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Come Heat and High Water

AMID RISING SEA LEVELS AND RISING TEMPERATURES, THE CITY OF MIAMI WEATHERS THE UNEQUAL IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
DISCUSSED

The Brutal Moral Order of North American Neoliberalism, Low-Slung Islands in a Shallow Azure Sea, Geologic Time, Redlining and Restrictive Covenants, Florida’s Fathers of Indoor Climate Control, Climate-Change Gentrification, One Million Trees by 2020, Stress’s Unique Chemical Cocktail, Mnemonic Picadillo, Category Four Hurricanes, Fossilized Mangroves, Top-Heavy Wedding Cakes

by Mario Alejandro Ariza
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Come Heat and High Water

Mario Alejandro Ariza
42 Snaps

I. GET OVER IT

There’s a scar on my knuckle in the shape of a star. I got it from punching Alex Rodriguez in the teeth one afternoon in sixth grade. He and eleven other kids cornered me by the chain-link fence at the end of an empty soccer field. Alex had metal braces that cut my skin open when I swung at him. After I resisted, he and all the other kids went at me like a pack of feral dogs.

But I observed an unwritten code. When I came home badged with bruises, all I offered my parents by way of explanation was that I had fallen. My silence made sense at the time, since my peers and elders told me all this cruelty was supposed to make me tough, resilient, manly. I went to an all-boys Catholic school in Miami whose official motto was “Men for others,” whose unofficial religion was Latin machismo, and whose unspoken mantra was “No seas soplón”: don’t be a snitch.

So there’s no tally of the choke holds, sucker punches, twisted wrists, mango-sized bruises, and swift kicks to the nuts I endured. Nobody kept tabs on how many times I got my face crushed into the boggy dirt behind the swimming pool. If I was lucky, my cousin or one of my friends would push my aggressors off of me and I could run. If I was unlucky—and there were a few days when I was very unlucky—I’d catch a beating that stayed with me for life.

Alex is an actor now, living in New York City, and he’s also my friend. By all accounts he has grown into a kind and gentle adult. We grab coffee whenever he’s in town. And the older boy who whipped me with a belt that one woeful time, who tried to shove a piece of ice up my ass while another, larger boy trapped me in a headlock and giggled as I squealed, now lives in Brooklyn and has founded a tech company. That sadistic motherfucker can burn in hell.

But this isn’t about settling accounts. Rather, this is about the sun-scorched Miami fields where I was beaten, and their natural tendency to flood. This is about actual traumas: my own mild ones, my best friend’s, and those that climate change is already inflicting on Miami, which in 2016 was the city with the greatest income disparity in the United States. This is about how trauma often makes you vulnerable forever, no matter which socioeconomic group you belong to, even though some folks keep trying to tell you that if you’re tough enough you just might come out ahead.

There’s a word that’s becoming increasingly popular in the climate-change adaptation community: resilience. The capacity to recover quickly from adversities and difficulties. As in what they prescribed to me while I was being hazed and bullied and beaten. As in the quality whose suggestion of rugged self-reliance lies at the heart of North American neoliberalism and its correspondingly brutal moral order.

Resilience is a concept so anodyne and formless as to have been embraced by pop culture, cognitive psychology, local government, environmental science, urban studies, and educational theory. You can find books with titles like Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life and Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back and The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles among the other door-stoppers in the self-help section. But the genealogy of the word should give us pause. It’s deeply connected to the uniquely American gospel of self-improvement as it filtered down through the Protestant ethos of election, according to which worldly success was a measure of divine favor.

“Heaven helps those who help themselves,” begins Samuel Smiles’s 1859 best seller, Self-Help, which sold twenty thousand copies the year it was published. Smiles secularizes the Protestant ethic and roundly blames the lot of the underclasses on their “habitual improvidence,” but never stops to consider what would happen to those would-be self-improvers were the heavens to change—to become hotter, wetter, more prone to drought and storm and hurricane.

