South Florida Is Sinking. Where Is Marco Rubio? While Panicking Policymakers Are Contemplating the Possibility of Future Relocation, the Florida Presidential Candidate Is Silent

By Burleigh, Nina | Newsweek, February 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

South Florida Is Sinking. Where Is Marco Rubio? While Panicking Policymakers Are Contemplating the Possibility of Future Relocation, the Florida Presidential Candidate Is Silent


Burleigh, Nina, Newsweek


Byline: Nina Burleigh

An unusual January storm bent palm trees and turned city sidewalks into creeks as a small group of Miami-area mayors and administrators huddled in Pinecrest, one of Miami-Dade County's 34 municipalities. They had come at the invitation of Pinecrest's mayor to discuss rising sea levels, long predicted by climate change scientists and now regularly inundating their towns. The mood in the room was somewhere between pessimism and panic.

On the agenda: making flood prediction maps to help prioritize which roads, schools and hospitals to save as waters rise; how to keep saltwater from leaching into the aquifer; and what to do about 1.6 million septic tanks whose failure could create a Third World sanitation challenge. Someone also brought up the alarming possibility of the sea engulfing the nearby Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

The scale of South Florida's looming catastrophe--$69 billion worth of property is at risk of flooding in less than 15 years--is playing out like a big-budget disaster movie, but dealing with it has been largely left to local political and business leaders in tiny rooms like the Pinecrest Municipal Center's Council Chamber. Their biggest problem is the one climate scientists have struggled with for decades: creating a sense of urgency. Before adjourning, the mayors considered finding a mascot to get people's attention, like a climate change Smokey Bear or Woodsy Owl of the "Give a hoot, don't pollute" campaign. Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason suggested a WWE wrestler could be hired for television and billboard ads with the slogan "Climate change: The problem is bigger than you think."

The irony--that Miami's local leaders still have to sell the urgency of rising sea levels--was sharpened as the meeting adjourned and participants exited into a veil of rain during what is supposed to be Florida's dry season. Small ponds formed in streets, another pretty average day in a city where reports of fish swimming in flooded boulevards and backyards during storms and high tides are becoming more common. Almost everyone knows someone who has stalled a car in rising waters, and Miami police now urge drivers to carry special window-busting hammers for such incidents.

About 2.4 million people in the Miami area live less than 4 feet above the high-tide line, and the ocean is expected to rise between 6.6 and 30 feet by 2100. Eighty-four years is a long time, but water doesn't rise like that all at once. It is already happening. Inch by inch, the slow inundation of Miami has begun, affecting infrastructure and life in one of the world's sexiest cities.

South Florida business leaders and even many local Republican politicians are no longer in climate change denial. Now, deep in the fine print of resolutions and memoranda being passed around among the various task forces in the area, one sees the mantra "Elevate. Isolate. Relocate." Abandonment of some parts of the community to water is now accepted as unavoidable. Even the most conservative estimates assume that a percentage of the next generation of Floridians will become internally displaced Americans, climate change refugees.

While panicking Miami policymakers are contemplating dire climate-related matters like the possibility of relocating people and infrastructure, Florida's two presidential candidates are silent. Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush have ignored the problem. Bush has no constituents to answer to anymore, but Rubio does. On the campaign trail, he brushes off questions about climate change by saying, "I'm not a scientist." His silence is a stark contrast to the deeds of Florida's senior senator, Bill Nelson, a Democrat and former astronaut. Last year, Nelson held a rare Senate field hearing in Miami Beach on sea level rise, and he frequently speaks about the issue on the Senate floor.

Miami-area Democrats are predictably harsh in their criticism of Rubio's indifference, using words like "useless," and "a waste of time. …

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