The Key West Mystique

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Egrets King Tides

Key West waters: Will sea level rise shut down the Keys?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

06/30/2021

Sometime in the next 50 years, I say only partially in jest, my Key West house will need a dock and a boat during King Tides. By the turn of the century, the house will be waterfront and pretty much useless. I mean, how many times can one repair after yet another flood and not throw up one’s hands and shout “abandon ship”?

These days, I get a taste of that watery future as I head through the intersection of Olivia and Eisenhower. There’s a permanent puddle on each corner. From June through early winter, those salt water puddles rise and fall with the tides. Combine that with rainy season storms and high tides and, well, grab your boots.  We already know you need a kayak for Duval and Front streets when it floods. Imagine adding another seven inches — and seven inches is the conservative estimate for our rising waters.

Flooding at Truman Sea level rise will make Key West, the Keys and South Florida inhospitable and prohibitively expensive. Sea level rise could make the islands humanly uninhabitable. Make no mistake and politics aside, the water’s going to get deeper. Imperceptibly, perhaps, as we go about our routines. But catastrophically come King Tides, daily thunderstorm dumps and, most assuredly, come hurricanes and tropical storms.

Smart people don’t build houses on the sand. Heck, there’s even a Matthew 7 Bible verse if you need a quote: “… a foolish man, who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

Yet here we are a couple thousand years later trying to decide if Monroe County should spend $1.8 B over the next 25 years to raise 150 miles of roads in the Keys. That’s a couple billion to elevate county roads in neighborhoods — not the federal or state roads, like the Overseas Highway. Not the city streets and roads in the incorporated municipalities, like Key West and Marathon. None of that cash would cover elevating homes or raising yards to the higher road beds.

Actually, the question is likely moot. Monroe County doesn’t have that kind of rainy day fund. Neither does the state or the feds. If Monroe County — and by extension, Key West — wants to raise roads; harden the infrastructure, including water, sewers, electricity and communications; elevate homes; raise and or replace bridges; or develop ferry terminals, there’s only one place to get the cash: taxpayers. Local taxpayers, even the rich ones, would balk at what would be an exorbitant assessment. And, somehow, I don’t see taxpayers in Tallahassee or California much willing to chip in. They’ve got challenges of their own.

Most of my life I’ve lived within sniffing distance of the Atlantic Ocean. Sunday afternoons were childhood rides to Holden Beach in North Carolina. Decades of camping and family reunions on the Outer Banks. Summer weekends at the Jersey Shore. I watched Jersey darn near put parking lots on sand dunes. Watched houses literally fall into the ocean on the Outer Banks. Saw massive dunes at Holden Beach pummeled into little more than a sand box with pavement.

We, those of us who built our homes, our businesses, our lives, on the sand should know the risks we run. Islands and coast lines are fragile; yet the first thing we do is re-create our lives the way they were far inland. Air conditioning. Electric. Running water. We long for fiber optic internet speeds. We, thank Bezos, have Amazon Prime and the U.S. Postal Service carriers who bring it to my house. We’ve lulled ourselves over hundreds of years into believing we can bend the ocean edges to our cravings for amenities better suited to, say, Chattanooga.

Since I did it, too, I have little sympathy for those who bought homes at barely above sea level and along flood-and-storm prone coasts. We got what we bargained for. I am not inclined to fork over my cash to bail them out, nor do I expect the government to do so for me. It annoys me no end when I hear homeowners fret that no one told them their neighborhood and street flood and they’d need a boardwalk to get to the street when it rains and the tide runs high. So, nah, I’m not all that much interested in spending $1.8 billion to raise your neighborhood streets. I’d rather buy you out at a depreciated market rate and let you move inland.

I, like you, can barely imagine living anywhere but Key West. I do so with the knowledge that in my lifetime, rising waters will change irrevocably my adopted home. I do so knowing the adaptive solutions come with sacrifices and price tags most of us cannot and will not pay.

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