Image courtesy of NASA


December 4, 2019; New York Times

Earlier this week, NPQ covered a report by Oxfam International that documented the growing impact of the global climate crisis. Displacements from weather-related events have grown from four million a year in the previous decade to 20 million a year this decade.

Even though residents suffer from many hurricanes (Harvey, Maria, etc.), the US as a whole has been relatively shielded from these impacts.

But the impact of rising sea levels is expected to increase in coming years. And, as Christopher Flavelle and Patricia Mazzei explain in the New York Times, in the Florida Keys, the effects could be felt as soon as the next decade.

This past Wednesday, Rhonda Haag, Monroe County, Florida’s chief resilience officer, released a year-long county study that aimed to calculate how high the county’s 300 miles of roads must be elevated to stay dry, and at what cost.

As Flavelle and Mazzei detail:

The results released Wednesday focus on a single three-mile stretch of road at the southern tip of Sugarloaf Key, a small island 15 miles up Highway 1 from Key West. To keep those three miles of road dry year-round in 2025 would require raising it by 1.3 feet, at a cost of $75 million, or $25 million per mile. Keeping the road dry in 2045 would mean elevating it 2.2 feet, at a cost of $128 million. To protect against expected flooding levels in 2060, the cost would jump to $181 million.

All that to protect about two dozen homes. Doing the math, this means it would cost almost $3 million per home to keep the road dry between now and 2025.

Not surprisingly, Haag says, “I can’t see staff recommending to raise this road. Those are taxpayer dollars, and as much as we love the Keys, there’s going to be a time when it’s going to be less population.”

At a climate change conference in Key West on Wednesday, Roman Gastesi, the Monroe County manager, noted the difficulty of the upcoming challenge: “How do you tell somebody, ‘We’re not going to build the road to get to your home’? And what do we do? Do we buy them out? And how do we buy them out—is it voluntary? Is it eminent domain? How do we do that?”

For her part, county mayor Heather Carruthers says she hopes the cost of raising the roads turns out to be lower than what her staff have found. Still, she acknowledges, “We can’t protect every single house.”

Carruthers does not expect local residents to be sanguine about this outcome. “I’m sure that some of them will be very irate, and we’ll probably face some lawsuits. But we can’t completely keep the water away.”

Henry and Melissa Silverman moved from Long Island in New York and bought a house on the southern edge of Sugarloaf Key 10 years ago. The building’s first floor is 18 feet off the ground. Still, “each high tide brings the saltwater a little bit closer, killing the palm trees under the deck, and popping the wooden slats off the boardwalk.”

Leon Mense, who lives at the end of the road, suggested that rather than raising roads, officials instead focus on addressing the climate emergency, without which no amount of adaptation will be sufficient. “Maybe we should think about stopping, or trying to stop, the cause of the water rising,” Mense suggested. “At what point will the road be high enough?”—Steve Dubb