How Will Climate Change Affect Little Haiti?

What would climate change look like for residents of Little Haiti?
What would climate change look like for residents of Little Haiti?

As a kid, Valencia Gunder was terrified of the pool. But one day, when she was around 7 years old, an uncle who was a lifeguard threw her right in. He told her not to be afraid, that everything would be fine if she could swim. And that's how she learned to tread water.

Gunder, an organizer with activist group the New Florida Majority, told the story to a group of about 50 residents in Little Haiti at a recent meeting about climate change to illustrate why staying educated about the topic is so important.

"What is a city underwater to a community that knows how to swim? And I mean in a physical sense, but also metaphorically," she said. "Yes, we want to prevent the seas from rising, but they're rising, and we shouldn't be afraid. We should be working diligently so that we can learn how to swim."

Climate change will affect parts of Miami in very different ways, and Little Haiti's specific challenges range from lack of air conditioning as temperatures rise to increased gentrification as developers flock to one of the highest geographical areas of Miami-Dade County. 

That's what organizers said, at least, at a town-hall series that brought Gunder to Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM, or Haitian Women of Miami) last week. Miami nonprofit CLEO (Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities) has been hosting the meetings across the county, bringing scientists, public officials, and academics to talk about how climate change could affect people who live and work in each of the different neighborhoods.

One of the biggest concerns is rising temperatures. Last year was the hottest on record, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And that's a problem for a neighborhood like Little Haiti. 

"A lot of us live in homes without air conditioning, or we live in homes where the air conditioning doesn't work," CLEO director Caroline Lewis told residents. 

Lewis said she has been speaking with city and county leaders and nonprofits with the goal of getting at least one wall unit into every home. But even in homes where there is working air conditioning, economically vulnerable families may have trouble paying ever-growing electric bills.

"We need to see how we can cool a part of every home in a way that's sustainable," Lewis said. 

In addition to prompting health concerns such as heat stroke, warmer temperatures also mean a longer mosquito season, which is especially troubling in these times of Zika. 

"When people think of climate change and sea-level rise, they don't think of the health aspects," Gunder said. "But climate change will affect the way we live, our homes, our bodies, our children."

Community leaders also worry about Little Haiti's hurricane preparedness. Of the group of 55 people, only two or three raised their hands when asked if they have supplies in case of a storm. A 2015 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says climate warming is expected to cause more intense hurricanes in the next 100 years.

"We don't want to wait for the storm for the community to be prepared," Gunder said. "We're trying to create hurricane-preparedness kits for Little Haiti, Liberty City, Little Havana, and West Grove. We understand that, financially, in our communities, we don't always have the money to be prepared for hurricanes, so we are trying to work and assist these communities."

The third major concern is "climate gentrification," the idea that developers will become interested in Little Haiti because it's situated on ground that's higher than many other parts of the county. Though there's really no indication that's happening now, it does seem gentrification of some flavor is already underway

New Orleans was mentioned as an example of how redevelopment can adversely affect longtime residents in a vulnerable area post-storm. Gunder spoke of developers making jokes about Little Haiti becoming "beachfront property."

"Even though the water may not be to our doors, the sharks are coming," she joked.

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