Sea-Level Rise Will Drown Hialeah Too, and This Artist Is Showing How

Artist Xavier Cortada seeks to engage people in Miami-Dade on the issue of sea-level rise.
Artist Xavier Cortada seeks to engage people in Miami-Dade on the issue of sea-level rise.
Xavier Cortada

Spurred by articles in publications from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker, the nation finally seems to be waking up to the fact that Miami is slowly being swallowed by the sea. Predictions ranging from eight inches to six feet of sea-level rise over the next century make it clear that our tropical paradise is going under, and it’ll be expensive to deal with.

No sweat, though. You and your children (and their children) can avoid this whole mess by simply staying away from the coast — right? Wrong. 

“This is going to affect people in West Dade more than it affects people on the coastline,” says Xavier Cortada, a painter and artist-in-residence at FIU, whose work focuses largely on environmental science. “If sea levels rise four feet as predicted, 70 percent of Hialeah is going underwater.”

While the city of Miami Beach spends millions on pumps and other short-term solutions to sea-level rise, Cortada wants officials and residents on the mainland to grasp how it will affect them too. His latest project, "Clima," is an exhibition of works and interactive events concentrating on climate change. It's on display through the end of January at the Milander Center for Arts and Entertainment in Hialeah.

“We’re talking about people who have everything to lose,” Cortada says of Hialeah residents. “This isn’t a population that has a second home or a diverse investment portfolio. Many residents came to the U.S. and built this up over years, and now they risk losing it all.”

In Hialeah, homes stand on what was once part of the Everglades, where fresh water flowed south, all the way to Florida Bay. The land was dredged and drained through a series of canals, which made it habitable and prepped for development. But as the sea level rises around the coast, salt water is seeping into porous underground rock, shoving fresh water toward the surface. That means increased flooding and threats to Hialeah’s drinking water supply.

So Cortada asks, “How do we plan for widespread destruction of neighborhoods and farms across Miami-Dade County?”

"Clima" aims to “inspire, educate, and engage” people about climate change. His works are rendered in a variety of mediums, including paintings, drawings, videos, and digital art. For 12 days, beginning November 30, Cortada convened panel discussions and performance art addressing climate-related themes.

Experts and scientists discussed topics ranging from saltwater intrusion to solar technology and infectious diseases. Residents made paper boats out of their property records to float in a fountain, and paper airplanes out of their FPL bills to see if they could "make them soar as high as their fossil fuel-based utility rates.” So far, thousands of people have visited and interacted with the exhibit.

On December 11, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez signed a "Climate Action Pledge" at "Clima" to support local action on climate change. Marla Alpizar, Hialeah’s director of education and community services, said the mayor’s signature showed that planning for climate change is a priority to the city.

“We want to be at the table as we work together to save and protect South Florida and our cities and homes,” Alpizar said. “Hialeah is not like the coast; our planning needs and resiliency steps will be different.”

For Cortada, the commitment is a welcome and gratifying consequence of "Clima," especially given that many state and national politicians still refuse to lead on the issue, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott. It shows the power of art, he says, to reframe the issue for people.

“My job as an artist is to explore the issues so people don’t allow themselves to be manipulated by those who want to deceive them,” he says. “We're not even supposed to say the words ‘climate change’ in the state of Florida. So I’m not just gonna say it, but I’m gonna show people how this will affect their property and the lives of their grandchildren. Then they'll care, and then maybe they'll act.”


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