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The City That Lived

Miami’s bleak future on the front line of climate change

Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe by Mario Alejandro Ariza. Bold Type Books, 320 pages.

On November 14, 2016, six days after Donald Trump was elected president, a man named Richard Conlin found an octopus in the parking garage of his Miami Beach apartment building. The translucent creature, which a viral photo showed sitting in a small puddle by a row of cars, had been brought ashore by an unusually large high tide that sent sludgy water rushing through nearby streets. A local biologist speculated that the octopus had found its way inside one of the apartment building’s drainage pipes: the pipes had been positioned well above the waterline when the condo complex was constructed, but rising sea levels meant they were now submerged at high tide, allowing aquatic creatures to make their way inside. (Conlin wrote on Facebook that he spotted a small school of fish swimming in another puddle.)

The octopus makes for an apt little parable not just about the extent to which climate change is already changing daily life in the United States, but about the way in which it is doing so. The cephalopod did not arrive in the parking garage Day After Tomorrow-style, on the crest of an apocalyptic wave, but by means of a crucial yet neglected piece of infrastructure. The alarming fact the octopus represents is not that the ocean threatens to destroy us, but that it threatens to destroy the structures we have built in its midst.

Miami, as you may have heard, is doomed: depending on which study you prefer, the city will be underwater by 2100, 2060, 2050, or whenever the next hurricane hits. It is poised to see two, five, eight, ten, or twelve feet of sea-level rise in the next century. Even numbers on the low end of that range would be enough to inundate Conlin’s apartment building, not to mention billions more dollars of real estate. Tidal flooding events of the kind that brought the octopus ashore increased by more than 400 percent between 2006 and 2013, and the city has only barely been spared by a number of major hurricanes in that same time span. The right storm—The Big One, as they call it in Florida—could raze whole swaths of Miami, send its property market and tourism industry into a death spiral, and spur a mass exodus of domestic climate refugees. Even in the absence of such a storm, the city’s lowest-lying neighborhoods may need to be abandoned by midcentury if the rest of it is to be preserved.

The alarming fact the octopus represents is not that the ocean threatens to destroy us, but that it threatens to destroy the structures we have built in its midst.

Before the global pandemic, life in the city had been chugging along more or less as normal: last December’s Art Basel event concluded without any sea creatures making their way onto the gallery floor. And even now, with coronavirus cases continuing to rise in Florida, we should soon see the opening along Miami Beach of Monad Terrace, a new luxury condo building designed by the starchitect Jean Nouvel and marketed as “the​ ​first luxury condos Miami has seen be built above updated​ ​flood and sea level elevations.” The local housing market is still as healthy as it can be given the circumstances, and the region consistently ranks among the country’s fastest-growing major metropolitan areas. One almost imagines the city as Wile E. Coyote, licking his lips as he runs straight into the path of a plummeting ACME Corporation piano.

It is this almost gauche dramatic irony that sits at the heart of Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe, a new book by the journalist Mario Alejandro Ariza. A nearly lifelong Miamian who has spent years reporting on the city’s political and environmental troubles, Ariza sets out at the start of the book to draft a kind of reported prognosis for his hometown, knowing full well that the final result won’t be encouraging. In the course of his investigation, he bops around from court hearings to mangrove forests to nonprofit offices, consulting with dozens of different experts and advocates to get a sense of just how much time the city has left. The conclusions are about what you would expect: the city is going to fall apart, the poor are going to get hit hardest, and things are going to get very grim if the federal government doesn’t step in to help.

One might be tempted to view Miami as a kind of living prophecy, a first- and worst-case-scenario for what will happen to all of our coastal cities as sea levels continue to rise. Indeed, Ariza casts the city’s destruction as a cosmic comeuppance for the rapacious industrialism that clogged the ozone in the first place: “The brand of capitalism that built Miami, and countless other modern cities, is as tied to the modern environmental crisis as Miami is to the water that surrounds it,” he writes. But as he sketches out the myriad threats to the Magic City’s survival, what Ariza shows most convincingly is that Miami is utterly unique, the product of a world-historical combination of bad decisions. What will make life in the city unsustainable over the next century is not a rise in sea levels or an uptick in ocean temperatures but the spatial and social dynamics of Miami itself. The climate crisis, in other words, has merely exposed the rot that was already there.

The factors contributing to Miami’s near-term collapse are so numerous that it would be futile to list them all here, and indeed Ariza himself struggles to fit it all in over three hundred pages, zipping from flawed septic systems to threatened ecosystems to racist urban planning. Ultimately, the city’s original sin is the fact that it was ever built: for centuries the U.S. government failed to extend settlement efforts to South Florida, leading some to write off the region as a lost cause, all but impenetrable even to the strongest efforts of Manifest Destiny. Only once oil magnate Henry Flagler dumped his fossil-fuel fortune into the construction of a railroad stretching down the state’s eastern coast did settlers start to flock into land that had been largely abandoned to the few Native Americans who survived Andrew Jackson’s genocidal Trail of Tears removal campaign.

Within a few decades, Flagler’s investment enabled developers to carve a city out of previously impregnable nature: “the endless expanse of marsh and sawgrass to the west was slowly drained by a growing network of canals,” Ariza writes, and “a dredge cut a deep gouge into shallow Biscayne Bay, creating Government Cut, into which flowed cargo and people.” Flagler’s efforts were helped along by a former riverboat pilot named Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who in a single term as governor set into motion a plan to dig more than four hundred miles of canals across the state, draining the land on which a new metropolis would soon have space to grow. (You can’t drive more than fifty miles in Florida without passing a road or a school named for Flagler, Broward, or both.)