Judith Rodin, former head of the Rockefeller Foundation, has published a book called The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, in which she speaks of “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” Her organization, through the program 100 Resilient Cities, has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to the task of adapting the world’s cities, Miami included, to the adversities of a changing climate, and its framework is holistic, calling on cities to, among other things, “foster economic prosperity” and “ensure social stability, security, and justice.”

This all sounds nice until you realize that for a city like Miami, stuck on the front lines of climate change, resilience without massive carbon cuts and immediate state and federal aid is the policy equivalent of palliative hospice care. Much as early capitalism managed to project its systemic failures onto the personal shortcomings of those it failed, so, too, does the emerging creed of urban resilience subtly shift the onus of adaptation and mitigation from the macro level to the micro. It is now Miami’s responsibility to adapt, even though a future sea-level rise of several feet is already baked into the climate system, even though there’s little high ground to go around, even though it’s an open question whether or not the city has another fifty years left in it.

You might not think, at first, that my constantly getting the crap kicked out of me has anything to do with climate change or sea-level rise or the death of my city at the hands of an angry, swollen ocean. Yet when state and federal governments ignore the greater structural issues at play, the prevailing doctrine of adaptation starts to closely resemble the national discourse of “toughen up” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and it’s worth taking a moment to check in with the folks who don’t have any boots.

It is 2018, and like a shameful memory the waters under the bridges of Miami refuse to stay put. The three hottest years in city history have all occurred in the past decade. The limestone soil beneath the region is ludicrously porous. Nearly 20 percent of Miami-Dade County is barely two feet above sea level. The billions of dollars it will take to successfully adapt an urban region of seven million people to frequent, unstoppable sunny-day flooding are nowhere in sight. If you expect to survive into the middle of the twenty-first century, you just might get to watch Miami die. But not before the changing climate stretches the city’s already yawning gap between rich and poor past its breaking point.

 

II. OLD TESTAMENT PROPHET

Harold Wanless is as close to an Old Testament prophet as you’re going to find in South Florida. He is the chair of the geological sciences department at the University of Miami, and around town his opinion is at once respected and loathed. He practices good science, and has been doing so for a long time. Avuncular, wrinkled with worry, he sits in a stiff-backed leather chair pulled up to a round table piled high with charts and papers and books and scraps and tells me, clearly, succinctly, that the city I live in is going to drown. And quickly.

“The Southeast Regional Florida Climate Compact says two to six feet by 2100,” he says. “They’re using modified versions of the Army Corps of Engineers numbers. Jim Henson of NASA says eight to ten. I agree with Jim.”

The compact, a multi-county planning body that helps set and coordinate resilience and mitigation strategies across southern Florida, was established because the response to climate change from the state and federal governments was so feckless. When the counties banded together to figure out what the hell to do, they came up with a consortium that’s a little bit like the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, in that it’s desperately outgunned and hopelessly outmatched. This is because both NASA’s and the compact’s predictions spell doom for Miami.

At just four feet of sea-level rise by 2100, Miami meets this century’s end as a rump state. The beach is gone; so is Key Biscayne. Homestead, home to a large portion of the area’s affordable housing, is a shallow tidal basin that smells like an unflushed toilet. Western suburbs from Doral north to Miramar are nigh on uninhabitable because of constant flooding. Sweetwater, a notoriously low-lying and staunchly middle-class neighborhood, is a wastewater-infused bog. The land along the raised coastal ridge, where Henry Flagler built his railroad at the turn of the last century, is some of the precious little terra firma that stays dry year-round.

And that’s one of the better scenarios. At ten feet by 2100, Miami starts to look like the Florida Keys, a string of low-slung islands in a shallow azure sea.

But in terms of the stress it will place on the city, how the sea behaves as it rises is just as important as how high it ultimately gets. Presently, Miami-Dade County averages between 14 and 17 tidal flooding incidents a year. We call them sunny-day floods, and they suck: they snarl traffic, damage cars, disturb businesses, and interfere with local and regional drainage systems. Residents are warned not to wade through the several feet of fetid water invading their streets if they have any open wounds. By 2045, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts as many as 285 sunny-day floods a year.

