November 26, 2020

If Miami Will Be Underwater, Why Is Construction Booming?

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

Miami Beach could be mostly underwater within eighty years, but construction of new beachfront properties is booming. What’s behind this disconnect? To find out, writer Sarah Miller went undercover posing as a high end buyer to meet with real estate agents across the city. Here’s the story of what she found.

Sarah Miller’s piece, along with 40 other amazing essays by women at the forefront of the climate movement, appear in the book Ayana co-edited with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. To find out more about the book and all of the contributors, visit allwecansave.earth.

The essay is read by actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as excerpted from the star-studded audiobook for All We Can Save.

Calls to action

  • Check out this map of sea level rise projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to see what areas we likely to become inundated.
  • Check out the rest of the climate anthology that Ayana co-edited, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, at allwecansave.earth.
  • Since we’re a podcast, we recommend checking out the audiobook version, which includes America Fererra, Janet Mock, Sophia Bush, Ilana Glazer, and Jane Fonda among the readers.


If you take an action we recommend in one of our episodes, do us a favor and tell us about it! We’d love to hear how it went and what it felt like. Record a short voice memo on your phone and send it to us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. We might use it in an upcoming episode.

Where to Listen

Transcript

Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet, I’m Alex Blumberg.


Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: And I’m Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. This is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we're gonna make those things happen.


Ayana: So one of the things we think about when it comes to climate change is how we adapt to the changes that are already inevitable. One of the key questions in adapting is: where do we live? Some places we live now are gonna be harder to live in, perhaps impossible to live in, in the future.


Alex: We talked about this a little bit in a recent episode on wildfires, and this idea called managed retreat: intentionally moving out of zones that are going to be more and more susceptible to extreme weather, wildfires, hurricanes, and sea level rise.


Ayana: Yeah, sea level is indeed rising. And science moment ...


Alex: Ding ding ding! [laughs]


Ayana: Not only does sea level rise because of melting ice, but also sea water just expands as it warms up.


Alex: Oh, so the ocean is just literally getting bigger as it gets warmer?


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: That’s crazy. Look at you with a science fun fact!


Ayana: That’s what I’m here for, Alex.


Alex: I mean, it’s not really a fun fact. Look at you with a science sad fact.


Ayana: Horrifying fact? Yeah.


Alex: Yes, exactly. [laughs]


Ayana: So the ocean’s getting bigger. And there’s often this disconnect though, between the reality of how things are changing, our climate is changing, and our behavior, which oftentimes is not changing. Case in point is Miami, where we know large parts of that city will be underwater in the coming decades, but we’re still seeing these luxury housing developments go up right on the coastline.


Alex: Construction in Miami is booming.


Ayana: What is up with that?


Alex: Well, as we’ve mentioned on this podcast, Ayana, you co-edited an anthology.


Ayana: I did.


Alex: Of essays called All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. And one of the essays in that book investigates this question: What is up with Miami? And on today’s episode, we’re gonna play the audiobook version of that essay.


Ayana: Yeah. I'm actually really excited to share this with you all. The essay is called "Heaven or High Water." And you may recognize the voice reading it from the audiobook. It’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Elaine from Seinfeld. Veep from Veep.


Alex: That is a ...


Ayana: Do not make a lame Seinfeld joke, please, Alex.


Alex: Okay. All right.


Ayana: Preemptive.


Alex: Noted.


Ayana: Nixing.


Alex: I'm sure she gets that a lot.


Ayana: So the essay is written by Sarah Miller, and it was originally published in Popula Magazine before a version of it appeared in the anthology that I co-edited with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson.


Alex: What Sarah was interested in exploring in this essay was this cognitive dissonance of, like, what's happening in Miami, where you have construction booming, but at the same time, there's already these visible effects of climate change already happening. For example, this thing called sunny-day flooding.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: Where it floods in Miami, even on days when it's not raining because of a combination of sea level rise and high tides means that the water is just seeping up through the ground and flooding in broad daylight when there's no rain.


Ayana: It's wild. And sometimes sea life comes up with the water. So there will be, like, an octopus in a parking garage for no reason.


Alex: Are you serious?


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: That's so crazy!


Ayana: It's pretty wild. So Sarah was curious about what the people involved in selling this Miami real estate, what are the real estate brokers telling the clients and themselves about what's gonna happen in terms of climate change?


