It hasn't rained for days, and yet Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine is stepping over puddles, trying not to muddy his work suit. Construction workers are tearing up the ground, and the deeper they go, the more water gushes forth. It is the beginning of king tide— the highest tide of the year, which happens as the sun, the moon and the earth align — and we are standing at the epicenter of the nation's battle against rising seas: 10th street and Alton Road on glittery South Beach.
"This corner right here is ground zero for our battle against the rising seas," he tells me. "Two years ago we would have been up to our knees in water. But we are very encouraged by what we're seeing today. This is a very dramatic improvement."
The city has already spent $15 million over the last year-and-a-half investing in pumps to alleviate the problem of high tides bringing salt water deep inland. This happens for two reasons: first, the city's sewage and drainage systems are gravity based, which means that as the tides get higher and higher, the water is getting pushed up into the city, rather than draining the water away. Secondly, Miami Beach, like all of South Florida, sits on an oolitic limestone, which allows the intruding saltwater to literally come up through the ground beneath your feet.
Over the next five years, an estimated $500 million of local and state money will be spent on the issue in Miami Beach alone. The city has a population of about 91,000. The population of Miami-Dade County is 2.6 million.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine
Rising seas are not only expensive for the government. Javier Garcia, owner of Frame of Mind, a framing shop a few blocks north, says that a few years ago high tides and rain would regularly flood his shop up to his mid-thigh, causing thousands of dollars of damage.
"It's been so bad that if you open the front and the back doors, the water would move through the shop with the tide. Thank god that we haven't seen it lately because of this construction," he says. "But with all the construction it's a different problem: the people stop coming."
Javier Garcia, owner of Frame of Mind on Miami Beach, shows how high the water level has gotten due to high tides. The metal bars that partially line the door are from a device he created to stop the flow of saltwater into his shop.
Javier Garcia, owner of Frame of Mind on Miami Beach
Businesses up and down Alton Road, the main area that started feeling the effects of rising tides about six years ago, have seen revenues decline by about 30 percent across the board, estimates Michael Gorey, president of the Alton Road Business Association.
"Most owners learned to deal with the flooding," he says. "But nothing has been as detrimental to business as the construction with combating this problem. I realize it has to be done, but it has really killed a lot of businesses."
Rachel Stevens, owner of Rachel's Psychic Center, is one of them. Even though it seems like she has gotten through the worst of the construction (she finally has a sidewalk again) there was a time when her prospects seemed dim. Customers couldn't access the store entrance, and they were unaware that it was still open.
"We have lost more than 70 percent of our income throughout this construction," she says. "And it has been hard to show officials the human impact that this has on people like me. They say 'it's great for the city.' And I say 'I can't pay my freaking rent.'"
Businesses have had to go out of their way to say 'Yes, we're open' amid heavy construction to safeguard the city from rising seas
Nelson Ferreira has lived or worked on Miami Beach his whole life. His family has owned and operated the Shorty and Fred's mechanic shop on Alton Road since 1956.
He remembers that the high tide used to bubble up through a drain on one corner (6th street and West Avenue) back in the 1960s. About six years ago, he notes, it all changed.
"It used to be that it would flood when it rained. Lately, it doesn't even have to rain. This whole shop floods from front to back without a single drop of rain coming down from the sky," he says. "It was like one minute, it just started happening. I've been here my whole life, and this is completely new to me."
Ferreira says that he sees evidence of rising seas in the cars that come to the shop, costing his clients thousands of dollars.
"The people that live in [the affected areas] are coming in, and the entire bottom of the car, the frame, the starter, the alternator, all of it— it is totally corroded by salt water. People think, 'hey, my car is just getting wet,' when they leave it out in the flood, but when that salt water evaporates, what do you have left?" he asks. "Salt. I've had to tell people who have new-looking, really nice cars, that they'd better go get a new one, because the bottom is totally shot. And there's almost nothing we can do about it."
Clients have started begging him to put their cars on lifts during high tide, he says, though his insurance company has put him on notice not to do it anymore.
"These people who say there's no global warming, they better shape up," he concludes. "Because take a look under these cars. Look at the streets. Look at what's happening in our city. Where's the water coming from?"
Nelson Ferreira, owner of Short and Fred's, a mechanic shop. He has lived or worked on Miami Beach his whole life, and say that tidal flooding due to raising seas is a new phenomenon.
All photos by Elisa Rodriguez-Vila for Fusion