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Why is there an octopus swimming in the parking garage?

General Foundation News

Octopi shouldn’t hang out in parking garages, the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t belong on roadways and saltwater is not welcome in freshwater reservoirs that supply drinking water. But those disturbing predicaments are occurring today in South Florida – where sea-level rise is wreaking havoc in communities on the front lines of climate change.

Members of Kresge's board and staff hear about effects of climate change in Miami Beach
Members of Kresge’s board and staff hear about effects of climate change in Miami Beach during a tour. 

The Kresge Foundation Board of Trustees and staff got a firsthand look at those climate change impacts last week during a day-long tour and presentations from foundation grantees and partners who are working to make their communities more resilient to daunting climate change challenges.

The March 15 events took place in conjunction with the Kresge Foundation Board of Trustees meeting, and was organized by the foundation’s Environment Program – dedicated to helping cities build equity-grounded resilience in the face of climate change. Key allies and grantees who participated in the presentations included Catalyst Miami, the Institute for Sustainable Communities, the Miami Foundation, the Florida Institute for Health Innovation, and the offices of resilience from Miami Dade County and Broward County.

During the briefing, trustees, staff and guests learned:

  • How Miami Beach is raising its streets as much as 3.7 feet in response to rising sea levels. The waters regularly produce “sunny day flooding” of the city’s thoroughfares when extraordinarily high tides – called king tides –push seawater up through storm drains and manhole covers. The higher roadways keep streets from being impassible, especially important for emergency vehicles and in the event of an evacuation.
  • How saltwater is increasingly pushing into the region’s freshwater aquifer that supplies drinking water to South Floridians – requiring massive engineering projects to repair and enhance failing salinity control structures.
  • From local experts about diseases like the Zika virus, which are increasingly gaining a foothold in the warmer, wetter climate – as well as the mental health toll on residents caused by flooding, heat waves, disease threats and other climate impacts.
  • How low-income communities – typically located in more vulnerable places and least able to afford adaptation measures like stormwater management, relocation, and street raising – are bearing the brunt of the climate impacts.
  • How the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a four-county initiative that is coordinating mitigation and adaptation practices, is accelerating climate change action across the region.

Steve Adams, director of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, said the compact members are working at multiple levels to reduce climate-trapping emissions like carbon dioxide, and helping communities adapt to changes in climate and sea levels that are unavoidable. He added that public health and social justice organizations are increasingly taking root in the compact’s planning process.

Engineers are working with projections that estimate 14 to 26 inches of sea level rise will occur during the next four decades Dr. Jennifer Jurado, chief resiliency officer for Broward County, said. In addition to 1,800 miles of flood control canals in Broward alone, the region must mend and enhance 70-year-old dam-like structures that keep saltwater from intruding into the Biscayne Aquifer – an underground freshwater reservoir that is the source of drinking water for more than 3 million people. The rising ocean increasingly pushes saltwater into the aquifer, creating a race against time for the affected counties.

An octopus was photographed in a Miami parking garage after tidal flooding
An octopus was photographed in a Miami parking garage after tidal flooding in November 2016. 

While climate change continues to be a contentious issue on the national political stage, Floridians are seeing it up close and personal. The warming, expanding Atlantic Ocean waters are already causing chaos in places like Miami Beach, where an infamous photograph of an octopus swimming in a flooded parking garage last year put the issue into stark relief. That city is in the midst of extensive infrastructure work as part of an “incremental adaptation” strategy to keep one step ahead of the rising seas that increasingly push through storm drains to flood roadways during high tides.

In the Sunset Harbor section of Miami Beach – a mangrove swamp filled in and developed long ago – trustees saw climate change adaptation work that included:

  • Raising pumping station electrical panels to keep them above floodwaters.
  • Re-engineering stormwater outfalls with backflow preventers to stop the ocean from backing up through them during high tides.
  • Reinforcing and raising protective seawalls.
  • Installing generators near critical electric-powered infrastructure like pumps, to keep them viable during power outages.
  • Raising streets and sidewalks as much as 3.7 feet.

Following the briefings and tour, Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh delivered a keynote address, calling for vigorous defense of federal environmental protections that are under attack by Congress and the new presidential administration.

Despite listing a litany of bad news including huge proposed cuts to health and environmental protections, the pervasive denial of climate change and the removal of data from government science websites, Suh said a new spirit is being forged.

“The environmental community has never been more united and connected to each other,” she said. “Our moment is now, and shame on us if we can’t figure it out.”