How a Shifting Climate Is Transforming Florida

My Comments: I’ve lived my entire adult life in the State of Florida, far from the Keys, which is where this article by Rawaha Haile is focused.

My part of Florida is very different. For one thing my house is 75 feet above sea level, it’s surrounded by large oak trees, there’s a cow pasture more or less next door to my house, and winters can get really cold. Not much snow, but it has happened. It’s likely to remain dry long after the coastal areas have become wet.

I’ve realized that as ice melts in the far north and far south, tide levels on Florida’s coast, and especially the keys, are going to eliminate dry land. How much and how soon is just a guess. But it’s going to happen, and sooner than we expect. People who now live on the coast, or who will soon retire, will be be less likely to live on the coast. Prices for existing homes will drop to accommodate a shrinking demand.

And make no mistake, Florida has a lot of coastline. Depending on which method of calculation you use, it has either 1.350 miles or 8,436 miles of coastline. As glaciers of ice in the north expanded and melted over millennia, the Florida peninsula emerged and submerged. If climate change is happening, and I believe it is, we are now submerging. But it’s like watching a car rust; you know it’s happening, but from day to day you can’t see it.

Before you retire and move to Florida, it would be in your best interest to decide sooner rather than later if you’re going to have to move again. I expect my house to get progressively more valuable as folks decide to leave the coastal areas.

by Rahawa Haile \ January 23, 2019

Hot, humid air, like a weighted blanket, draped itself around me as I exited Miami International Airport. As a native Miamian who now lives on the opposite side of the country, I live for this sensation. It’s something I crave when I’ve been away too long, though my northern friends can’t fathom why. One of the reasons South Florida feels like home to those born here is that nowhere else in the country quite feels like South Florida. It’s the only stretch of the contiguous United States that sits in the tropical climate zone.

When I was a kid growing up here in the early ’90s, I spent my weeks in Miami with my nose buried in one book or another. But weekends were spent far from the city center with my father, paddling through the Everglades or, more frequently, road-tripping through the Florida Keys—the 44 islands connected by 42 bridges, stretching 113 miles from Key Largo to Key West.

I’ve revisited the Keys frequently over the years, first as a teenager with an eye for adventure and later as an adult desperate for a soft place to unplug from the world. Yet two years had passed since I’d been back, and I wanted to come to terms with what Hurricane Irma had wrought when it pummeled the fragile island chain in 2017. I also wanted to camp in the more distant Dry Tortugas

, a national park in the Gulf of Mexico made up of seven small islands 70 miles off the coast of Key West. The islands are among the most vulnerable to climate change, and I had never seen them. To put it bluntly: If I ever wanted to visit, now was the time.

For Miamians, a trip to the Keys starts where the Ronald Reagan Turnpike dead-ends into the South Dixie Highway, which itself ceases to exist once it hits the Miami-Dade County line near Manatee Creek. From there on out, you are on the southernmost stretch of U.S. Highway 1, known as the Overseas Highway. With Miami in the rearview, the twin seas of blue sky and ocean ahead throw the islands of the Keys, a mix of limestone and luck, into sharp relief.

Just south of Florida City, my father and I would often opt for the Card Sound Road instead of U.S. 1 as our path for leaving the mainland, driving needless extra miles sandwiched between aisles of mangroves bowed in brackish water, the air thick with the scent of decaying vegetation. All this in order to have a soda and a chat with locals at the divey shack-on-the-water Alabama Jack

’s before cruising over one of South Florida’s least traveled bridges, Card Sound Bridge. As we’d cross, I’d lean my head out the window until the sea air stung my eyes, my senses alive with the dizzying brilliance of home. Later, we’d snorkel with angelfish and snapper at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

before heading to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, three miles down the road, where we licked the salt from our lips before filling up on fish (dad) and key lime pie (me). Now, as I eased onto Card Sound Road, I felt welcomed home.

You could drive nonstop from Miami to Key West in three to four hours, but it’s better to take your time. Weird things happen on Florida’s fringes, and the Overseas Highway travels through some of the weirdest.

In Key Largo, the first key you encounter on the journey south, you can snorkel past a massive statue of Jesus called Christ of the Abyss. Or stay at an underwater hotel named after Jules Verne. Or ride the African Queen—yes, the cinematic steamboat that carried Hepburn and Bogart. A few keys south, in the village of Islamorada, you can take a snack break while sunburned tourists crouch on their hands and knees on a dock to feed the fish at Robbie’s. Eager, gigantic tarpon leap out of the water toward a blanket of quivering bait dangling from visitors’ hands.

There’s the random sculpture of a large shark sticking out of the side of a building. The enormous red-and-white fishing bobber towering dozens of feet above a sign that reads wedding reservations. And Betsy, a beloved 40-foot-wide spiny lobster sculpture, as Instagram-ready as anything in Florida ever will be, despite predating the app by decades.

The Keys are where the garish and irreverent come to create something unique, unshackled from propriety. They exist in stark contrast to Florida’s panhandle—home to the buttoned-up state capital of Tallahassee—which could not be physically or figuratively further. The considerable aversion the two ends of the long state have for one another today belies their common history defined by absurd levels of capital amassed in the 19th century. In the Keys, it was attained by “wrecking,” or salvaging cargo from crashed ships. Up north, it was attained by subjugation: In the early 1800s, nearly three-quarters of the population of Leon County was enslaved.  Currently, the power to determine the fate of Florida lies in the hands of individuals who sit in the state capital, many of whom refuse to confront the realities of climate change. The fact that South Florida threatened to secede in 2014, due to the state government’s inaction on climate change, only underscores how dire the situation has become.

As the miles ticked by on my drive through paradise, I passed monuments to Keysian resilience and stubbornness. New homes on stilts designed to perch above rising seas and withstand high winds. Updated and reopened resorts. It felt simultaneously inspiring and masochistic. Would efforts to rebuild work, and were they worth it in the long run?

After hours of driving past banyan trees and a stop to sift through the brightly colored offerings of Shell World, the Seven Mile Bridge appeared, the span to Bahia Honda Key. It’s a transformational view with nothing but miles of water on either side. Every time I cross it, I feel as though the sea is consuming me, that I’m a car-size dart zooming across the ocean. The land fades until there’s nothing but gliding pelicans and endless turquoise waters from there to eternity.

Late in the afternoon, I pulled into Bahia Honda State Park. The lush island had been my favorite place growing up, one where my family and I had spent long afternoons swimming and birding. I parked in the far lot near the park’s western end, took a deep breath, and stepped outside to survey the damage.

Hurricane Irma had taken everything.

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