Because Hal is a geologist, he’s spent lots of time looking at how the sea has risen in the geologic past. “It pulses,” is his characterization, “very rapidly.” These rapid pulses of ancient sea-level rise measured “one to ten meters, probably within a century, and were fast enough to leave drowned reefs, sandy barrier islands, tidal inlet deltas, and other coastal deposits abandoned across the continental shelves of the world.” During digs, Hal has come across perfectly preserved cypress stumps buried hundreds of yards out to sea, remnants of swiftly drowned tidal forests.

Barrier islands like Miami Beach and Key Biscayne, where much of the area’s real-estate wealth is concentrated, are particularly vulnerable. In fact, most of the world’s barrier islands are only about four to six thousand years old and date back to a relatively small pulse of sea-level rise that occurred because of naturally changing climatic conditions. That relatively small pulse made the sea rise almost two yards. Again, to be clear, such a pulse today would render Miami a shadow of its former self.

Hal’s office is underground—weird for Miami—plumb in the bowels of one of those brutalist structures that dot college campuses like monuments to the bad decisions of the ’70s. It has no windows, which is just as well, since the wood-paneled walls are dominated by maps of the Greenland ice shelves. Hal was part of an expedition that journeyed to those far ledges to figure out how swiftly they were melting. As I wait for him to finish writing an email, I imagine a younger version of him scrambling over the ice cap. Traversing a glacier is something that must be done carefully: small, hard-to-see gaps in the long-frozen water open into crevasses thousands of yards deep. One misstep can find you squinched between dark, slick walls that are impossible to climb back up, freezing and struggling to breathe as you slip down into the cold, dark void.

A photo of the West Greenland Ice Shelf, which looks like a dirty patch of road ice on a northern highway in November, hangs above Hal’s desk. The shelf is about the size of Mexico, yet during previous periods of warming it took less than a hundred years to melt. If its 684,000 cubic miles of ice turned to liquid, there would be a corresponding sea-level rise of 7.8 yards, enough to imperil most cities on the East Coast.

Those past atmospheric warm periods that melted the ice shelf were caused by shifts in the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the ends of the planet wobbling like a top drifting lazily through space. This period of warming isn’t like that. This one is caused by you and me, and our consumption of fossil fuels, and our excretion of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, which, thanks to the greenhouse effect, will continue to warm the planet for millennia after we and all of our children are dead.

“The problem we’re facing now is that, globally, we’re getting toward a foot of sea-level rise since 1930 or so,” Hal proclaims matter-of-factly. “That’s partly because of the warming of the ocean and partly because of ice melt, and the ice melt is only accelerating, because that’s what it does.” Because atmospheric carbon levels have risen faster in the past 150 years than at any other point in the Earth’s entire geologic history, the oceans are going to keep rising for the foreseeable future, almost certainly faster than ever before. This isn’t to say that reducing atmospheric carbon emissions is a pointless endeavor: the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius during this century is necessary for humanity’s survival. But regardless, Hal points out, “we’re probably in for a major ride.”

His words are hard to hear and even harder to act on in daily life, in part because he deals with complex systems that operate on a timeline far removed from human lifespans. Geologic time considers thousand-year intervals small. City planners tend to think in twenty-five to thirty-year intervals at most. Their attempts to usher in flood-resistant building codes, or garner the funds to harden infrastructure, or spur denser and more defensible urbanization, are plays for time. But Wanless knows the geologic record, and it doesn’t lie. The water’s rise will be merciless and swift.

 

III. THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

Grim as Miami’s prognosis is, you don’t have to look to the future to see the city being pulled apart. Lived experience already shows how Miami is ground zero for climate change in America, and points to where the discourse of resilience starts to fail.

“I need people to understand that climate change is something that’s not just happening on Miami Beach,” huffs Valencia Gunder as I sit across from her one spring afternoon. A fiercely charismatic millennial of Haitian descent, Gunder is head organizer at the New Florida Majority, a scrappy, left-leaning nonprofit dedicated to community improvement through grassroots mobilization. Her work affords her a front-row seat to a show not many in Miami are tuning in to watch, the one where wetter weather, stronger storms, and hotter temperatures disproportionately affect the city’s poor.