Except this new metropolis had been built on top of the Biscayne Aquifer, an exceedingly porous slab of limestone that a climate scientist once described to me as a piece of swiss cheese. As sea levels rise, the incoming water will not only roll over the beaches and into the streets but also creep beneath the surface of the city and its surrounds. In the Everglades, this intrusion of saltwater has already wrecked marshland ecosystems, introduced invasive species, and threatened the state’s water supply; in Miami proper it threatens to contaminate the city’s drinking water supply and overflow the septic systems that dispose of waste for tens of thousands of homes, with results that are better left to the imagination. Thus two or three feet of sea level rise, in addition to consuming the ritzy barrier island of Miami Beach and a number of low-lying neighborhoods and nearby towns, would render inoperable the infrastructure that makes life tolerable for even those residents who do live on high ground. Yet in a fit of hubris that rivals the exploits of any Roman emperor, the government saw fit to approve building a nuclear power plant along the water twenty-five miles south of the city. Runoff from the reactor’s system of cooling canals has leaked into the aquifer, South Florida’s main source of drinking water.

As water levels continue to rise and high ground becomes harder to find, Miami’s legacy of racist urban planning will turn the city’s housing market into a battlefield. In contrast to other cities where the ocean represents an existential threat, Miami did not place its poor and minority communities closest to the floodplain: rather, the original Federal Housing Administration guidelines for the city reserved the beachfront for white homeowners and consigned the (relatively) high ground to Black residents. But now the fault lines are starting to shift, and in recent years developers have begun to swoop in on Little Haiti and Liberty Square, two low-income neighborhoods that sit on a ridge that’s likely be insulated from the next century of sea-level rise. These neighborhoods have become perhaps the first living case studies of a phenomenon some researchers call “climate gentrification.” As the yuppies from beachfront neighborhoods seek higher ground, Ariza fears they’ll push the Haitians out of Little Haiti, and then it’ll be “farewell to the low-slung houses, to the mango and avocado trees swaying in the breeze . . . farewell to the Antillean roosters crowing at dawn.”

The city is going to fall apart, the poor are going to get hit hardest, and things are going to get very grim if the federal government doesn’t step in to help.

The coming scramble for free space won’t be as bad as it could have been, though, because many of the most vulnerable homes in the city don’t have anyone living in them in the first place. The glistening condo towers that make up the high end of Miami’s housing market serve predominantly as parking lots for foreign capital, much of it of dubious origin. The absentee ownership rate in many of these buildings is well above 50 percent, and even as the streets of Miami Beach begin to flood, the emirs and mafiosi who own these apartments will be somewhat insulated from the crash in the rest of the city’s housing market, since the selling point of these condos is not their view of the Biscayne Bay but their ability to serve as storage units for foreign capital.

For everyone who actually lives in Miami, though, it’s going to get ugly, and there isn’t much the city can do about it. Ariza opens the book with the image of an enormous water pump designed to flush out water from the streets in the event of a high tide or a hurricane; the city has installed a number of these pumps in the past few years, financing them with a new climate-oriented municipal bond, and has also endeavored to raise dozens of miles of streets. Even if these interventions always worked out, which they don’t—a former mayor of Miami Beach prioritized installing pumps and raising roads near property he owned, inadvertently increasing flooding in nearby businesses he didn’t own—they wouldn’t be enough to forestall a crisis that is coming sooner rather than later. With enough money from the federal government, the city could in theory move the most vulnerable homeowners out of harm’s way before it’s too late, build green infrastructure to absorb floodwaters, and sponsor high-density affordable housing for those who want to stay, but a hat trick in that regard seems unlikely. If sea level rise reaches nine feet by the end of the century, though, none of these interventions will matter: all of Miami and much of South Florida will be underwater. Even if the city doesn’t sink altogether, hundreds of thousands of Miamians will likely be displaced to Orlando, Atlanta, and other nearby cities, none of which are going to feel exactly like paradise in the year 2100.

And what of the city they leave behind? Ariza is loath to accept that his hometown is truly beyond rescue. He has a sentimental attachment to the place, of course—at one point he spaces out during his grandma’s birthday party thinking about how the city might be gone by his own eightieth birthday—but there are more cynical reasons for believing in Miami’s survival: capital likes to get its money worth, and at some point transforming Miami will seem a more lucrative proposition than abandoning it altogether. As Sarah Miller wrote in an essay on Miami real estate for Popula, “There [are] just too many millionaires and billionaires here for a disaster on a great scale to be allowed to take place.”

Ariza ends the book with a slapdash piece of speculative fiction that imagines a travel writer assigned to do a New York Times-esque 36 Hours piece on Miami, “the city that lived.” The writer takes an airboat tour of a sunken suburb, approaching a house on stilts to see “a sapling mangrove growing out of what must be the living room” and “clumps of razor-sharp mussels clinging to the pylons.” The twentysomething tour guide lives in a high-rise apartment complex where “street vendors hawk everything from cell phones to Latin food and Caribbean vacation packages along the elevated walkways that connect the towers.” The city’s chief industries are sustainable development and renewable energy, plus a “chic” food scene where restaurants serve “hyperlocal cuisine consisting of only invasive species: iguana, python, lionfish, land snails.” It’s a tad maudlin, this sketch, but in a way it’s also realistic: if the right combination of money and political will could build Miami in the first place, there’s no reason that a similar sum couldn’t save it. It will take a lot of suffering and destruction to get there, but as anyone who has spent time in Florida will assure you, stranger things have happened.