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Goodbye, Miami

Rolling Stone, 20 June 2013

By century's end, rising sea levels will turn the nation's urban fantasyland
into an American Atlantis. But long before the city is completely underwater,
chaos will begin.

the water receded after Hurricane Milo of 2030, there was a foot of sand
covering the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontaine­bleau hotel in
Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most
of the damage occurred not from the hurricane's 175-mph winds, but from the
24-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the low-lying city. In South Beach, the old
art-deco­ buildings were swept off their foundations. Mansions on Star Island
were flooded up to their cut-glass doorknobs. A 17-mile stretch of Highway A1A
that ran along the famous beaches up to Fort Lauderdale disappeared into the
Atlantic. The storm knocked out the wastewater-treatment plant on Virginia Key,
forcing the city to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into
Biscayne Bay. Tampons and condoms littered the beaches, and the stench of human
excrement stoked fears of cholera. More than 800 people died, many of them swept
away by the surging waters that submerged much of Miami Beach and Fort
Lauderdale; 13 people were killed in traffic accidents as they scrambled to
escape the city after the news spread – falsely, it turned out – that one of the
nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, an aging power plant 24 miles south of Miami,
had been destroyed by the surge and sent a radioactive cloud over the city.

Rising Seas: A City-by-City Forecast

The president, of course, said Miami would be back, that the hurricane did
not kill the city, and that Americans did not give up. But it was clear to those
not fooling themselves that this storm was the beginning of the end. With sea
levels more than a foot higher than they'd been at the dawn of the century,
South Florida was wet, vulnerable and bankrupt. Attempts had been made to armor
the coastline, to build sea walls and elevate buildings, but it was a futile
undertaking. The coastline from Miami Beach up to Jupiter had been a little more
than a series of rugged limestone crags since the mid-2020s, when the state,
unable to lay out $100 million every few years to pump in fresh sand, had given
up trying to save South Florida's world-famous­ beaches. In that past decade,
tourist visits had plummeted by 40 percent, even after the Florida legislature
agreed to allow casino gambling in a desperate attempt to raise revenue for
storm protection. The city of Homestead, in southern Miami-Dade County, which
had been flattened by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, had to be completely abandoned.
Thousands of tract homes were bulldozed because they were a public health
hazard. In the parts of the county that were still inhabitable, only the
wealthiest could afford to insure their homes. Mortgages were nearly impossible
to get, mostly because banks didn't believe the homes would be there in 30
years. At high tide, many roads were impassable, even for the most modern
semiaquatic vehicles.

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

But Hurricane Milo was unexpectedly devastating. Because sea-level­ rise had
already pushed the water table so high, it took weeks for the storm waters to
recede. Salt water corroded underground wiring, leaving parts of the city dark
for months. Drinking-water­ wells were ruined. Interstate 95 was clogged with
cars and trucks stuffed with animals and personal belongings, as hundreds of
thousands of people fled north to Orlando, the highest ground in central
Florida. Developers drew up plans for new buildings on stilts, but few were
built. A new flexible carbon-fiber­ bridge was proposed to link Miami Beach with
the mainland, but the bankrupt city couldn't secure financing and the project
fell apart. The skyscrapers that had gone up during the Obama years were
gradually abandoned and used as staging grounds for drug runners and
exotic-animal traffickers. A crocodile nested in the ruins of the Pérez Art

And still, the waters kept rising, nearly a foot each decade. By the latter
end of the 21st century, Miami became something else entirely: a popular
snorkeling spot where people could swim with sharks and sea turtles and explore
the wreckage of a great American city.

more than Silicon Valley, Miami embodies the central technological myth of our
time – that nature can not only be tamed but made irrelevant. Miami was a
mosquito-and-crocodile-filled swampland for thousands of years, virtually
uninhabited until the late 1800s. Then developers arrived, canals were dug,
swamps were drained, and a city emerged that was unlike any other place on the
planet, an edge-of-the-world, air-conditioned dreamland of sunshine and beaches
and drugs and money; Jan Nijman, the former director of the Urban Studies
Program at the University of Miami, called 20th-century Miami "a citadel of
fantastical consumption." Floods would come and go and hurricanes might blow
through, but the city would survive, if only because no one could imagine a
force more powerful than human ingenuity. That defiance of nature – the sense
that the rules don't apply here – gave the city its great energy. But it is also
what will cause its demise.

