PolitiFact Florida: Do Fish Swim in Miami's Streets? 700,000 Americans on a Terrorist Watch List?

Dec 11, 2015
Originally published on December 9, 2015 10:38 am

Fish swimming in Miami? And hundreds of thousands of Americans on the FBI's terrorist watch list? To get to the bottom of these allegations, WUSF talks with Katie Sanders from PolitiFact Florida.

The warnings about climate change have been getting a good airing at the Paris talks on global warming, and in this country, Florida has been singled out as potentially the biggest victim from rising sea levels. President Obama went so far as to point out that low-lying Miami is at particular risk.

"As the science around climate change is more accepted, as people start realizing that even today you can put a price on the damage that climate change is doing -- you go down to Miami and when it's flooding at high tide on a sunny day, fish are swimming through the middle of the streets, you know, that -- there's a cost to that," Obama said at the climate change conference in Paris Dec. 1.

Now, there have been reports that Miami Beach is raising the height of its sidewalks - just in case - but fish swimming in the middle of Miami?

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

The source of Obama’s fish story

Spokespersons for the White House sent us news articles from 2014 and 2015 about flooding from king tides in South Florida. (King tides, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, are the highest predicted high tides and happen once or twice a year on the Florida coast. They occur when the orbits and alignment of the Earth, moon, and sun combine to produce the greatest tidal effects of the year.)

"There were fish swimming in the street," John Morgan, a Delray Beach city official, told the Sun-Sentinel in October 2014 after a few inches of sea water accumulated without any rain.

Morgan told PolitiFact that he has seen fish on Marine Way, a road in a low-lying area, as well as at Veterans Park.

"I have been with the city a couple years now, and I’ve probably seen the fish in the streets at least a half dozen times," said Morgan, who now heads up his city’s environmental department.

A Hollywood resident, Robin Rorapaugh, told the Miami Herald’s Public Insight Network in October 2015 that king tides had grown in her neighborhood and that "anyone who doubts climate change should witness the sea come through the storm drains — fish were swimming in the street."

We also found video evidence that supported Obama’s point. A Sept. 28 TV news report featured video showing a fish swimming on Cordova Road in Fort Lauderdale.

"Look at that," a bystander said. "A mullet in the street."

Nancy Gassman, assistant public works director in Fort Lauderdale, told PolitiFact Florida that fish on the streets are a "regular occurrence" during high tide flooding in Las Olas Isles and Las Olas Boulevard.

"In past tidal flooding, I personally have seen fish in the streets," she said.

Obama’s comments echoed a recent statement by former Vice President Al Gore, who told NPR in November:

"I was in Miami last month and fish from the ocean were swimming on some of the streets on a sunny day because it was a high tide. In Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, many other places – that happens regularly."

Our efforts to reach Gore were unsuccessful. However, Miami Beach officials told PolitiFact that Gore’s comment stems from a tour during a conference about climate change that happened to coincide with the king tides.

Miami Beach officials, including assistant city manager/public works director Eric Carpenter, showed Gore the impact of the tides on the state-owned Indian Creek Drive where the water washes over the sea wall onto the street.

"I absolutely saw the fish," Carpenter told PolitiFact. "You can actually see the fish swimming out of the creek, past the mangrove trees that are there and into the street. I probably saw close to a dozen. They weren’t big fish, but I don’t know, two or three inches long?"

While working on temporary fixes to the road to try to alleviate flooding, Carpenter said he saw the fish on several occasions. "It was not an isolated incident," he said.

Flooding has become an expensive problem for places such as Miami Beach, which flood for several days twice a year as a result of king tides. The coastal city is on track to spend around $500 million to install 80 pumps and raise roads and seawalls across the city. The Herald reported that while the city has flooded for decades during king tides, it has been getting worse.

"The king tides have gotten higher in recent years," said Colin Polsky, director of the center for environmental studies at Florida Atlantic University, told the Herald. "And the king tides we're seeing more recently have been higher than they were predicted to be."

It’s important to point out that sightings of fish in the street are not common. Hollywood City Commissioner Patty Asseff, who lives across the street from the intracoastal, said she had never heard of fish in the streets.

"It was the first I had heard about fish in the streets," she told PolitiFact after reading Obama’s comments about Miami. "We have water, we have flooding, but fish I haven’t seen yet."

In the past year, the city of Hollywood has spent more than $1 million on flood gates and pumps in parts of the city to alleviate flooding.