Alex: Right. So Sarah posed as a rich lady, complete with a fake wedding ring and a backstory about a tech exec husband. And she went around Miami looking at beachfront condos and having conversations with real estate agents. And this is what she found.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: When the first real estate agent—tall, fair, polite, bordering on stern—possibly Swiss, possibly Swedish—asked, "Do you live in Miami now? Do you know what kind of place you’re looking to buy?" I said, "I live in San Francisco and my husband is in tech." I gave a coy twist to the wedding ring I’d put on in my hotel room. "We’re looking for a place to hang out when it gets really rainy." [laughs]. "And then to retire to." [laughs].


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: He either believed me or did not give a shit.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The decor was beige and white with stainless steel, except for the books on the nightstand, which were jewel-toned. I walked around the condo as if I already owned it, as if within my lifetime the lobby beneath us would not be decorated with kelp.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The realtor and I rendezvoused on the balcony, which overlooked Biscayne Bay. He gestured at the rainy day, unusual for this time of year, late March. "Usually at night, you'll be looking at the best spectacle of a sunset here," he said. I oohed and aahed over the view—quite genuinely—because if you don’t think about the fact that it’s filled with thousands of pounds of post–hot Pilates ceviche poops, Biscayne Bay is breathtaking.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I asked how the flooding was. "There are pump stations everywhere, and the roads were raised," he said. "So that’s all been fixed."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Fixed," I said. "Wow. Amazing!"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I asked how the hurricanes were. He said that because the hurricanes came from the tropics, from the south, and this was the west side of Miami Beach, they were not that bad in this neighborhood. "Oh, right," I said, as if that made any sense.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I asked him if he liked it here. "I love it," he said. "It is one of the most thriving cities in the country; it’s growing rapidly." He pointed to a row of buildings in a neighborhood called Edgewater. "That skyline was all built in the last three years."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Wow," I said. "Just in the last three years. They’re not worried about sea level rise?" "It’s definitely something the city is trying to combat. They are fighting it by raising everything. But so far, it hasn’t been an issue."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I couldn’t wait to steal this line, slightly altered: I'm afraid of dying, sure, but so far, it hasn’t been an issue.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Later I texted Dr. Kristina Hill, an associate professor of urban design at the University of California at Berkeley, whose main work is helping coastal communities adapt to climate change. I told her the agent’s theory about weaker hurricanes on the west side of Miami Beach. She wrote back, "That’s ridiculous!"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The next open house was not far. I popped into a store en route, in an area where the sidewalk had been raised. "There used to be flooding here," the owner said as she folded a soft sweater. She had long, dark hair and, as was de rigueur in Miami Beach, lash extensions. "But they put in pumps and it’s been fixed."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "So I hear," I said.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Yeah," she said. "It’s amazing."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "I don’t know if I understand this," I said. "The sidewalk is raised, but where does the water go?"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Into the drain," she said. "Well, except for one time. One time the store was flooded, but it’s fixed." She put her hand over her heart in an expression of extreme gratitude.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The next real estate agent was in her mid-forties and wore a diamond ring big enough to plate a filet mignon. Her pants were so perfectly tailored she looked like she’d been sewn into them.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I walked around this property in the slow, pensive way of the rich shopper, cultivating an opaque expression which could suggest equally the taking in of beauty or polite condemnation. The place was lovely, with a water view and, like everything in Miami, beige, beige, beige, pink, white, beige, blue, beige, beige, white.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The rhythm of these things is as follows: greeting, walk around, short chat, goodbye. This short chat was longer. We talked about shoes and jewelry and the intense beauty of Miami, which I meant every word of. I felt bad lying to her, and with no good segue for my true mission, I was worried that when I came out with my questions, her demeanor would change. But just as charmingly as she had received my greetings and compliments on the layout of the kitchen, she said sure, there was a problem, but if anything was going to happen, she thought it would be more like fifty years than in thirty.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: It’s amazing that people in these situations tell you what they think. "I think bread actually takes twenty minutes to bake," she said, removing the doughy mass from the oven. "I think I can drive a car after I’ve run out of gas," he said, as he rolled silently into the breakdown lane.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The agent continued. "The scientists, economists, and environmentalists that are saying this stuff, they don’t realize what a wealthy area this is." She said that she lived here and wasn’t leaving, and that the people selling Miami were confident and all working as a community on the same goal: to maintain this place, with the pumps and the zoning and the raising of streets. There were just too many millionaires and billionaires here for a disaster on a great scale to be allowed to take place.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Anyway, people are working really hard to prevent anything from happening," she continued.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Another agent came in to look at the condo and joined our conversation. She was young, and if indeed we're talking thirty years until "Miami Beach–pocalypse," the forty-something realtor and I will very possibly be dead or close to it when shit really hits the fan, but this woman will still have many good years left. Still, she did not seem to be losing a great deal of sleep over sunny-day flooding, sea-level rise, any of it.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "From what I understand," she said, as she took a turn in the condo, her heels clacking across the pale floors, "everybody has done this, like, research, and they have these, like—like—" She paused behind the kitchen island, her pastel nails splayed out on the varnished counter top. "I can’t think of the word now."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Studies?" said the other realtor, helpfully.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Yeah," replied the younger woman. She said she knew about a guy who had "paid for, like, a study. And basically, it said we shouldn’t be concerned because it’s being figured out. Unless you have a family, and you’re planning on staying here."