The Biscayne Times

Jan 23rd
The False Security of November’s Bond PDF Print E-mail
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
October 2017

Let’s rethink how to live with the water that surrounds us

WPix_GoingGreen_10-17hen it looked like a Cat 5 Hurricane Irma was headed to Miami, I evacuated. I drove 15 hours across four states, first north, then west, to safety.

While Irma’s winds were lashing Naples, I found myself walking atop a Mississippi River levee in New Orleans, thinking about Florida -- and water. Water rising from rivers and lakes, and water surging from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Water engulfing cities and villages and parks and agricultural fields.

From atop a levee meant to protect New Orleans neighborhoods, you can’t help thinking about water. And about best-laid plans gone awry. The levees collapsed in New Orleans, and even where they held, the pumps failed.

During Irma, water devastated many places in Florida -- well-positioned and wealthy places like Marco Island and Naples, and out-of-the-way, impoverished places like Immokalee and Everglades City.

Miami got lucky, though there has been much misery. Our image is tarnished, too. The raging rivers of Biscayne Bay flowing through the Brickell financial district were astonishing.

“This is how Miami will drown,” the world whispered in shock. Laid bare for all to see: the power of wind and ocean, and the folly of a city that keeps putting more people and buildings in harm’s way.

Even though there is much to learn from Irma, it’s hard to say whether Miami will change in any fundamental way.

In 1992 the same poverty and desperation of marginalized communities were exposed by Hurricane Andrew. The same vulnerability to storm surge and flooding was revealed. But it didn’t stop us from building in low-lying areas. We want even more development today, when the impacts of climate change are upon us. There’s little talk of restraint in our development and growth. In fact, we’re doubling down, relying on technology, pumps, and engineering to defy sea level rise.

But they’re no match for hurricanes. Our burning of fossil fuels has helped destabilize the Earth’s climate system and brought us bigger, stronger, and more frequent storms.

When Irma was about to hit, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine had only one thing to say: Evacuate. The pumps and raised roads of a city on a barrier island weren’t there to hold back a hurricane’s winds or storm surge.

And neither will the myriad projects Miami wants to fund with its $400 million Miami Forever bond issue that would pay for new pumps, and storm-water and road improvements.

Residents will get to vote on the bond in a November referendum. City of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado told the Herald that the bond issue is necessary because we need “protection from nature.”

In response to the ravages of most hurricanes, Florida-based author Cynthia Barnett, author of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, argues against blaming nature for our troubles. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed titled “Nature Isn’t on a Rampage. We Are,” she writes, “The storms are not the monsters. The water is not on a rampage. That would be us.” She advises us to abandon the “compulsion to vanquish an enemy” and to “live in water’s balance.”

To do so in Miami means we need to find a place for the water to go. But we’ve built to its edge in all directions and paved over the rest. Local officials are now scouting for creative solutions, including “permeable asphalt” that absorbs water.

We can also to let natural systems do their job for our benefit. It’s called “green infrastructure” and it’s practically free. The next time building a “living shoreline” of mangrove trees is recommended, I hope city officials’ only answer is: “On it.”

We need to build less in harm’s way, too. Maybe build nothing more on barrier islands. We need to remove what we’ve built where the waters will return, on watersheds and wetlands and riverbanks. We need to rethink the rebuild in places like the Florida Keys.

One local project, Million Trees Miami, looks promising. The goal is to plant a million trees by 2020 for a 20 percent tree canopy, essential to absorbing carbon in the atmosphere and cooling communities by reducing the city’s heat-island effect.

Miami can also take a cue from other major cities grappling with water issues. Dallas recently broke ground on a $600 million, 10,000-acre nature park along the Trinity River floodplain designed to protect the city from flooding by letting the water flow over fields and forests. New Orleans is employing native vegetation in rain gardens to manage storm water as a way to live with water, instead of barricading the city from it.

Miami really can’t live forever. But until its time comes, we can try to live in better balance. Although we may never learn anything about restraint in Miami, there is one lesson that Irma made painfully obvious: Nature always bats last.


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