The New Florida Majority has its Miami offices in a nondescript strip mall on the northeast side of the city, next to a discount sex shop and across from a seedy used-boat dealership. This part of town reflects the true character of greater Miami more accurately than Miami Beach does. There are very few trees. The blacktop on the boulevard is old and has been bleached bone white by the sun. On this May day, it’s ninety-three degrees at 11 a.m. Traffic roars past at fifty miles per hour, and the few poor souls waiting for a bus at the end of the block huddle for shade under the tattered awning of an insurance office.

Popular conceptions of Miami as a tropical paradise obfuscate the region’s grim socioeconomic reality. According to census data from United Way, some 58 percent of county residents are barely making ends meet. The average median income in Miami hovers around forty-four thousand dollars a year, but increases in rent and energy costs since 2012 have meant that the household survival budget—what it costs for a family of three to subsist without saving anything—has shot up to almost fifty-four thousand dollars annually. Most residents spend up to two-thirds of their income on housing and transportation alone.

Vee, as she likes to be called, grew up in Liberty City, a historically black neighborhood in northwest Miami, where the median household income is just twenty-six thousand dollars a year. “I own a home there now, actually,” she says with pride. When the neighborhood was settled in the ’30s, Miami—like much of the rest of the United States—restricted where African Americans could live, both by statute and by practice. Blacks weren’t allowed in Coral Gables or Miami Beach after nightfall without a written pass from the sheriff; no realtor would sell or rent to blacks, or sometimes to Jews, because of redlining and restrictive covenants.

So the white folks got the beaches, and Miami’s historically black communities—the ones that built the place, and that now make up the city’s rapidly gentrifying urban inner core—got most of the high ground along the rocky geological formation known as the Atlantic Coastal Ridge. The average elevation of the ridge is around ten to twelve feet above sea level, which is why Vee can state categorically that, at least in her community, “sea-level rise isn’t necessarily our biggest issue when it comes to climate change: it’s heat.”

Three technical breakthroughs made Miami a livable place at the beginning of the twentieth century: airplanes, mosquito control, and air conditioning. John Gorrie, the inventor of indoor climate control, represents Florida in Washington, DC’s National Statuary Hall, next to busts of Jefferson and Hamilton and Franklin. In South Florida, AC is life—but soaring economic inequality and electricity costs mean that many of the people Vee works with can’t afford to turn their units on. “I got folks down in Perrine with a two-thousand-dollar-a-month light bill,” she scoffs. “Who can afford that?”

The year I visit Vee, 2017, will end up vying with 2015 as the hottest on record in metro Miami’s history. After our conversation, the area will undergo a blistering July, with over forty days in a row above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The consistent worldwide uptick in recorded temperatures over recent decades is among the clearest available evidence of the impact of human carbon dioxide emissions on the climate; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has expressed high confidence—an eight-in-ten chance—in the correlation between human industrial activity and increased temperatures. For the working poor of Miami, though, there are more immediate concerns. The heat, along with speculators’ desire to buy property on high ground, is helping to accelerate an already brutal process of gentrification. And the increased temperatures are only contributing to the physical, as well as the economic, stress.

“This isn’t the same heat I felt years ago,” Vee says.

“Most of the homes in Little Haiti are unbearable,” explains Cheryl Holder, an internal medicine specialist, who, in her capacity as program director of Panther College of Medicine Communities, a health outreach service run by Florida International University, regularly visits some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Miami. “That’s why you see so many people sell—because the homes are not as nice to survive in.”

Dr. Holder is tall, with the long, rail-thin hands of a piano player, and looks at me with kind, deep-set, curious eyes. Originally from Jamaica, she’s been in Miami for three decades and has devoted her entire career to the uninsured and underinsured—those too poor to afford air conditioning to get them through the hellish South Florida summers.

The county doesn’t keep statistics on who owns an AC unit, and neither does the US Census Bureau, but over her thirty years of making weekend house calls, Holder has personally witnessed the effects of climate change on this population: their asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are exacerbated; they can’t go outside and walk as often; they sleep worse at night. And they’re more likely to sell their homes as a result.

