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Lower Keys Medical Center

The disappearing Keys | Retreat or go for resilience?

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.

02/03/2024

When I’m bored I dabble with the post-apocalyptic Key West novel I started almost a decade ago. Writing it gives me a place to wall off the worst of my worries about the future of the disappearing Keys.

The novel is called “After the Winter” and it begins like this:

Blaze Connor sagged against the concrete bulkhead a quarter mile into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the White Street Pier. Amazing, she thought, how challenging 625 steps can be when you make them with a cane. Time was she’d run the beach, then finish on the pier, Michael at her heels, just as the sun set.

It’s been years since she watched a Key West sunset from the pier. Getting to Key West has been impossible since 2024. Rising sea levels overtook the bridges and the civil war on the mainland made casual travel a luxury. Only those with a boat or the means to afford a private plane make it to the island in 2032.

I guess, Blaze thought as she gathered up her cane to walk the mile and a half back to Aunt Lizzie’s cottage, the frustrated locals got what they wanted — a tropical paradise free from the plague of credit-card-bearing, sunburned tourists.

Even if one scorns the science documenting the unrelenting assault on the Keys’ fragile ecosystem, it’s hard to deny what our eyes see and our experiences tell us.

Floodwaters lingering for months in neighborhoods, making them impassible for residents, trash pickups and deliveries. King tides overflowing the seawalls and creating lakes at intersections like Eisenhower and Truman. Rapidly intensifying storms like Tropical Storm Ian in September, 2022 that was supposed to be a simple “bad blow,” but overnight brought upwards of a five-foot storm surge that flooded unsuspecting neighborhoods.

Our protective barrier reef that once thrived in the colors of the rainbow now lying a lifeless gray along the archipelago. On our dinner plates, sea creatures filled with microplastics and pharmaceuticals. Nutrient-runoff-fueled green and red algae blooms poisoning the water, the animals and us. Sargassum piled thigh-high, smothering near-shore waters and making beach-going at best unpleasant.

Key West resilence

Disappearing Keys | We have loved our Keys to death

We have loved our Keys to death. The day will come that much of the Keys will be inhospitable to the lifestyles we’ve built. Eventually the rising sea will reclaim parking lots and the urban hammock Ranger Ed and I have nurtured in our yard. Maybe Solaris Hill and a few surrounding high-ground blocks will survive, their supply chain broken, their remaining residents living in dreary subsistence on an isolated island.

The disappearing Keys are faced with choosing between two unacceptable paths:

  • Declare retreat.
  • Or pour billions, if not trillions, into building out resilient infrastructures, from raised roads, bridges and buildings to soaring seawalls, relocated hospitals, schools and essential services.

I am increasingly inclined to believe the only choice is declaring retreat. Were billions of dollars on hand today — and they are not — it would take decades to complete a resilient build-out, and even then it’s no more than a guesstimated hedge against the inexorable nature-and-man-made disappearance of the Keys.

Declaring retreat does not mean throwing up our hands, asking for 8,000 building allocations and letting developers and anti-environment folks run amok. There’s no cause to ramp up the devastating harm of too many people in too small a space. Retreat does not mean we cease lobbying in Tallahassee for sane, smart environmentally sound laws.

Instead, retreat means we harden the systems delivering safe water, electricity, communications and medical and emergency services — but only to the permanent residential communities on the higher ground, foregoing, as needed, those hardening efforts to non-residential areas, tourist destinations and areas already beyond immediate reclamation. It means saying no to development — residential, tourist or commercial — and, instead, even more aggressively buying vacant land throughout the Keys to remove development rights.

Retreat means we opt for projects to sustain the Keys for 10 to 25 years, not 50 or 100. Retreat means billions, but not trillions, of sustainability investment dollars. It means planting corals and native trees, continuing scientific environmental research, picking up cigarette butts, sweeping our sidewalks and reducing our use of plastic.

For me, retreat means nurturing the lignum vitae tree we’ve grown in a pot in the yard from a seedling to a strapping five feet. Twenty years from now, it’ll spread its canopy across the front of our yard. It means cleaning the tank of my mangrove nursery and one day transplanting the five of them to a sandbar nearby.

And this morning, retreat gave me a quiet moment to celebrate finding the rare Atala butterfly on my sidewalk coonties.

3 Comments

  1. Pamela Ellsworth

    Hello from Nosara in Costa Rica , This story in the works mirrors what’s happening in Nosara too closely for comfort . And makes me shed a tear for my old island home on Little Torch the 1990’s .The “ plague “ is taking its toll on the 2 places I love most .
    Nosara is blowing past its tipping point . The strain on our infrastructure by tourism and the ongoing and unstoppable overdevelopment is felt in every home everyday now . Severe water rationing , an electricity grid so overburdened it’s literally exploding and sewage pouring into the ocean . Our wildlife is on its last leg . The Howler monkeys are homeless because every new build cuts down every tree . And with the rise in temperature due to global warming every new Airbnb and luxurious new villa installs AC units spewing more and more CO2 into the atmosphere .
    I could be Blaze ! An old lady grieving for the world she once knew and loved so much .

    Reply
  2. Esmond Grosz

    I look forward to reading your book.

    Finding the Atala is a testament to the nurturing of your piece of Key West! I love how they just “materialize” when your not really looking.

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      So true. Those Atalas made my morning!

      Reply

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