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CLIMATE CHANGE: The forgotten people

Poorer, affected areas late to discussions

March 15, 2017
Carolyn Guniss
The Miami Times Online

About 700 families live in Highland Village in North Miami Beach. The community, largely made up of trailer homes, frequently floods.

When Tropical Storm Andrea in June 2013 doused the area with heavy rains, sandbags delivered by the Red Cross saved some homes. Yamileth Bilbao reached out the night of June 7 and woke up to find sandbags laid out in front of her mobile home.

Fast­forward to November 2016. So­called “sunny day flooding” is a regular occurrence in Highland Village. Residents worry that when the next storm comes, the underserved community won’t get the help it needs. Students from Florida International University have been documenting the flooding. They inform the residents that the flooding in their neighborhood is a result of sea level rise. Residents say they understand the issue of rising seas, but are unsure what they can do about it.

“How can I be concerned about this when I am worried about crime and unemployment?” the residents ask.

Further south, Catalyst Miami’s Climate Resilience Program Manager Zelalem Adefris works to educate the mostly Black, poor people of Overtown and Liberty City about climate change. Adefris tries to help them understand that where they live is valuable because their homes sit on high elevation, and are less likely to be overtaken by rising seas than other parts of the county. Some of the residents have sold their homes and moved further south, to areas like Homestead, where housing is still somewhat affordable.

But Homestead sits at a much lower elevation, and so is vulnerable to rising seas and storms. With these factors in mind, Adefris says residents still “have to make their own decisions.”

“I don’t tell them not to sell,” she says. “I don’t tell them not to move... I just present them with the information; hopefully they will make the right decision. I tell them, ‘If you like your home and where you live and you want to keep staying in Miami­-Dade County, you really need to get involved with this issue.’”


These two scenarios are playing out quietly in Miami-­Dade, in forgotten neighborhoods of the county that are dealing with the effects of climate change but are not necessarily a part of the discussion. These are microcosms of the problems that the entire state of Florida will face, where seas are expected to rise two feet by 2060. Sea levels are predicted to rise by six feet or more by 2100 if drastic emission cuts are not made soon.

In Florida, about 2.4 million people live within four feet of the local high tide line. Miami­Dade County is considered ground zero for climate change threats, especially sea level rise, in the United States.

“As sea level continues to rise, flooding is expected to become more common during monthly high tides. ... By 2030, Miami can expect the frequency of tidal flooding to increase nearly eightfold—from about six per year today to more than 45,” according to the “Encroaching Tides” 2014 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The limestone bedrock beneath Miami and much of Florida worsens the impacts of sea level rise, threatening drinking water.

“Saltwater not only tops coastal areas but moves underground through Swiss cheese­like limestone, raising groundwater levels and causing inland flooding,” the UCS report says. “An aquifer that provides fresh drinking water through wells to much of Southeast Florida also sits within the limestone. Cities in the region are already losing wells to saltwater intrusion and spending millions of dollars to relocate well fields.”

As the water encroaches from the sea and below, it is already flooding streets, filling up storm drains, threatening drinking water — and disrupting lives and causing damage to private property and public infrastructure in the process.


Water-­related woes are not the only way in which climate change threatens low­income communities like Highland. Scientists point out that vector­borne diseases — those transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks — are always a threat, especially in South Florida’s warm and humid climate. Climate change is bringing hotter and wetter weather – perfect conditions for these disease carriers.

South Florida is still reeling from 2016’s Zika crisis, which officially began last February when Governor Rick Scott declared a public health emergency. By the end of July, the health department confirmed that City of Miami neighborhood Wynwood, an area that sits adjacent to Overtown, was the first Zika transmission zone in the United States. It was declared a Zika­mosquito free zone in December.

“As our climate gets hotter and gets wetter, we will be facing more tropical diseases that you would see in the Caribbean, like Dengue, Chikungunya and Zika,” Adefris said.

She’s right. The Florida Department of Health at the beginning of March reported one locally transmitted case of Zika in the Miami ­area and that it is monitoring four previously active zones for the mosquitoes that carry the virus.


While scientists and the media have been talking about South Florida’s rising seas for more than a decade, it was in 2015 that anti-­poverty group Catalyst Miami, and several other organizations, put pressure on Miami­Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez to add money for climate issues to the budget. In 2015, the city of Miami also established a Sea Level Rise Committee.

Miami in October appointed Jane Gilbert as its chief resilience officer (CRO), mostly funded by 100 Resilient Cities, a project of The Rockefeller Foundation. Gilbert works with the CROs from Miami Beach, Susanne M. Torriente, and Miami­Dade County, James F. Murley, to develop a Resilience Strategy Plan. Resilient Cities get financial support and gain global partners to help make their cities prepared for what the program calls shocks and

Stresses for a city might include high unemployment; inefficient public transportation system or pervasive violence. Shocks wreck havoc in a city. These can be man-­made disasters like sea level rise, hurricanes, disease outbreaks like the Zika crisis, or terrorist attacks.

Gilbert said to get the word out about climate change the CROs have joined forces with activism organization New Florida Majority, Catalyst Miami and faith-­based ­member organization PACT (People Acting in Community Together). The CROs plan to interview all 35 mayors in Miami-­Dade to get feedback on resiliency issues, including climate change. A survey has also been created to gather input from various communities, Gilbert said.

“We are in the very initial stages, “ Gilbert said.

Otis Rolley is regional director for City and Practice Management, Africa and North America for the 100 Resilient Cities program. He said Miami is concentrating on getting more people in the community involved.

“Right now for Miami and the Beaches, these first four months are solely about stakeholder engagement,” says Rolley, whose background is in urban development in the private, non­profit and public sectors. “So we are taking traditional and nontraditional approaches to make sure that the inner cities, the grass tops and the grass roots are part of the resilience strategy moving forward.”

Rolley said it is through such organizations that he expects to mount an all­out educational campaign about Miami’s rising seas.

“Part of the non­traditional approaches that we are trying to use is really looking at faith­based communities, looking for non­traditional gathering really get the word out,” Rolley said. “There are a lot of informal social networks within our inner cities that sadly government often does not tap.”

At a recent meeting on resiliency, Ryan Shedd, a policy researcher and developer for Miami's Community Planning Division, pointed out that flood and infrastructure maps, and signs directing civilians to safety are outdated, deteriorated or are missing information. Areas with large populations of non-English speakers will have challenges, too.

“Two of our biggest obstacles are time and data,” said Shedd.

Student Environmental Advocacy “SEA Corps” group of MAST Academy dual­enrollment at FIU, suggested maps and signs be updated to include Spanish and Creole, and be made more understandable for residents, tourists and foreigners.

“For a community, it's only going to be as resilient as its people,” said Saad Masud of SEA Corps. “It's the responsibility of those of us who know to educate those who don't.”

Meanwhile, in neighborhoods like Homestead, Adefris says education is already connecting people to climate change planning.

“We educate communities on these issues,” Adefris says. “We train them to be leaders and advocates around this issue. You can get involved with our policy work to lead to some actions [on] state and county levels.”

Carolyn Guniss wrote this story with support from the New America Media Climate Change in Communities of Color Fellowship Program.


This article was originally posted in the Miami Times Online.


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