There hasn’t yet been a study that aggregates health and heat data in the area, but the sentiment that it’s getting hotter faster in Miami’s poor communities is backed up by the county’s own infrared maps of urban heat zones—areas where temperatures consistently hover several degrees above the city average—which show them concentrated in working-class and historically black neighborhoods like Little Havana and Overtown. Part of the problem is an unequal distribution of tree cover, which leaves lower-income communities disproportionately out in the sun.

And as the cost of residential real estate in Little Haiti spikes alongside the temperatures, Holder’s practice has brought her into closer contact with the would-be gentrifiers. “I did a Saturday program at the Little Haiti Optimist Club at Soar Park,” she explains. “There were developers there offering these homeowners decent money for these old homes. If you’re a poor immigrant struggling to pay bills, it’s very, very attractive to sell your home.”

Vee is more emphatic. “We’re starting to see climate gentrification on a high level,” she says. “People think we’re joking, or we’re making it up, or it’s not a thing. But it is.”

Everything we know about climate change indicates that it pulls at society’s loose ends. The US military considers the phenomenon a “threat multiplier.” Studies have convincingly linked global warming to the years-long drought that helped lay the groundwork for the Syrian Civil War. In After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy presciently points out  that “it is too anodyne to say that climate change creates hazards for which wealthy countries are better prepared. It is more accurate to say that it creates a global landscape of inequality, one in which the already wealthy people who have contributed most to the problem see their advantages multiplied.”

Miami’s poor are losing the high ground. To date, though, none of the regional, county, or municipal resiliency plans have addressed climate-change gentrification, even though census and real-estate data indicate that individuals in these communities are moving to lower-lying and thus more vulnerable areas. The city has yet to vote on a single measure passed by its own Sea Level Rise Committee, even though it is statutorily obligated to. But it does have a plan in place to plant one million trees by 2020.

 

IV. PICADILLO

Andrew Otaz is a blond, blue-eyed Cuban American. I’ve known him since we were eleven, when we attended the same prep school—Belen Jesuit, the beating heart of Miami’s Cuban exile community. He’s in my kitchen today because I’m interviewing him about the salt flats he’s been visiting for the past decade. The rising ocean is destroying them, which both of us suspect is a portent of things to come for the city where we grew up. I’m cooking him picadillo, a Cuban hash made from a bric-a-brac of ground meat and minced vegetables, in exchange for his time.

Sitting at the counter, Otaz watches as I dice onions and cube peppers. He lives in DC now, in the dark basement of a turn-of-the-century brownstone, and runs a nonprofit pushing for a more open policy regime toward Cuba. Ten years ago, though, he was a college dropout. He had quit after his second year at West Point, America’s officer candidate school, and came home with a broken shin and PTSD.

For the first six months of his training, Otaz was beaten, humiliated, and verbally abused. The awfulness of it all was not without purpose: hierarchy is life to an organization like the military. Savagery and dehumanization increase cohesion among units, and cohesion increases rates of survival in combat situations. Though all branches of the military have strict anti-hazing policies, the practice is still widespread, primarily because it enforces discipline and weeds out the weak. You could say it builds resilience. But certain people are genetically incapable of certain sorts of resilience, and it’s entirely possible that Otaz belongs to a subset predisposed to PTSD. The mechanisms his brain used to deal with the environment at West Point have permanently changed how his body responds to stress. It’s been a decade since he left the place, and he still has trouble sleeping. He’s also partly deaf from a grenade that exploded too close to him during a training exercise.

The air inside my tiny apartment thickens with the smells of comida criolla—onion, cumin, sázon completo—but after a few minutes the aroma subsides. The aerosolized particles that make up the scent haven’t gone anywhere; the receptors in our noses have just stopped responding to them. Most human cells are able to downregulate their response to overwhelming stimuli, which explains both why you stop smelling the same thing after a while and why your brain can get way too used to being overly stressed.

This state of affairs should not be confused with resilience.