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The ideal buyer for this place was someone who was okay with the street and lobby being full of water for the next couple decades, at which point they might actually have to leave, unless it all got "figured out." And apparently, those people exist. Lots of them. "A lot of people just buy something here, they keep it for five years, and then they sell it," she explained.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I had a bit of trouble finding the next property. I felt like an idiot, until several phone calls determined that the place did not exist yet. When I got to the showroom, the staff were all in a mild state of amused agitation because a news crew had arrived to speak to the famous architect of this building-to-be, and there had been a water-main break in front of it.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The woman showing the model unit wore rubber boots with her fancy real-estate-lady outfit. The building was so luxurious—literally every inch of it a visual spectacle, with polished fixtures, views around every corner, wide vistas of plush upholstery—that it was difficult to concentrate on what she was saying.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I did manage to tune in when she told me that the building had been built several feet above the zoning requirements. This was a big deal as a selling point, it seemed. I thought about a line from Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come: "There is always the risk that Mother Nature won’t respect the design specifications."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I said it was surprising that such a famous architect would build in a city so threatened by climate change. I didn’t actually find this surprising at all, since everyone needs to make money, but I wanted to see what she’d say.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: She said the main thing was just that Miami was being very forward-thinking. She mentioned Amsterdam and how they were making it work, and how the Dutch were the poster child for sorting out a way to make this work. "I think the takeaway is just that Miami is doing something about it," she said.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: There are several problems with comparing Miami to the Netherlands. One is that the Dutch have spent billions of dollars on climate resilience, and Florida has spent millions. The Dutch strategy is holistic—accounting for how this thing will affect that thing, etc.—whereas in Miami they've just installed some pumps and raised some roads and buildings, which kind of ignores the issue that a place to live is really only useful insofar as nearby goods and services and the streets and sidewalks for reaching them, are not underwater.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: As I listened to these people’s reassurances that everything was fine, I started thinking that maybe I was crazy. I spoke to Dr. Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. According to their projections, by 2030 there will be about 45 days of sunny-day flooding per year in Miami. By 2045, there will be about 240. In other words, two out of every three days. She confirmed my suspicion that, while the raising of buildings was good for the buildings, it didn’t do much for the well-being of those living inside. "Yes, you do need to be able to get out of the building to get medicine and groceries," she said. "If all the streets are flooded, what then?"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: With all the talk about pumps, I'd expected something truly enormous. But they were the size of maybe the world’s largest Airedale. When I mentioned them to Dr. Hill, she gave a skeptical snort. "Yeah. In Miami, those pumps and those raised roads, that’s, like, their big move," she said. "But it’s just kind of cosmetic." She acknowledged they help with flooding, but what about when the sea begins to rise significantly, or when there’s a big storm event? A big storm would not just flood everything and cause damage and then retreat. It could unearth septic systems, which could lead to terrible disease. Or industrial waste, which could poison people. "That’s the situation that really concerns me and is, as I see it, the canary in the coal mine," Hill said.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I talked to Dr. Amy Clement, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, about pumps and raised buildings. "No, you’re not crazy," she reassured me. "That alone is not coordinated planning, and it’s not a comprehensive solution." She told me about a legal battle between homeowners and the county government in St. Johns County, near Jacksonville, Florida. The homeowners said the county was depriving them of access to their land. The county said it would no longer foot the bill to maintain a road continually ravaged by storms and erosion. "People are just assuming the government will maintain their roads, and that may not always be the case," Clement said.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Then there is the problem of walls. The big plan in the Netherlands depends on walls. Since Miami is built on limestone, which soaks up water like a sponge, walls are not very useful. In Miami, seawater will just go under a wall, like a salty ghost. It will come up through the pipes and seep up around the manholes. It will soak into the sand and find its way into caves, and get under the water table and push the groundwater up. So while walls might keep the clogs of Holland dry, they cannot offer similar protection to the stilettos of Miami Beach.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Miami Beach is not the only threatened part of Miami. There are plenty of neighborhoods like Shorecrest or Hialeah, where flooding is also bad. But while wealthy Miami Beach is fussed over, every scrap of attention or money lower-income areas receive they must beg for.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: People say Miami is douche-y, but really, I loved almost everything about it: the symmetry of the blue umbrellas on the beach, riding a bike under a canopy of trees, sitting on a wall watching the sunset, definitely not thinking about how seawater might be infiltrating the septic systems behind me. The whole time I was there I was like, "Yeah, I can see why no one wants to admit how fucked this place is."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: That night I went out to dinner with a friend who grew up in Miami and had left for college twenty years before, never expecting to return. He was in elementary school when Hurricane Andrew hit, and that was when he realized Miami was not going to last forever.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: He moved back in 2018 after years away, and saw that the party was still on, even though perhaps it shouldn’t have been. That said, it was perhaps on for this night, for there we were at NIU Kitchen downtown, drinking a really good wine from the Languedoc, surrounded by extremely good-looking people, enjoying luxury while discussing the horrors that luxury has visited upon the world.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: My friend is active in the local civic community, but says he’s skeptical even of the activist discourse around sea level rise. "There’s all this talk about 'sustainability' and 'resilience,'" he said. "And it kind of sounds to me like 'What’s the least we can do in order to keep the party going?""