For the record, Obama’s statement was technically about Miami -- not Miami Beach.

Miami public works director Eduardo Santamaria said he wasn’t aware of fish on the streets in Miami, but he said the city is higher than Miami Beach and parts of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood.

Our ruling

Obama said, "You go down to Miami and when it's flooding at high tide on a sunny day, fish are swimming through the middle of the streets."

This reminds us of the fishing stories you might hear from your uncle. 

Fish have been seen (and videotaped) on the streets.

But that’s been in the low-lying areas that surround Miami, not on the streets in the city proper. And the sightings were during the more dramatic king tides, when high tides are at their highest, not during average daily high tides.

Overall, we rate his statement Half True.

Next up, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defended his recent vote against a Democratic-led move to restrict the right to buy arms for anyone on the FBI's terrorist watch list. This became of particular interest after the shootings in San Bernardino.

Rubio and other Senate Republicans voted down legislation that allowed the attorney general to ban "known or suspected dangerous terrorists" from obtaining firearms or explosives. Under current law, thousands of people on the FBI’s terrorist watch list have been able to purchase such weapons legally.

But the terrorist watch list sometimes includes people who aren’t actually terrorists, Rubio said on CNN’s State of the Union Dec. 6, and it would be wrong to deny those people their right to own a gun.

"If these were perfect lists, that would be one thing," he said. "But there are over 700,000 Americans on some watch list or another that would all be captured under this amendment the Democrats offered. And that's the problem."

 
 

By the numbers

The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center maintains what is colloquially known as the terrorist watch list. The Terrorist Screening Database is a consolidated collection of information about people known or reasonably suspected to have some level of involvement in terrorist activities. The no-fly list is a subset of the terrorist watch list.

The terrorist watch list is the one the attorney general would pull from when deciding whether someone should be denied a firearm if there’s reasonable belief that the person would use that firearm for terrorism, under the Democrats’ bill, said Ashley Schapitl, spokeswoman for bill sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The terrorist watch list pulls information from numerous government agencies in the United States and around the world, so American citizens and legal residents only make up a portion of the list. A pretty small portion, in fact.

A Terrorist Screening Center spokesman declined to comment on the watch list’s current size, but we found an estimate on a 2011 FBI fact-sheet that put it at 420,000 individuals. Of those, only about 8,400 were American citizens or legal residents. The no-fly list subset included about 16,000 names, only 500 of whom were Americans.

Current estimates of the number of people on the list -- foreign and American combined -- now hover around 700,000, the number Rubio cited.

But there’s no way that the number of Americans on the list has grown to 700,000, said Timothy Edgar, who oversaw civil liberties and national intelligence issues, including the terrorist watch list, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

"Rubio is almost certainly off by orders of magnitude," said Edgar, now a visiting fellow at Brown University.

The number of Americans on the list likely doesn’t exceed 10,000, said Martin Reardon, former chief of the FBI Terrorist Screening Center’s operations branch.

Some innocent people have been wrongly included in the terrorist watch list or the no-fly list, which can affect their lives in ways such as having to go through extra airport security or being stopped from boarding a plane. But for an American to get on that list by accident is "harder than people think," added Reardon, who is now a vice president at the Soufan Group, a consulting firm.

It’s more likely that a person would have the same name as someone who is on the list, and that person could run into problems at the airport if a security agent makes a misidentification, Reardon said. This happened to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who once wasn’t allowed to fly because he had a similar name to the alias of a suspected terrorist on the no-fly list.

But the problem of same names is less common than it used to be, and there is a reasonably efficient redress process for people to appeal to the government to get their name removed from the terrorist watch list, Edgar noted.

"That shows that the redress process is not a sham, but it also shows that a fairly significant number of people are put on the watchlist by mistake," he said.

Still, it’s nowhere close to 700,000 Americans.

Our ruling

Rubio said, "There are over 700,000 Americans on some watch list or another that would all be captured" in a Democratic amendment intended to stop suspected terrorists from buying guns.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, the attorney general would have some discretion in denying firearms to people on the FBI’s consolidated terrorist watchlist. While it’s reasonable to estimate that there are 700,000 people on this list, only a small fraction are American citizens or legal residents. Experts said it’s likely that only about 10,000 are Americans, while the rest are foreigners.

We rate Rubio’s claim Mostly False.

 
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