NPR Story
5:02 pm
Sun June 23, 2013

Coastal Cities Prepare For The Rising Tide

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Today on the show, 50 years on from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and music from the front lines of Brazil. But first, in a major policy address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will outline his administration's plan to curb our historic levels of carbon emissions. A video released yesterday outlined some of what to expect.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll need engineers to devise new sources of energy, and businesses to make and sell them. We'll need workers to build the foundation for clean energy economy. And we'll need all of our citizens to do our part to preserve God's creation for future generations.

LYDEN: The president's goal is to slow the effects of climate change, building an economy that doesn't spew quite so much carbon dioxide. This spring, the planet reached a grim milestone, the highest concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in more than two and a half million years. But reducing emissions now won't be enough. Sea levels are already rising. Even if we eliminated carbon emissions today, oceans will rise an estimated three feet more by the middle of the century.

In coastal cities all over the world, the reality is that the climate has changed already and the question is how to prepare for it. And that's our cover story today: climate change and drowning cities, learning to live with rising seas.

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LYDEN: Earlier this month, after the devastating losses inflicted by Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $20 billion plan to protect New York City from rising sea levels. The ambitious 20-year plan includes seawalls, improvements of the subway and sewer systems and flood control structures in the city streets. Many of the design elements come from New Orleans where keeping back the sea is part of daily life. But the American metropolis that stands to lose the most from rising seas, more than any other city in the world...

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Miami Dade County drenched...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The city of Miami...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It was so flooded, residents will...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: ...streets completely flooded...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The city of Miami has been telling people in the area that if you don't have to get on the roadways, by all means don't.

LYDEN: What makes the jewel of South Florida enticing also makes it vulnerable. Billions of dollars of prime ocean-side real estate will be under water by 2030. If sea levels rise three feet as is projected, the entire city of Miami will be uninhabitable. Already, residents there live with frequent flooding.

BOBBY THACKER: We're talking about water easily from between knee to thigh high.

MICHELLE ASABOG: When it rains, there is a lot of water.

THACKER: It could take easily 12 to 18 hours just to pump water out of the building.

ASABOG: I'm concerned about what's going to happen when it's going to be here again.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: I mean, you can't even get out of your car basically. The minute you step out of your car, you're going to be like, you know, in the middle of high water.

THACKER: Hopefully, you know, you hope for a dry season, if anything.

LYDEN: Miami residents Bobby Thacker(ph), Michelle Asabog(ph) and Claudio Sanchez(ph).

Writer Tim Folger has traveled the world over reporting on sea level rise for National Geographic. While much of the discussion around climate change has focused on droughts, storms and the shrinking ice cap, rising oceans are the problem of the century.

TIM FOLGER: If anything, estimates in the past have proven to be too conservative. Now, the most likely figure by the end of the century seems to be about three feet of sea level rise.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that with 20 inches of sea level rise, which is very conservative, that by 2070, something like 150 million people will be at risk of flooding, and the assets at risk will be in the tens of trillions of dollars. It's just going to be, you know, the problem of this century, and it's just not going to go away. It's just going to get worse and worse.

LYDEN: You've written a lot about delta cities around the world. Now, by that, I mean cities at the ends of rivers, cities on low wetland. And what comes to mind, there's Calcutta in India, Dhaka in Bangladesh. They're also some of the fastest-growing cities. What happens over the next two to three decades in places like that?

FOLGER: Yeah. I was just reading that the Dutch have a contract with Ho Chi Minh City to try to protect that city from sea level rise. And like many of these delta cities, Ho Chi Minh City traces a number of problems, not just sea level rise, but all deltas naturally subside as river deposits are laid down. And many of these fast-growing cities in developing countries also have problems with extracting freshwater, which makes the land subside even more. So you have this kind of double whammy of sea level rise and subsiding land.

LYDEN: Here in the United States, there's been a lot of buzz about how New York is preparing to deal with rising season climate change, especially, of course, after Hurricane Sandy. Mayor Bloomberg announced a $20 billion plan. Tell me what New York is hoping to accomplish.

FOLGER: Mayor Bloomberg's announcement is very farsighted and it's necessary, but will it be enough? Some people have called for a barrier that would protect the entire harbor. Mayor Bloomberg has ruled that out for now. So instead, he has chosen smaller scale measures, some small storm surge barriers. It puts New York ahead of pretty much every other American city. But whether it will be enough in the long term, you know, is still open to debate.