You would never know it from looking at Miami today. Rivers of money are
flowing in from Latin America, Europe and beyond, new upscale shopping malls are
opening, and the skyline is crowded with construction cranes. But the
unavoidable truth is that sea levels are rising and Miami is on its way to
becoming an American Atlantis. It may be another century before the city is
completely underwater (though some more-pessimistic­ scientists predict it could
be much sooner), but life in the vibrant metropolis of 5.5 million people will
begin to dissolve much quicker, most likely within a few decades. The rising
waters will destroy Miami slowly, by seeping into wiring, roads, building
foundations and drinking-water supplies – and quickly, by increasing the
destructive power of hurricanes. "Miami, as we know it today, is doomed," says
Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the
University of Miami. "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

The 10 Dumbest Things Ever Said About Global

Sea-level rise is not a hypothetical disaster. It is a physical fact of life
on a warming planet, the basic dynamics of which even a child can understand:
Heat melts ice. Since the 1920s, the global average sea level has risen about
nine inches, mostly from the thermal expansion of the ocean water. But thanks to
our 200-year-long fossil-fuel binge, the great ice sheets in Greenland and
Antarctica are starting to melt rapidly now, causing the rate of sea-level rise
to grow exponentially. The latest research, including an assessment by the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggests that sea level could
rise more than six feet by the end of the century. James Hansen, the godfather
of global-warming science, has argued that it could increase as high as 16 feet
by then – and Wanless believes that it could continue rising a foot each decade
after that. "With six feet of sea-level rise, South Florida is toast," says Tom
Gustafson, a former Florida speaker of the House and a climate-change-policy
advocate. Even if we cut carbon pollution overnight, it won't save us. Ohio
State glaciologist Jason Box has said he believes we already have 70 feet of
sea-level rise baked into the system.

Of course, South Florida is not the only place that will be devastated by
sea-level rise. London, Boston, New York and Shanghai are all vulnerable, as are
low-lying underdeveloped nations like Bangladesh. But South Florida is uniquely
screwed, in part because about 75 percent of the 5.5 million people in South
Florida live along the coast. And unlike many cities, where the wealth
congregates in the hills, southern Florida's most valuable real estate is right
on the water. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development lists
Miami as the number-one most vulnerable city worldwide in terms of property
damage, with more than $416 billion in assets at risk to storm-related flooding
and sea-level rise.

South Florida has two big problems. The first is its remarkably flat
topography. Half the area that surrounds Miami is less than five feet above sea
level. Its highest natural elevation, a limestone ridge that runs from Palm
Beach to just south of the city, averages a scant 12 feet. With just three feet
of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six
feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will
be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings
and crumbling overpasses. And the waters won't just come in from the east –
because the region is so flat, rising seas will come in nearly as fast from the
west too, through the Everglades.

Even worse, South Florida sits above a vast and porous limestone plateau.
"Imagine Swiss cheese, and you'll have a pretty good idea what the rock under
southern Florida looks like," says Glenn Landers, a senior engineer at the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers. This means water moves around easily – it seeps into
yards at high tide, bubbles up on golf courses, flows through underground
caverns, corrodes building foundations from below. "Conventional sea walls and
barriers are not effective here," says Robert Daoust, an ecologist at ARCADIS, a
Dutch firm that specializes in engineering solutions to rising seas. "Protecting
the city, if it is possible, will require innovative solutions."

Those solutions are not likely to be forthcoming from the political realm.
The statehouse in Tallahassee is a monument to climate-change denial. "You can't
even say the words 'climate change' on the House floor without being run out of
the building," says Gustafson. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, positioning himself for
a run at the presidency in 2016, is another denier, still trotting out the tired
old argument that "no matter how many job-killing­ laws we pass, our government
can't control the weather." Gov. Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, says he's
"not convinced" that global warming is caused by human beings. Since taking
office in 2011, Scott has targeted environmental protections of every sort and
slashed the budget of the South Florida Water Management District, the agency in
charge of managing water supply in the region, as well as restoration of the
Everglades. "There is no serious thinking, no serious planning, about any of
this going on at the state level," says Chuck Watson, a disaster-­impact analyst
with longtime experience in Florida. "The view is, 'Well, if it gets real bad,
the federal government will bail us out.' It is beyond denial; it is flat-out

Local governments, including Broward and Miami-Dade counties, have tried to
compensate by forging regional agreements to cut carbon pollution and upgrade
infrastructure to make their cities more resilient, but without help (and money)
from the state and federal governments, it's pretty ineffective. Given how much
Florida has to lose from climate change, the abdication of leadership by state
and federal politicians is almost suicidal – when it isn't downright comical.
Watson recalls attending a meeting on natural-hazard-response planning in South
Florida, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state: "I
mentioned sea-level rise, and I was treated to a 15-minute lecture on Genesis by
one of the commissioners. He said, 'God destroyed the Earth with water the first
time, and he promised he wouldn't do it again. So all of you who are pushing
fears about sea-level rise, go back and read the Bible.'"

seas will present an escalating series of challenges, most of which, on their
own, will appear to be manageable. It's not hard to see how it will play out: As
each new crisis arises, engineers will propose expensive solutions and people
may be fooled into thinking that sea-level­ rise is not such a big deal. But in
many cases, sea-wall extensions and elaborate pumping and drainage systems will
turn out to be giant boondoggles, with money shoveled out to politically
connected contractors for projects that are ineffective or overwhelmed by
continually rising seas. "Engineers want to sell solutions, and often that means
downplaying the seriousness of the problem in the long term," says Wanless.

One of the first consequences of rising seas will be loss of drinking water.
In fact, it's already starting to happen. Nobody understands this better than
Jayantha Obeysekera, the chief modeler for the South Florida Water Management
District, who is known to everyone as "Obey." The water-control system in
Florida is crazily complex, even to people whose business it is to understand
it. One recent hot morning, Obey and I visited several dikes and canals in the
Miami area.