Say you hear that a grenade is about to go off. The first thing your body does is shut down its neocortex. The hippocampus immediately stops producing long-term memories and instead starts producing a host of chemicals called glucocorticosteroids. These chemicals prepare your body to fight, flee, or freeze; they also short-circuit the normal pathway of memory formation, which usually translates experiences into language. This is a fine system for dodging large predators, but it’s awful for dealing with long-term stressors like war—or the institutions designed to prepare you for them. It’s also awful if you are growing up poor on the streets of a twenty-first-century American metropolis, or on the margins of a city slowly being swallowed by the sea.

This is because, over time, like a nose that’s been smelling something for too long, your existing neuroreceptors begin to downregulate their response to ever-present stress chemicals. But, paradoxically, your neurons develop more and more stress receptors, which makes you more sensitive to stress. If certain people can’t build resilience, perhaps it’s because their bodies go into fight-or-flight mode too readily, because their neurons have too many stress-chemical receptors. They are, in a sense, too easily triggered. And even if a city is of a radically different nature from a human body, it’s still a complex system that can be challenged past its breaking point by persistent stressors.

Otaz grew up on the Key, in one of Miami’s most expensive zip codes. After leaving West Point, he had the time and money and family support to try to get himself well, so he slapped on a pair of old sneakers and went trudging around a mangrove swamp. He found the flats at the far end of the northeastern tip of Miami’s southernmost barrier island. The flats were a wonder at low tide, teeming with plovers picking through tide pools wriggling with silver bait fish, a pan-smooth landscape broken only by a few red mangrove seedlings struggling to keep their first leaves above the water line. It was by walking out hundreds of yards into this landscape a decade ago that Otaz had first found the courage to quit West Point. And after he left, it was there that he found a modicum of healing. Now, he explains, the flats comprise barely fifty-five yards of sand at low tide.

As the chicken stock reduces, Otaz asks why I’ve chosen to return to Miami instead of staying up north and settling someplace less vulnerable, less likely to suffer the constant stress of sea-level rise. “You know there’s no future here, right?”

I know it’s true, and I tell him as much. Miami may not have a future, but some of us have to stick around and write the story of its death.

What happens to memories in a prolonged state of extreme stress? Brain researchers aren’t sure, but they do know that some of them become traumas, deeply distressing experiences that the brain can’t recall at will but that can be triggered: by the sound of a pin being pulled, by a bright flash or a loud bang. Instead of regularly formed and normally accessible long-term memories, you get a sort of ten-minute-meal version of a memory, a quick-and-dirty access point to a dangerous and indelible experience. In short, you get mnemonic picadillo.

 

V. AFTER THE STORM

At the end of our first conversation, I ask Vee what she thinks of Miami-Dade County’s resiliency planning. She laughs out loud.

“We have plans on paper, and so did New Orleans and Louisiana,” she says. “[They] were actually gaining national attention for their resiliency planning, and then Katrina hit.”

Four months after our conversation, Hurricane Irma slams into South Florida. The tropical cyclone makes landfall on Cudjoe Key, 150 miles south-southwest of the city, a category four hurricane with sustained winds of over 130 miles per hour. I spend the first days after the storm reporting in the Keys, but run into Vee back in Miami at the end of the week. The power is still out.

I find her sweating over a smoking gas grill that dominates the parking lot of a small Salvation Army outpost in Little Havana. From her barbecue, a line of hungry residents extends halfway down the block. Downed trees still block arterial roadways just a few hundred yards away, and massive traffic jams clog the interstates as seven million bodies attempt to return to their homes after one of the largest peacetime evacuations in US history. “You have to understand how it feels to be a woman after a storm; what it feels like to be poor after a storm,” she tells me. “Not everybody has the money to evacuate, or to evacuate their whole family, or even to buy supplies.”

“There were a good twenty-four hours there without food, and since the power’s gone we’ve been drinking our coffee cold,” says Ruben Garcia, a haggard-looking Little Havana resident waiting in line for food. “But I’m not a wimp. I can last seventy-two hours without eating.” The hot dog Vee hands him is his first hot meal since the storm. Like many people in the neighborhood, he’s on SNAP, the food-stamp program; problem is, when the power’s out, the electronic cards used to access the funds don’t work. “We didn’t take any money out of the ATM before the storm, and nobody around here has power, so the stores aren’t taking credit cards or even food stamps,” he explains as he accepts a bag of chips. “We’re grateful for the meal.”