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I told him about someone I knew who had gone to a meeting about climate change, where Miami officials talked about how they had to demonstrate to the world that they were all about resilience. And how she had been amazed that they thought that was actually the extent of their job: to just convince people they were on top of things when they absolutely were not.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Get more efficient and find the right incentives to encourage the right kinds of enterprise—that’s the neoliberal thinking on the "reasonable" way to approach this stuff. But, my friend wondered, what if the mature thing to do is mourn and then retreat?


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The next day was beautiful. The streets were dry under a blue sky. It was a great day to think Miami would last forever. The first property I looked at, on the ocean side of Miami Beach, was asking $4.1 million.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Frankly, this is a little much for me," I said to the agent. "But I’m just getting a sense of the neighborhood." If a young Robert Redford ever fantasized about giving up a few degrees of handsomeness just to be tall, it was this man that he pictured. "Happy to see West Coast coming east," he said.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I walked upstairs. I did my thing, which was to take in the splendor of concrete sinks and the guest soaps, each delicately adorned with a sprig of greenery. Then there was the round of compliments about the space, the small talk, and the sea level question put forth with my guileless naïveté.



Julia Louis-Dreyfus:

"You know, they’re picking on Miami because we don’t have our heads in the sand," Robert Redford’s tall cousin said. "We’re actually being proactive about it." He pointed out to me that, as I arrived, I had actually stepped up several feet. "That helps a lot," he said. I nodded and did not say, "Yes, it helps the house, but houses don’t have to go outside; houses don’t get cholera."


