The Biscayne Times

Jan 23rd
Can’t Hold Back the Water PDF Print E-mail
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
January 2018

A new book, an apocalyptic travelogue, shows us the future of Miami 

MPix_GoingGreen_1-18iami is at the heart of a new book about climate change: The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, by Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell.

In this apocalyptic travelogue of how coastal cities plan to cope with rising seas, Goodell describes Miami as a “modern day Atlantis-in-the-making.” To survive in any form, he warns, the city will have to go way beyond tweaking zoning codes, installing pumps, or building seawalls.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a global sea level rise of 6-8 feet by 2100. With rising seas come higher tides, storm surges, and stronger waves. The chance of getting hit head on by a catastrophic event -- another Hurricane Harvey, Irma, or Maria -- is increasing, too. Over time the pumps and seawalls put in place today for king tides and summer rainstorms won’t hold back Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic.

Local officials claim they have things under control, or at least plan to, notwithstanding the recent flooding of coastal areas after Hurricane Irma.

“Yes, we had images of water running through the streets, but the water was gone within hours,” says Jane Gilbert, Miami’s chief resiliency officer. “Within two days, businesses were open. That’s what people need to remember.”

With the passage of the Miami Forever bond issue in November, the City of Miami has $192 million to put toward climate change resiliency. Pumps and seawalls now top the long list of infrastructure needs, though at least $1 billion will be needed to address future needs.

What about the day the waters stay?

“Residents need to become aware of the scale of the problem and what they’re facing,” Goodell says. He wrote The Water Will Come to make sure there’s a “transparency of risk” for those who live in coastal cities.

“You can choose to live in a house on stilts,” says Goodell, “but understand what your risk is.” In an inundated Miami, the houses on either side will be flooded. The airport will be underwater. There will mosquito infestations. Biscayne Bay will be polluted.

Then again, Miami has never let nature get in its way. On Miami Beach, Carl Fisher tamed the wild island by replacing the mangroves and marsh with sand and rock. The 1926 hurricane with a ten-foot storm surge was a shocker, but Miami persevered, ushering in decades of real estate booms.

“The 1926 Hurricane laid bare the combination of boosterism and denial that drove -- and still drives -- South Florida politicians and business leaders,” Goodell writes. “More than any place in America, South Florida has been an expression of the technological dominance of twentieth- and twenty-first century life: it is a world created by dredgers, cooled by air conditioning, powered by nuclear energy, dominated by cars, sanitized by insecticides, glamourized by TV and the Internet. It is a place that has been habitable only if you believe the premise that nature -- the heat, the bugs, the alligators, and most of all, the water -- can be tamed.”

Gilbert is confident planners will devise solutions and adaptations that keep the building and economy going.

“We have to build smart, and consider where and how we build,” she says. “In addition to looking at infrastructure, we’re also looking at codes and policies that encourage new development to be built with more resiliency, which could include raising houses and roads, and investing in flood wall barriers.”

Green infrastructure -- underground water retention, bio swales, coastal parks that double as storm water retention areas -- also play a part in living with floodwaters, she adds.

The City of Miami is developing a new storm water plan that incorporates sea level rise projections and is “revisiting” the Miami 21 master plan to incorporate greater “flexibility,” such as building first floors with high ceilings so floors can be raised as sea levels rise.

For Goodell, these plans are but “preliminary sketches” of the changes that are necessary to avoid economic chaos and ecological collapse. Under a best-case scenario, he sees sea level rise impacts as a “planetary-scale experiment in creative destruction” that will only force us to abandon “stupid” infrastructure and ideas about living with water and replace them with something smarter, durable, flexible, and -- one can only hope -- ecologically sound.

For now, Gilbert is focused on the next 30-40 years, and putting her faith in technology and adaptation.

“This is not a closed case. Humans could even figure out how to reverse climate change,” Gilbert said. “There will be a Miami here forever. What form it takes is the question.”

Another question is, what will the city call itself in that watery future? Stiltsville, anyone?


Blanca Mesa writes about the environment, health, and urban development issues. Follow her @blancamesa and subscribe to her blog at


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