According to 2015 census data, some 185,000 households in the county are on SNAP. In the wake of Irma, that population was essentially left to fend for itself. Since the storm, Vee has been getting calls from officials asking if she’s seen any damaged infrastructure. “I keep telling them, ‘You know what the infrastructure damage is going to be? If y’all don’t get some food up in here, people are gonna start looting and burning the damn buildings.’”

In the two weeks after Irma, Vee feeds hot meals to over twenty-two thousand people. Not by herself, of course. She mobilizes more than three hundred volunteers, takes over a warehouse, and holds daily cookouts in public parks from Florida City to Miami Gardens. She spends hours in line at Costco, purchasing food and supplies with crowdsourced funds, and coordinates their delivery around the county. The Miami Foundation, Knight Foundation, Florida Immigrant Coalition, and Vee’s own New Florida Majority pitch in. People who have never volunteered with her before, from wealthy neighborhoods like South Miami and South Beach and Brickell, show up in droves. Two city commissioners send one ice truck each, which is about all the government help she gets.

It’s not like the government didn’t feed people, assistant fire chief and city emergency manager Pete G. Gomez explains at a Sea Level Rise Committee meeting almost six months after the hurricane hit. City employees handed out military-issue MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and basic food supplies at priority areas, like hospitals and nursing homes. But 1.5 million people here live at the poverty line, and 350,000 are well under it. And the tropical cyclone’s winds didn’t just knock down power lines—they revealed the degree to which the gap between local government response and the magnitude of the issue leaves thorny questions of equity on a back burner. “I just don’t think our resilience plans are equitable, even though the people working on them are nice,” Vee tells me. “I don’t think they get it.”

Before the storm, 100 Resilient Cities awarded grants to the city of Miami, the city of Miami Beach, and Miami-Dade County to hire resilience officers, whose job is to integrate themselves into as many city departments as possible and put into practice a holistic vision of resilience focused on both infrastructure and inequality. Miami Beach is now in the process of spending $400 million to raise roads, install pumps, and improve drainage. Miami passed a general obligation bond in November 2017, just after the hurricane, some $200 million of which is meant to go toward adaptation. Miami-Dade has prioritized resilience in its capital expenditures, though in layman’s terms this means it’s not spending any extra money on preparing for sea-level rise, just spending what it already would have, but more wisely.

Still, the scientific literature regularly puts the cost of adaptation for the region in the hundreds of billions of dollars, next to which the millions the area has forked over for plans and studies and physical infrastructure improvements barely amount to a down payment. One 2007 study estimated that by 2060, Florida could be spending $2.4 billion a year on beach re-nourishment alone, just to keep tourists coming. The cost of maintaining the South Florida regional drainage system—one of the world’s largest—past 2030 is already pegged at seven billion dollars. (For reference, Miami-Dade County’s annual budget hovers around eight billion dollars.)

So it’s not reasonable to expect anyone but the richest of local governments to put up much of a fight. Nor is it reasonable to expect the half of Miami residents that lives paycheck to paycheck to be able to afford emergency supplies, which usually run about two hundred dollars a household. That’s just the logic of the situation. To people like Vee, though—those working tirelessly to address climate gentrification and the deeper-rooted inequality it exacerbates—the problem of climate justice can often seem invisible to those in power, whose response, in turn, can seem merely like more self-help rhetoric.

During the public comment period of the first county commission meeting after Hurricane Irma, in a chamber packed to the gills, residents voiced their concerns about the county’s response while commissioners ate lunch and chatted among themselves. Only when Vee stood up and said her piece did the meeting’s self-congratulatory tone shift. “I do not know the complete protocol for emergency response after a storm, but I really believe that it needs to be revisited now,” she said, as quoted in USA Today. “We need to revisit every plan, turn over every page.”

