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Miami's Low-Income Communities Might Finally Get a Voice in Sea-Level Rise Planning

By Jessica Weiss

Mention sea-level rise, and most people imagine coastal flooding, where water swells at the periphery and spills over seawalls into the city. But in South Florida, that’s not necessarily the way it’ll go down.

Because the entire state sits atop porous limestone, water is literally seeping up from below. That means increased flooding is likely in any low-lying areas of the city. So in Miami, it's not just millionaire beachfront homes at risk. Low-income communities around Dade are also facing serious hurdles from rising seas.

That’s why Miami Commissioner Ken Russell will introduce a resolution next week that would mandate a new voice on the city’s seven-person Sea Level Rise Committee: someone to represent Miami’s low-income and socioeconomically vulnerable population.

“I want to shift the conversation just a little bit so we’re not forgetting a certain population,” says Russell, who was elected last November. “We need to make sure the whole city is considered.”

Russell began thinking about the idea in January while at an anti-poverty summit sponsored by Catalyst Miami. There, he listened to panelists discuss issues surrounding poverty and environmental risk, and it dawned on him that the City of Miami's year-old Sea Level Rise Committee was leaving someone out.

A truly equitable approach to dealing with the impacts of sea-level rise in Miami must consider underprivileged communities, whose risks and response will differ from other communities, he thought. Many middle- and low-income families save for many years to buy a home. What happens when their property begins to go underwater?

Russell says the new member would bring knowledge of those communities to help the committee consider topics such as disaster mitigation and insurance. That rep wouldn't necessarily need to have a scientific background, Russell says, adding that he does not have a specific person in mind for the job.

“The new member could be a liaison to low-income communities while at the same time influencing the city’s planning, policy development, and implementation,” he says.

The six reps on the committee today cover the areas of community and real-estate development, science, emergency management, and economics. They include architect Reinaldo Borges, City of Miami Assistant Fire Chief Pete Gomez, developer David Martin, Miami-Dade County Chief Resilience Officer James Murley, land-use attorney Wayne Pathman, and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado’s son Jose Regalado.

The resolution would work by removing the requirement that the committee’s seventh member be an “expert in structural engineering” and replace it with a “community representative who can specifically advocate for the needs of low-income and socioeconomically vulnerable communities," according to the resolution language.

“Sea-level rise is not just about inches; it’s about people,” Russell says. “We want to make sure as the tide rises, all boats do as well.”


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