Goodbye to All That
Facing the possibility of my hometown becoming The New Atlantis
Water finds a way.
It rained the other day in Santa Monica. One window was open, the wind shifted, and in short order we found a flooded bathroom and spent the next hour dealing with water water everywhere. An obvious example of an eternal truth: water finds a way.
There are no basements in South Florida. When I was a kid, it struck me one day that something seemed unfair: how come we Miamians didn’t get as much house as other people did? Basements often had game rooms, and were mysterious and delightful subterranean hideouts where kids could do kid things. So I asked my mother why we had to endure our cellar-free life, and she told me something I didn’t quite understand: that Miami is built on top of limestone, and that for some reason that meant that water was everywhere and if we had a basement it would quickly turn into a dirty underground swimming pool. Because water finds a way.
She was right, and it’s a huge part of why South Florida is in such trouble from rising seas. Yes, water-control measures devised in the Netherlands hold great promise for coastal areas in general, but Miami has that special limestone problem. Because limestone is ancient compressed coral, and is decidedly porous. So it’s not just that water comes in with the tides — that’s something the Dutch systems can help with. It’s that water also seeps up from below, endlessly. Hence the lack of cellars: how do you even build one when, every time you dig a hole of any real depth, it starts to ceaselessly fill with seeping water? Most homes in Florida are built on solid concrete slabs. They are little tethered islands floating on what looks like land, and feels like land, but dig deeper and everything is adrift, bobbing just above Florida’s true foundation, the Biscayne Aquifer.
The waters around Florida can spoil you for life. After growing up swimming in the warm-bath temperatures of the Gulf Stream (Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne was our usual destination), I moved north to start college. On a warm, late-August day when the air temperature near Boston felt just as hot and humid as any day in Miami, I ran into the surf at Ipswich — and ran right back out again, flash-frozen. Never attempted to swim up there again. Even the water here at the vast beaches of Santa Monica is too cold, I’ll go ankle-deep and never further.
But the Gulf Stream, that powerful, warm-bath flow of water rushing past the tip of Florida, means that as sea levels rise (and as the Gulf Stream slows), a disproportionate amount of water will get pushed past South Florida in particular. So, whereas some parts of the east coast will definitely see increased flooding as the seas rise, Miami will see more. Much more. Sometimes water makes its own way.
Then there are the storms. As a child I experienced a rare run of good luck, storm-wise: Hurricane Betsy came along a couple weeks after I was born, then there were no major storms the whole time I lived there. Once I moved away for college, well, along came the hurricanes again. Whatever sort of strange good-luck charm I may have been, once I was gone, whoosh.
And as storms get bigger, and meaner, they of course push yet more water at poor soggy South Florida. It’s like the state just can’t win, there are too many problems converging from too many directions. Water finds many ways, sometimes.
And so I must consider the notion. The new Atlantis, my hometown.
Baptist Hospital, where I was born, submerged. Elementary, middle, and high schools (Kenwood, McMillan, Miami Sunset), awash. The playground where I rode this pony, inundated. The streets where I learned to drive; the house where my mother still lives; Crandon Park and all the other beaches and lakes and pools where I struggled to learn to swim; campgrounds in the Everglades where my Boy Scout troop used to pitch our tents; the places where I first set words to paper, first saw a stage performance that took my breath away, first stood on a stage myself, first figured out what I wanted to do with my life: sunken, washed away, lost.
Moving away has never diminished the root fact that Miami is my home. From that swampy ground my entire life has grown. I’ll be visiting again in January, seeing my mother, my wife’s relatives, old friends. We might go see the Wynwood Walls, or swing by Books & Books, which has somehow managed to survive in Coral Gables even in the age of Amazon. If it’s warm enough I might even be tempted to go back to the Venetian Pool, the amazing coral-rock swimmin’ hole that is one of the best pools in the country.
While I sometimes joke that I’m a typical native Miamian because I now live someplace else, the more enduring truth is that it doesn’t matter where I live now, my hometown will always be my hometown, and I could easily fill this screen with a dozen more paragraphs about places there that I will always love, and experiences on that soil that I will always remember. The thought of it all being lost, submerged, feels very much like watching a slow-motion crime that I can’t stop, and that I know will leave a hollow place I’ll have to endure for the rest of my life. In my darker moments, I cynically find myself hoping that maybe I’ll get lucky and die before the waters close in entirely.
But that’s a galvanizing thought. It rouses the spirit, and a new question rises: can this be stopped? Can something be done so that South Florida is not lost after all?
And the reason that thought matters is because Miami, as a bellwether for other parts of the world (Maryland, to pick just one example, has many similar issues), might end up being where we work out the tactics that will help save us all. If you’re trying to tackle sea-level rise, for instance, using South Florida as a benchmark will help even more in coastal areas that aren’t as thoroughly at-risk. Fix the problem in Miami and you’ve fixed it in a lot of other places, as well.
So, then: no more wallowing in sentiment and nostalgia. It’s too easy to succumb to cynicism, to give up and say goodbye to all that. This is the challenge of our times: to look at all our hometowns, and to clearly see how they are imperiled, and to start figuring out how they can be saved. Time to start quoting rousing speeches, from Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach” to Bluto Blutarski’s “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”
Goodbye to all that cynicism. Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.