LYDEN: I think it comes as a surprise to many Americans - it did to me - that the U.S. city that stands to lose the most to rising sea levels is actually Miami. And you've reported on how rising sea levels will affect that part of the country. What are some of the challenges for Miami?

FOLGER: Well, the biggest challenge for Miami and all of Southern Florida, really, is that the sorts of solutions that work in New York and in the Netherlands and perhaps even in Ho Chi Minh City won't work in Miami because Miami and most of Southern Florida rests on this foundation of really highly porous limestone. It's just like this honeycomb or like petrified Swiss cheese. It's extremely porous. And so building a barrier won't really work because the water will just continue to flow beneath that barrier.

LYDEN: Science writer Tim Folger.

Engineers say that building seawalls unfortunately won't save Miami, but politicians in the city contend that at least for now, seawalls are a vital defense.

Michael Gongora is a city commissioner in Miami Beach, and he's running for mayor. He says the city government is taking all the right steps to keep Miami Beach dry.

MICHAEL GONGORA: Miami Beach is the first city in Florida that's passed a storm water master plan that takes into account climate change and rising tides. We are in the process right now of doing a major road construction project on Alton Road. We are lifting that road six inches. We are also focused on protecting our city from flooding on the western quarter of the island by raising our seawalls and by adding pump stations along the western quarter of the islands. So, A, we can pump water out quicker and it doesn't flood our community; and, B, so we can create underground holding facilities for the water so that we can store it and pump it out when we're able to and we don't have it flooding our streets and walkways.

LYDEN: Gongora has heard the apocalyptic predictions: seawalls destroyed, flooding everywhere, ocean water spilling into the fancy hotels of Miami Beach and dead manatees floating in swimming pools. He says those images don't take into account everything local government is doing to protect the city.

GONGORA: Lots of communities are dealing with this. Miami Beach is not unique. If you look at some of the older communities in Europe, in particular Amsterdam, they've been dealing with this for over 100 years. I'm not looking to put canals in Miami Beach or to compete with them, but we are looking to the way that they've lifted their cities, the architecture and the science involved. And the fact that we're focused on it, we're spending the money necessary to start preparing for the future will ensure that we keep Miami Beach dry. And we continue to be a community for the future.

LYDEN: Michael Gongora, city commissioner for Miami Beach.

If it all sounds like a page from science fiction, what will higher seas really look like? This week, along the Eastern Seaboard, you'll actually be able to see rising seas. Over the next four to five days, communities along the Atlantic will experience what's called a king tide. It's when high tide coincides with the largest full moon, the supermoon we're seeing now. The ineluctable tidal pull results in a storm surge without the storm, explains Denise Keener of the Environmental Protections Agency.

DENISE KEENER: You know, folks in the community can be enjoying a quiet afternoon. And if the sun, moon and earth are aligning in that particular way during a king tide, they will experience what looks like flooding and flooding that they may have experienced previously during that storm-type event.

LYDEN: To help them see what lies ahead, the EPA has asked coastal residents to take pictures of the king tide. Keener says the hope is that the king tide will be a wake-up call for communities. In the next few days, residents should be asking themselves some tough questions about what they need to do to protect themselves from the ocean.

KEENER: People picturing flooding and looking at their low-lying areas and recognizing what the impacts would be to drinking water, waste water treatment and their homes of that amount of sea level rise.

LYDEN: That might help some parts of the Atlantic coast, but science writer Tim Folger says it could be too late for South Florida.

FOLGER: There will be, you know, engineering attempts to safeguard Miami and to pump out salt water. Ultimately, one scientist told me that he doesn't see large parts of Southern Florida being habitable by the end of the century.

LYDEN: So you're saying that in some of these low-lying coastal cities in South Florida and elsewhere in the world, they are slowly - unless something changes, they're slowly drowning.

FOLGER: They are slowly drowning. When I was talking with some scientists, sometimes you just can't believe what you're hearing that Florida will have to be abandoned. You know, London might have to be abandoned. And then you realize that, you know, these scientists are very conservative. And if anything, they've been understating the problem for years.

LYDEN: You can read more about this in Tim Folger's cover article for National Geographic coming this September.

One reality, insurance rates in South Florida are soaring. The price of homeowner's insurance in Miami Beach has risen by more than 500 percent in the last decade. The biggest human fallacy, observers say, is that technology has made nature irrelevant. And that's not the case. If the water wants to rise, then rise it will. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.