Our first stop was a big steel gate – in water-management parlance, it's
called a "salinity-control structure" – in a poor black neighborhood in North
Miami. We turned off a busy four-lane road and drove through a grassy area
littered with soda bottles and plastic bags, stopped at the gate and stood at
the edge of a 30-foot-wide canal. Three manatees floated lazily in the stagnant
water. This canal, like hundreds of others in South Florida, was dredged in the
early 20th century to allow water to drain out of the Everglades. The canals
worked fine for a while, lowering the water level in the swamp enough to allow
developers to pave them over and make millions selling the American Dream to
sun-starved suburbanites. But then by the 1950s, people started noticing their
drinking water was getting salty. In South Florida, the drinking-water supply
comes from a big lake just below the surface known as the Biscayne aquifer.
Engineers examined the situation and determined that the combination of draining
the swamps and pumping out the aquifer had changed hydrostatic pressure
underground and allowed salt water to move into the aquifer. To stop this, the
Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District built
dozens of these salinity-­control structures at key points on the canals. When
they were closed, salty water wasn't able to flow into the canals. But if there
was a big storm and intense flooding, the gates could be opened to allow

That worked pretty well for a time. The gates were engineered so that, when
they were closed, the fresh water was about a foot and a half higher than the
salt water. This freshwater "head" (as engineers called it) helped keep pressure
in the aquifer and kept the salt water at bay.

But in the 50 years since the structures were built, much has changed. For
one thing, nearly 80 percent of the fresh water flowing into the Everglades has
been diverted, some of it into industrial-­agriculture operations. At the same
time, consumption has skyrocketed: The 5.5 million or so people who now live in
South Florida consume more than 3 billion gallons of water every day (including
industry and agriculture). Almost all of that is pumped out of the aquifer,
drawing it down and allowing more and more salt water to move in. At the same
time, the sea level is rising (about nine inches since the canals were first
dredged), which also helps push more salt water into the aquifer.

"Here, you can see the problem," Obey says, pointing to the saltwater side of
the gate. "The water is only 10 inches lower on this side than on the canal.
When this structure was built in 1960, it was a foot and a half. We are reaching

Obey explains that when there is a torrential rain (a frequent occurrence)
and inland Florida floods, there is nowhere for the water to go. Cities on the
western edge of Miami-Dade County, such as Hialeah and Sweetwater, are now at
risk of massive flooding with every big storm. To solve this, the South Florida
Water District is installing pumps on the freshwater side of the control
structures on the canals. The pumps, which cost about $70 million each, can take
the runoff water from storms and pump it into the ocean to alleviate

But stopping saltwater incursion is more difficult. The town of Hallandale
Beach, just a few miles north of Miami, had to close six of its eight wells due
to saltwater intrusion. The town now buys half its water from a well field in
Broward County and is working on a deal to drill six new wells of its own, at a
cost of about $10 million. Fort Lauderdale has also faced saltwater intrusion,
as has Lake Worth, a community just south of Palm Beach. "In the long run, the
whole area is likely to have problems," Obey says.

The conventional solution to this was simple: Drill new drinking wells
farther west, away from the salty water. The trouble is, engineers have done
that already and can't move any farther west without running into the
Everglades. Instead, engineers are now turning to more radical solutions, such
as trying to capture storm water and store it underground, or reuse water from
sewage-­treatment plants. This will help, but ultimately South Florida is likely
to rely more and more on desalination, a complex industrial-­scale process that
eliminates the salt from the sea water. Right now, South Florida has 35
desalination plants operating, with seven more under construction. They have the
capacity to produce 245 million gallons of potable water per day. But
desalinization is expensive and requires huge amounts of energy. In 2008, the
city of Tampa opened a new $158 million desalination plant, one of the largest
in the nation, which produces up to 25 million gallons of fresh water a day –
about 10 percent of the region's water needs. Construction costs alone will run
about $6 billion to desalinate just one-third of the water used for southern

For many cities in South Florida, securing a reliable supply of drinking
water is going to be a heavy financial burden. "South Florida is not going to
run out of drinking water," says Fred Bloetscher, an associate professor of
civil engineering at Florida Atlantic University. "But it will be an expensive
fix." Bloetscher estimates it will cost upward of $20 billion to $30 billion to
re­plumb South Florida and armor it with pumps and a stormwater-recapturing
system to deal with a three-foot sea-level rise. And when the waters keep
rising? "Well, you just have to believe that we will come up with some kind of a
solution," Bloetscher says.

Later in the day, Obey and I visit another gate along what was once the Miami
River. Today, it has been dredged and transformed into a charmless canal. Obey
shows me the new pumps that were recently installed on the structure to control
flooding in the area. We are standing on the east side of the structure, where
the sea bumps against the steel gates. I ask Obey if he can imagine a day when
South Floridians find themselves surrounded by the water but with no clean fresh
water to drink. "I do not have an answer to that question," he says modestly.
"Right now, I'm focused on the next decade or two. That will be difficult

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