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "You feel like Miami is getting more attention because it’s trying harder?" I asked.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Yeah, because all our elected officials are like, 'Yeah, we’re gonna deal with this.'" He talked about "The Zika news cycle" and how that had come and gone. "Oh," I said, "so you think sea level rise is kind of like Zika?"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: He made a face indicating he understood that it wasn’t. And then he told me how they were raising everything. He told me I could get a great one-bedroom condo over in Sunset Harbour—perhaps the most vulnerable part of Miami Beach—for $900,000. That they were planning a lot of new construction there. Then he talked about the pumps, that they were hitting all the problem areas first, but then they were gonna do the whole city. "They raised the streets and it fixed the problem. It probably gives us another fifty years. It’s all being taken care of. And Miami is really taking off," he said, making an airplane gesture with his hand.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: About that, I believed him. You could not look up in this town without seeing a construction crane.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I have to admit, I kind of liked this guy. I liked all of them. They were a likable bunch. That—and being white—is how they’d gotten jobs on the front lines of capitalist hypocrisy. And we all had jobs in it somewhere. How else were we supposed to live? Of course, they made more money than most people. Way more. But still, like most of us, if they didn’t act like this was all totally fine, they wouldn’t eat.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: And people have to live somewhere. I just bought a home in a town in rural Northern California that a forest fire could level any day. I’m not smarter or better than the person who will buy a home in Miami.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I rented a Citi Bike to ride to the next property. In this part of town, just west of the beach, a lot of the streets were shaded under a canopy of the most beautiful trees, with big, oval-shaped, glossy leaves.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: My last real estate agent looked like Botticelli’s Venus, I shit you not. Again with the $10-million slacks, tailored to perfection. This time I didn’t bother working up to my questions. "So, I mean, like, even with sea-level rise, even with a 30-year mortgage, you’d still be fine?"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "Of course!" said this beautiful woman. "I mean, if you had an 80-year mortgage," I ventured, trying to get into the "fuck 80 years from now" spirit of things. We laughed at the hilarity of an 80-year mortgage.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "I mean, it’s not like you’re gonna wake up one day and the ocean is outside your window!" We laughed again. "If something is gonna happen, it’s like, I think it’s, like, a hundred, two hundred years." This is what she thought.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: She showed me the upstairs. We admired the large closets. She said she had a lot of family in Italy and began to talk about Venice, where she had been many times. "At high tide, the water from the sea comes into the city, right into the Piazza San Marco. And it’s horrible." Her enormous green eyes widened, reflecting the horribleness.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "They're gonna have to get something for the people to walk on, for the tourist. They’re gonna have to put something so the people can walk on top. But every year they say the same thing about Venice, that it’s gonna go down." She made a face like, "How do those idiots say this?"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The bathroom tiles were the color of Biscayne Bay. I said so. "Yes!" she said. Her eyes were full of real, deep love for blueness. "Beautiful, no?"


Julia Louis-Dreyfus: As we walked down the stairs to the first floor, she turned to look at me. She was very earnest, standing very close. I felt her beauty soak into me. "It’s Miami," she said. "We are surrounded by water! There’s not a solution. But nothing is gonna happen."


Alex: That was the essay "Heaven or High Water," by Sarah Miller, read by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in your book, Ayana.


Ayana: Yes. This essay, along with 40 other amazing essays appear in the book I co-edited with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. It’s called All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. And we are super excited about the audiobook. So Julia Louis-Dreyfus reads this one, but we have essays read by Sophia Bush, Ilana Glazer, Alfre Woodard, Kimberly Drew, America Ferrera, Janet Mock, Bahni Turpin, Cristela Alonzo and Jane Fonda.


Alex: Jeez!


Ayana: So thank you to all of those incredible women who contributed their time to help us get this audiobook out into the world.


Alex: And there’s more news: your book is not just staying a book. It has turned into something even bigger than a book.


Ayana: It has turned into a non-profit organization that is dedicated to continuing the work of the book, which is to support women climate leaders. So Katharine and I recently founded the All We Can Save project, and that will carry on this work.


Alex: Nice.


Ayana: So you can find more about the work we’re doing, as well as lots of information about the work of each of the contributors to the book at our website, allwecansave.earth.


Alex: Dot.earth. Like, that’s way better than boring old dot.com or dot.org.


Ayana: Right? Pretty cool.


Alex: Exactly. All right, let's do the credits.


Ayana: Let's.


Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It’s hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.


Ayana: And me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger with additional music by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson.


Ayana: Special thanks to Nicole Counts, Chris Jackson, Karen Dziekonski, Nicole Morano, and the whole team at One World and Penguin Random House.


Alex: Happy Thanksgiving everyone. We’ll see you next week!