What's Your Climate Change Story? The City Of Miami Wants To Know

Aug 16, 2019

James Valsaint is concerned about displacement in Little Haiti. He knows the neighborhood’s high elevation is attractive to developers and perspective homeowners because it doesn’t flood. He questions how the majority low-income residents in the area will fare as rent costs balloon and where they will go.

Damian McNamara is a homeowner in Morningside, less than a mile from Little Haiti. His neighborhood is affluent, as is the case with most coastal enclaves in South Florida.

When the city of Miami shows a map of areas vulnerable to flooding during a hurricane, the streets where he and his neighbors live are covered in blue. Morningside sits in a flood zone. McNamara doesn’t know if the city’s mitigation plans will save his home over time. 

Valsaint and McNamara met for the first time in a community meeting in Little Haiti, where they sat with four other residents and had a wide-ranging conversation about climate change in Miami, it’s impact on different communities and what the local government’s role is in responding to the community’s needs. 

The meeting was part of the city’s “Climate Ready Miami” strategy where neighbors meet, in some cases, for the first time in small groups while city employees take notes for a multiyear plan to address flooding and rising temperatures.

“I'm in a flood zone and pay for flood insurance for my home in Morningside,” McNamara said. “I feel like any moment now, you know, I'm sort of on borrowed time.”

Valsaint told McNamara sea level rising is also scary for residents living just west of Morningside in Little Haiti and it’s not the direct threat of water, but the people retreating from coastal communities to higher ground.

“Poor people in Little Haiti get pushed out to other areas,” said Valsaint, who added climate change is part of the reason gentrification in Little Haiti is ramping up.  

Earlier this summer the Urban Land Institute, which is advising the city of Miami on how to become more resilient, recommended the city focuses on building on high elevation land, while also considering the existing residents and affordable housing in those same communities. 

Across the table, Elvis Cruz, who lives in Morningside near the water, said in addition to wanting a more robust sea wall in his neighborhood, he’s concerned about transparency around how money earmarked for climate change projects will be used. 

“I see government really jumping on board this train and there's money to be made with climate change,” he said. 

As the conversation continued, the men talked about the heat. 

“I know it’s Miami, but it’s been very hot,” McNamara said.

Cruz shared news that shocked his neighbors. He doesn’t have air-conditioning in his home and relies on fans, the close breeze from the bay and shade trees to keep cool.

“We are a spoiled society. Again I'm the weirdo in the room,” Cruz said. “I don't have it. I prefer to not live with it.”

Valsaint, who grew up in Little Haiti, said the neighboring environment impacts how hot it gets. For example, he said in his neighborhood there aren’t as many shade trees, the bay isn’t as close and a lot of elderly residents don’t have functioning fans or air conditioners.

“It's quite understandable if your experience is completely different from like you know more impoverished communities,” Valsaint said.  

The tale of two neighborhoods just minutes away from each other is why Miami’s Office of Resilience & Sustainability is drilling down to community needs on a neighborhood level in small group conversations to tailor responses and projects focused on climate change.  

As the meeting came to an end,  a bottle fell and water  spilled onto their table. A bad omen, the men joked.

Someone remarked, “This is sea level rise” to laughter. 

Upcoming Climate Ready Miami Workshops:

Little Havana and Downtown/Brickell
Thursday, Aug. 22
Jose Marti Park, 351 SW Fourth Ave.

Coral Way
Tuesday, Aug. 27
Shenandoah Park, 1800 SW 21st Ave.

Thursday, Sept. 5

Flagami and Marlins Park
Monday, Sept. 16
West End Park, 6030 SW Second St.

Model City
Thursday, Sept. 19
Charles Hadley Park, 1350 NW 50th St.

Overtown and Wynwood/ Edgewater
Monday, Sept. 23
Williams Park, 1717 NW Fifth Ave.