Commentary: The dirty word in South Florida’s watery future: retreat

When it comes to discussing sea-level rise in South Florida, the word “resilience” gets tossed around a lot by enlightened politicians and urban planners. It’s almost as if the word itself were a mantra that, with enough repetition, will stop the rising seas from swamping South Florida.

But here’s a word that is almost never spoken in public discussions of South Florida’s future: “retreat.”

It’s not hard to see why. For one thing, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach megalopolis has been one of the 10 fastest-growing regions in the country in recent years. In fact, the idea of endless growth is so deeply coded into the region’s DNA that it’s virtually impossible to imagine people might some day leave. Besides, retreat is seen as downright un-American. We don’t give up territory to our enemies, and we sure as hell don’t give it up to Mother Nature.

But as the water rises, that may change. A recent study by Mathew Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia, estimates that 13 million people will be displaced in the United States by sea-level rise by 2100 (about the number of African-Americans who moved out of the South during the Great Migration of the 20th century). In Hauer’s study, about 2.5 million people will flee South Florida.

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In some places, the exodus has begun. One friend left South Florida because he was sick of the congestion from all the construction projects on Miami Beach; another left because she was afraid the value of her home would tank as soon as more buyers get wise to the reality of sea-level rise.

These are just anecdotes, of course. But the hard truth is, rising seas are going to dramatically change the economics and the quality of life in South Florida long before there are sharks swimming through the Faena District. And rather than adapt, a lot of people are going to leave.

The idea of retreat runs contrary to what will be the central task of civic leaders in the coming years, which is to shore up confidence that South Florida has a stable future — that you can buy a house or condo here, raise kids, live a decent life and not worry that it will all turn into an aquarium someday. To win this argument, you need to convince residents that sea-level rise is a manageable problem, that if you just build enough sea walls and raise enough roads and install enough pumps, everything will be fine. And in some places, perhaps it will be.

The problem is, the word “retreat” suggests – accurately — that there is no easy fix for what’s coming. Rising seas are not just an engineering problem; they are an existential risk to life as we know it in South Florida.

Even in the most modest scenarios, dealing with rising seas in the coming decades will be messy, complicated and hugely expensive. Taxes will increase. Insurance rates will skyrocket. Lawsuits will proliferate. Salt water will corrode your car. Trees will die. New water-borne diseases will emerge. Biscayne Bay will go murky from the increased run-off and pollution. Racial and class tensions will arise over who gets protected from the flooding and who doesn’t.

So if you live in South Florida, you might ask yourself: Why stick around? And if you own a house or condo, you might think: Why not sell now, while there are plenty of buyers in the market and prices are high?

If you’re a city official in South Florida, this is your nightmare. Once people start to see Florida real estate not as an investment but as a stranded asset, the real trouble begins. In Florida especially, where there is no sales tax, property taxes are vital to paying for basic services like police and fire departments and schools.

But local governments also need these revenues to pay for infrastructure improvements to defend against rising seas. If Floridians start moving to Asheville and foreign investors start shifting their investments to Costa Rica, property values will fall, which means there will be less money for cops and teachers, but also less money for raising roads and building sea walls.

As the water rises, quality of life declines, people leave. Those who are left behind tend to be poorer, sicker, more in need of services. It’s the kind of downward economic spiral that is very hard to pull out of.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. The sooner we take action to prepare for what’s coming, the better off South Florida will be. That means electing a governor who doesn’t think climate change is a hoax. It means reforming building codes and zoning laws, as well as developing more accurate flood mapping tools so people can better understand the risks they face.

It means levying fees on developers to help fund infrastructure improvements and neighborhood buyouts. It means making tough decisions about what to save and what to let go. It means imagining new ways to live with water, rather than fight against it.

And above all, it means having the courage to create a radically different future for South Florida – one that might be inspiring beyond anything we can imagine today, even if there are fewer people here to enjoy it.

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