Carlos A. Gimenez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, bristled at Vee’s accusation. In spite of his public acknowledgment of climate change, Gimenez has been accused by city media of flat-footedness on environmental issues—and for the small size of the county’s sustainability office before the Rockefeller Foundation’s intervention, and also for an environmentally dubious plan to extend the Dolphin Expressway deeper into the Everglades. “I’ve never heard of these people,” he reportedly said of the New Florida Majority. “So their claim of feeding people, etc., etc., I don’t even know if it’s true. I know the county response was very good. In the street, we get complimented all the time.”

“Come on, Mayor Gimenez,” Vee says to me over the phone later. “You know who I am. Your chief of staff has my personal cell phone number.”

 

VI. THE DISAPPEARING FLATS

To get to the tidal flats, you have to leave the trail. It’s a short hop from the elevated boardwalk onto a tree, then a fifteen-foot scramble down the hardwood trunk to the soft leaf litter below. Then you pick your way across a beach—carefully, because half of the beach is covered in sand, but the other half is a razor-sharp fossilized mangrove reef that’s completely exposed at low tide, and tripping means slicing your hands open.

The fossilized black mangrove roots that form the reef are between one and two thousand years old. When they were alive, they formed part of a network of tidal forests home to over 1,300 species of fish and other animals. Mangroves are the ocean’s nurseries, but today it’s just clams and crabs who hang on, waiting patiently for the tide to come back. To the north there are a few young, sturdy red mangroves, whose roots make it look like they’re walking, and beyond those are the tidal flats.

You may find it difficult to get excited about a low-lying stretch of sand and mud that smells a bit like a sewer when the water is out. But as you approach it, this one shimmers and swells in the Florida sun like a desert mirage. Pools of water bend the light and draw your eye out past Bear Cut to South Beach, where high-rise buildings loom like a distant Oz, and to Government Cut, the entrance to the Port of Miami, where cruise ships that look like giant, top-heavy wedding cakes steam quietly into the Atlantic.

At low tide, the flats extend a hundred feet into the sea. Even with Otaz as my guide, I feel a sense of solitude as I walk out onto them. It becomes possible to hear myself think. Just a few yards from the shore, it’s evident that this place is a sort of edge of the world, a border state between land and sea.

I look at the picture Otaz has brought. It’s a grainy cell-phone shot, taken in 2007, close to the spot where we’re standing now. We’ve made sure to come here as close as possible to the same date and time, the same extreme low tide. The flats in the photo are more than four times as wide.

“What’s left is a sliver,” Otaz says, sighing.

We walk in silence all the way out to the edge of the flats. There isn’t a hard line between the sand and the water; the tide pools just get bigger and the strips of sand between them get thinner. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I could walk all the way across Bear Cut and over to South Beach—that’s how shallow it looks.

“When I came back from West Point, I couldn’t sleep,” Otaz tells me. “I’d go three, four days without sleeping. That’s when I would go run on the beach, or go hiking.” His decision to leave the academy cost him friends, perhaps even pride. But he tells me of a morning when he ran on the beach around Key Biscayne. “Everything was still nighttime and I had the full moon coming down on my right, and I had the sun coming up on me on my left. It was this moment where they were perfectly in balance.”

To the uninitiated observer, the mangroves look like breeding grounds for saltwater mosquitoes, places where floating bits of plastic sea trash collect, forlorn, boggy spots best not to wander in. But 90 percent of all commercial fish, and 70 percent of all game fish species consumed in Florida, spend some part of their life in a tidal forest. These areas are critical ecologically; for Otaz, they’re critical emotionally too. The edge between land and sea is where he still comes to feel alone.

But the edge has been retreating. At some point it will disappear. His need for solitude, for space away from human institutions and hierarchical violence, will not.

He’s not alone in this need. Everybody who lives in Miami has it to some degree. But even as the city attempts to build resilience, the promise of that strategy seems predicated on some interior strength, some inner resource, perhaps the same one the poor and disadvantaged have been accused of lacking since the advent of capitalism. Even the quiet spaces are distributed unequally in America’s most unequal city, and it’s getting hotter, and the waters are rising.

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