HighWaterLine Project Charts the Impact of Sea Level Rise in Miami

Marta Viciedo, of the HighWaterLine project. Photo by Hugo Montoya.
Marta Viciedo, of the HighWaterLine project. Photo by Hugo Montoya.

When tourists talk about glamorous Miami Beach, they probably don't mention that weird moldy smell that floats around, or the small lakes gathered on Purdy Avenue when it hasn't even rained. Many Miamians know something's off. The water under your paddleboards is insanely high, and your grandma's yard is getting swampier by the day. Maybe those floods that close streets every other week aren't so normal.

"A global sea level rise of 4.1 to 6.6 feet is likely this century. Low-lying southeast Florida is one of the most vulnerable areas in the world to be affected. Only about 10 percent of Miami-Dade County will be potentially habitable with a 6-foot rise," said Dr. Harold Wanless, Chair of University of Miami's Department of Geological Sciences, in a statement. "With only a further 2-foot rise, salt water intrusion will have eliminated our fresh drinking water resources, forced evacuation of most of our barrier islands and of the more westerly communities. We could have 2-feet of sea level rise as early as 2048."

Miami is the most threatened coastal city in the world, yet most locals have no idea. Originally created by artist Eve Mosher in 2007, the HighWaterLine project will put the problem on display through a series of public intervention art pieces. Diverse residents of Miami Beach and the City of Miami will become public performance artists this week as they draw a thick blue line of chalk on the streets, marking their homes, schools, playgrounds, and landmarks of the city that will be underwater due to sea level rise.

See also: Rolling Stone Predicts Miami Will Be Underwater by 2030

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One Miami Beach participant in the 26-mile long project is architect and art deco preservation member, Thorn Grafton, whose great grandfather was John S. Collins, after whom Collins Avenue is named.

"You have an older generation who basically helped make Miami Beach what is it today participating, as well as a younger first generation," Heidi Quante, coordinator of HighWaterLine, told New Times. "You have people in Little Havana, who have a much different story from Thorn in Miami Beach, who might be hit by sea level rise because the river waters there will actually flow over faster than in other areas. And the beautiful thing about this project is that the line connects everybody."

Marta Viciedo, founding partner at Urban Impact Lab and co-coordinator of HighWaterLine, is a Miami native. Her graduate research includes sea level rise, hurricane displacement and shore zone management. When it comes to local awareness of sea level rise, she's encountered different levels of ignorance and knowledge.

"A lot of people in Miami understand climate change and what's coming," Viciedo said. "You can't really ignore the flooding that occurs, it's more pronounced than it's ever been, not only in Miami Beach but on the mainland."

Viciedo believes the vastness of the issue makes it difficult to address. She says the public's sense of helplessness in the face of sea level rise stems from a lack of communication from city leaders.

"It's not in the conversation, it's not in the planning dialogue, it's not in the commission dialogue" Viciedo said. "I think that, for the most part, people in Miami are aware and they are waiting for a lead, a way to understand and wrap their heads around what's happening and find solutions."

HighWaterLine's efforts spawned the ResilientMiami movement, whose goal is to forge relationships between Miami communities to create a city that's better able to respond to changes, including extreme storms caused by climate change. Quante says HighWaterLine also is putting together guidelines for the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in the hope of influencing the city's adaptability at the government level.

"We gathered some of the top solutions that experts have put together. It's all government planning; plans for sea level rise now," Quante said. "All buildings after Hurricane Andrew had to be retrofitted to withstand hurricanes. Some architects say we need to have code that says everything has to be retrofitted for sea level rise and certain zones should not be built in that we know are vulnerable. It has to happen in government."

Ongoing construction on Alton Road addresses some immediate impact of flooding in Miami Beach, but Quante says more planning is needed to protect the area. She says sea level rise could put Miami's source of fresh water at serious risk. The Biscayne Aquifer - a layer of permeable limestone 2 feet below ground level - becomes more vulnerable to salt water intrusion as waters rise. In addition to contaminated water, Miamians' daily routines would be affected in various ways, Viciedo says.

"The drinking water is a huge issue, but there's other things like your car not being able to drive through flooded streets, or not being able to access buildings," Viciedo said. "I can only imagine what life would be like if we were walking around in a foot of water all the time. I imagine electricity would be compromised, basic building infrastructure would be compromised, our health would be compromised. Sewer systems would become a huge problem really quickly."

HighWaterLine will hold an event Sunday, November 17, from 11 am. to 3 p.m. for the City of Miami. Experts will be available to answer questions about sea level rise.

"There is such tremendous knowledge and creativity in this city... but there has to be will for action immediately. It's going to be a lot cheaper to adapt to sea level rise now than wait," Quante said. "If people would shift how they view this and embrace reality, everyone will be better off... Just putting your head in the sand and waiting will not only be extremely cost intensive over time, but will leave people ill prepared."

Follow @ResilientMiami to find locations for the public performance art piece as it unfolds. Visit highwaterline.org.

Send your story tips to Cultist at cultist@miaminewtimes.com.

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