Meet the Miami-Dade Official Charged With Saving County From Rising Seas

James Murley might have the most depressing and difficult job in the county. As chief resiliency officer, the 69-year-old government planner has to make sure that Miami literally doesn’t go under. It’s not going to be easy, with scores of scientists repeatedly finding that sea levels are climbing and a state governor who allegedly banned the term “climate change” altogether.

Last month, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez created the position after facing mounting pressure from environmentalists. While there was a squabble over money — how much does one pay the county’s only hope of staying afloat? – Gimenez increased the salary from $75,000 to $190,000. Murley was named earlier this month and will officially begin November 3.

In the meantime, Murley has been listening to other county departments about their sea-level-rise plans. And despite being tasked with Miami’s most daunting responsibility of not succumbing to the inevitable sea-level rise, he’s optimistic that in 100 years, the county will remain aboveground.

“Now, I’m not sure what that ground will look like,” Murley admits. “Will we be standing on sheetrock? Will water be drained and pumped? I’m optimistic that we’ll all be dry. The approach is not ‘Pack up and leave.’”

Murley has a decorated career in government planning. He ran 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit that aims to better communities by stopping urban sprawl. Before his appointment, he worked as executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, a joint effort among seven South Florida counties to prepare for climate change.

He knows trying to stave off sea-level rise will be his toughest job yet but says Dade does have a head start. The county began efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions back in 1992, and the Water and Sewer Department has plans in effect for rising waters. “As a county, we’re not starting from zero,” Murley points out.

Murley’s central job will be securing the county’s fate over the next century as sea levels are expected to rise at least one foot. He’s also tasked with making sure the county is prepared for hurricanes, population spikes, and other sudden stresses to the county’s regular ebb and flow. “What everyone forgets is that sea-level rise is not an event; it’s a long trend,” he explains. “I also have to make sure we stay ready for an event — and sea-level rise will probably make it worse.”

Murley doesn’t have all the answers yet. But he’s crossed a few solutions off the list, like building tall and expansive walls or levies like the Dutch. “Unfortunately, we’re sitting on limestone, so the water would just come up,” he explains. He’s keeping his eyes peeled to other counties, states, and countries’ solutions. “We need every tool in the book.”

In the meantime, he’s focusing on lowering his own greenhouse emissions and plans on taking the trolley from his house in Shenandoah to his new downtown office. “We’ve all got to do our part and reduce our carbon footprint.”

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