I grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and when I was a kid a common sight, particularly on the Illinois side of the river was the miles and miles of crops planted in the bottomland, the low-lying land adjacent to the river, sometimes nearly up to the water’s edge. That is floodplain, the Mississippi does flood, and practically every year you’d hear demands from farmers whose crops had, predictably, been flooded out for assistance from the state or federal government.
The bottomland was extremely rich and fertile and easy to till. When you won, crops were large and you won big. When you lost, you could lose everything.
This morning I read a plea to save Miami:
“Climate change is no longer viewed as a future threat round here,” says atmosphere expert Professor Ben Kirtman, of the University of Miami. “It is something that we are having to deal with today.”
Every year, with the coming of high spring and autumn tides, the sea surges up the Florida coast and hits the west side of Miami Beach, which lies on a long, thin island that runs north and south across the water from the city of Miami. The problem is particularly severe in autumn when winds often reach hurricane levels. Tidal surges are turned into walls of seawater that batter Miami Beach’s west coast and sweep into the resort’s storm drains, reversing the flow of water that normally comes down from the streets above. Instead seawater floods up into the gutters of Alton Road, the first main thoroughfare on the western side of Miami Beach, and pours into the street. Then the water surges across the rest of the island.
The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. During one recent high spring tide, laundromat owner Eliseo Toussaint watched as slimy green saltwater bubbled up from the gutters. It rapidly filled the street and then blocked his front door. “This never used to happen,” Toussaint told reporters. “I’ve owned this place eight years and now it’s all the time.”
The sad fact is that Miami is a terrible place for a large city. The average elevation of the city is 6 feet and its highest elevation is around 40 feet. Sea level will inevitably vary and you will have storm surge to contend with. What was true eight years ago may not be true today and what’s true today won’t be eight years from now. That’s a fact of life with or without global climate change.
The creation of the city of Miami, largely a 20th century project, is the equivalent of farming the bottomland. Enormous fortunes have been made by land developers, construction companies, and others eager to capitalize on the gold rush that began in earnest in the 1920s. Housing prices are high not the least because there’s so little land suitable for development.
Our reaction to Miami’s problems caused by rising tides should be identical to the reaction to the policy with regards to the floodplain of the Mississippi. We should resist the temptation to aid the city and over time it should be bought out and returned to nature.
That’s an obvious political non-starter. What will happen is that Miami, home to many elderly people who vote, will organize and successfully receive assistance for what was always inevitable and could never be prevented, again with or without global climate change. The rent-seekers we will always have with us.