Greenness of Cities: Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Urban Development,” Journal of Urban Economics, 67 (2010): 404–18.
37  Jenny Staletovich, “Miami-Dade County Takes Reins on Climate Change,” Miami Herald, January 21, 2015.
38  Celeste De Palma, e-mail interview with Stan Cox, March 9, 2015. At the time of the January 21 Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners meeting, De Palma was
representing the Tropical Audubon Society.
39  Douglas Hanks, “Climate Change Dominates Miami-Dade Budget Hearing,” Miami Herald, September 3, 2015.
40  The project was called HighWaterLine Miami; see
41  U.S. Census Bureau, “Household Income Inequality Within U.S. Counties: 2006-2010,” American Community Survey, February 2012,
/uploads /post/2387/acsbr10-18.pdf.
42  J. Chakraborty, T. Collins, M. Montgomery, and S. Grineski, “Social and Spatial In-equities in Exposure to Flood Risk in Miami, Florida,” Natural Hazards Review, 15 (2014): 04014006.
43  Goodell, “Goodbye, Miami.”
44  Patricia Sagastume, “Researchers Aim to Resolve Inequity in Miami’s Flood Preparation,” Al Jazeera America, March 5, 2014.
45  Bob Bolin, “Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability,” in Handbook of Disaster Research, ed. Havidan Rodriguez, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Russell Dynes (New York: Springer, 2007), 113–29.
46  Hudson, “Underwater.” Asked by Hudson where her own home was located, Plater-Zyberk said, “I have property on the ridge, [which is] my house, a historic Coral Gables house, and we have an apartment in Miami Beach as well. And so we do talk about it and say, ‘What about that apartment in Miami Beach? Should we . . . ?’  I believe that Miami Beach could protect itself.”
47  Ross Palombo, “South Florida Towns Prepare for Unexpected with Military Equipment,” Local 10 News, October 1, 2014.
48  Gary Nelson, “Global Warming Blamed for South Florida Severe Flooding,” CBS Miami, September 28, 2015; Jenny Staletovich, “King Tide Sets Stage for Climate Talks in South Florida,” Miami Herald, September 28, 2015; “High Tides Cause Persistent Flooding in South Florida,” WSVN-TV, September 30, 2015.
49  Jessica Weiss, “Dutch Sea Level Rise Expert: Miami Will Be ‘the New Atlantis,’ a City in the Sea,” Miami New Times, May 21, 2015.


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


This article was first published in The Journal of Wild Culture on September 17, 2017.



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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