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Adapting To Climate Change In Miami

18 hours ago
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is a love story about how you adapt when what you love is changing. Diane Walder (ph) lives the South Florida dream. She has a huge house. The white walls are splashed with bright modern art. Her home sits right on the water in a very fancy part of Miami Beach.

DIANE WALDER: And if you go over the bridge...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're standing in front of huge windows that look out onto a pool and a manicured lawn dotted with palm trees, the bay beyond.

WALDER: So that's the old Westinghouse estate with all the arches.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A mega-yacht is now moored in front of it. A former mayor also lives down the street. Walder is part of this community.

WALDER: I've lived in Miami since 1981. I've lived in...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're - you're a native, practically. (Laughter).

WALDER: No, always a girl from New Jersey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

WALDER: And I've lived in this home for the last 30 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She raised her two kids here.

WALDER: It's a fun, international - every time I come home and I go over the causeway, you look, and you go, oh, my God. It's just, like, so beautiful. It's breathtakingly beautiful. The water's great. The beaches are great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You love this place.

WALDER: I do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That love has been stormy - literally. Walder has weathered at least half a dozen hurricanes here. She says those are just part of living in Florida. But in the past few years, she and her husband have looked out across the bay and watched the turquoise waters creep higher and higher.

WALDER: You can actually see the top of it through the bushes. So it's a little bit lower than where the bushes are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's showing us her newly elevated seawall. She and her husband added several feet to keep the rising waters at bay.

WALDER: My husband wanted to raise it higher than that. I said, but we live on the water. I don't want to live in a castle looking over the wall. So we did what was the code now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Walder didn't want to discuss how much raising the seawall cost. But contractors tell us a project like hers can easily top a quarter of a million dollars. They've also strengthened the roof and replaced all those big windows and doors with hurricane-proof glass.

WALDER: Yeah, and that's the price you pay to live here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A price she's willing and able to pay. She says her kids wanted to move. They're constantly sending her stories about climate change in South Florida. And those articles say her part of Miami Beach will be uninhabitable by the end of the century. Walder, however, says she's not a, quote, "global warming scaredy cat."

I heard you're a little bit of a skeptic on it.

WALDER: Not so much a skeptic, it's just not an exact science. And the climate changes. We've had ice ages and all sorts of other things - droughts, famines. We really have very little control over that. I can't predict what's going to happen in 100 years. I'm not going to be here in 100 years. Not that I don't care but, you know, I put myself through school. I started my business. I worked hard. Everything I have, I bought myself. So let me enjoy it. Let me enjoy it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We drive across a causeway to another part of town. There, we meet Trenise Bryant, who also loves her neighborhood.

TRENISE BRYANT: I'm definitely from here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

BRYANT: From when I was a little girl until where I'm at right now, I've lived in one of the oldest public housing, which is Liberty Square, which...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're in Liberty City, a historically black neighborhood. If you've seen the Oscar-winning movie "Moonlight," that's set here. And unlike where Diane Walder lives, this is miles from the coast.

BRYANT: This area never, never ever - like, it gets drenches of rain, but we don't...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Flood.

BRYANT: We don't have to ride through puddles of water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it doesn't flood.

BRYANT: It doesn't flood nowhere here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that is attractive now in Florida.

BRYANT: Very much so - this is, like, the caviar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the caviar. (Laughter).

Trenise Bryant is adapting to climate change, too, and also bearing the cost of it. She's a school nutritionist. But she's also an activist working to build community-owned housing. The threat she's facing isn't rising seas. It's the rising tide of gentrification. As sea levels rise, higher ground inland starts to look more and more desirable. And much of that higher ground is in the city's poorest neighborhoods, like this one, where we're standing on a little plot of empty land.

ADRIAN MADRIZ: So it's going to be a two-story house, essentially, with two units on the first floor and one unit on the second floor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Adrian Madriz of SMASH, the group that's behind this project. He and Trenise Bryant are working together.

BRYANT: This community land trust is so, so, so important for this community because for me and Adrian it's not about making money. It's not about money. It's about creating wealth in the community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And keeping people here. This whole project is expected to cost only about $325,000. And it's all being built on property donated by Bryant's husband, a contractor. They're hoping this is the first of many such projects. Experts say that right now it's hard to tease out what's traditional development and what's so-called climate gentrification. But Bryant, looking out at her neighborhood from underneath an umbrella, says she's already seen people forced to move away.

BRYANT: And it's, like - it's sentimental to me. Like, for me, I wanted to have - get the voices of the community, making sure their voices are heard 'cause it's not about me. It's about them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I see you getting emotional. Tell me - explain to me why.

BRYANT: Because I know where I came from. I know what this community was. This was a community of people that - that village, raised that village. Like, if my mom went to work, my neighbor would watch us. And we got to invest in our community to get people back to caring about where they live at and not about making a dollar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The city of Miami is struggling to keep up with the rapid changes - higher tides, stronger hurricanes, sunny day flooding. Miami's residents recently passed a $400 million bond. Half of it will go to climate adaptations. A hundred million has been set aside for affordable housing. Back at his office, I asked Madriz if he and the city are moving fast enough.

Projections are pretty dire for southern Florida. And you're saying things are going slowly.

MADRIZ: It is definitely a race against time. And I'm not going to say that we have enough because it really - we should have been having this conversation 10 years ago. However, I think we do have an opportunity to be a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to what kinds of policies are implemented. We'll hopefully have good and solid and decent quality places for people to live their lives without having to worry about, you know, if people are going to really survive the effects of sea level rise and climate change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the four years it's taken SMASH to organize and raise money for their project, a very different building is going up on the shore in Miami Beach.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So there's 59 units altogether in the building.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've come to the showroom of the Monad Terrace luxury apartment building to try and answer a question. With all of these apocalyptic predictions for sea level rise in the Miami region, how are people still building by the water and why?

SIMON KOSTER: It's very easy for someone who doesn't live here to say, we shouldn't build here or, we should go live somewhere else or, we should have a different plan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Simon Koster is one of the developers here. He says most of the buyers so far in Monad Terrace are people who already live in Miami.

KOSTER: This is an absolutely responsible, resilient, place and way to live in a place that people already love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's that word love again. And that love ain't cheap. The penthouse on the roof is $14 million. Koster says climate change isn't the first thing his buyers ask about. But they do always ask about it. As we walk outside to the construction site, Koster explains how this building addresses their concerns.

KOSTER: So as you approach our building in a car, you'll be driving up a slow grade that's entirely landscaped and about 12 feet above the flood plain so that the entire first floor and all the entrances down into the basement are totally flood-proofed all the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a massive generator for power outages, pumps to deal with the floodwaters, storm-proof glass and metal supports that can withstand a Category 5 hurricane. But it may not be enough in the long term.

KOSTER: I don't take solace in the, there are different projections, and maybe it's not going to be so bad, right? I'm not - I'm not in that camp at all. There is certainly going to be sea level rise. And the debate can be how many feet it's going to be, but it's certainly going to happen. And are we building for a hundred-year - a hundred-year solution? It's probably a little bit less than that, quite frankly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Experts say South Florida is ground zero for climate change. The people here do understand that, but they aren't willing to give up on the home that they love just yet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.