We've now reached the new American redlining practice of the 21st century starting in one of the most vulnerable states to rising sea levels: rich beach areas will be saved, poor beach areas with people who can't afford to relocate will drown and be wiped out.
Officials in the Florida Keys announced what many coastal governments nationwide have long feared, but few have been willing to admit: As seas rise and flooding gets worse, not everyone can be saved.
And in some places, it doesn’t even make sense to try.
On Wednesday morning, Rhonda Haag, the county’s sustainability director, released the first results of the county’s yearslong effort to calculate how high its 300 miles of roads must be elevated to stay dry, and at what cost. Those costs were far higher than her team expected — and those numbers, she said, show that some places can’t be protected, at least at a price that taxpayers can be expected to pay.
“I never would have dreamed we would say ‘no,’” Ms. Haag said in an interview. “But now, with the real estimates coming in, it’s a different story. And it’s not all doable.”
The results released Wednesday focus on a single three-mile stretch of road at the southern tip of Sugarloaf Key, a small island 15 miles up Highway 1 from Key West. To keep those three miles of road dry year-round in 2025 would require raising it by 1.3 feet, at a cost of $75 million, or $25 million per mile. Keeping the road dry in 2045 would mean elevating it 2.2 feet, at a cost of $128 million. To protect against expected flooding levels in 2060, the cost would jump to $181 million.
And all that to protect about two dozen homes.
“I can’t see staff recommending to raise this road,” Ms. Haag said. “Those are taxpayer dollars, and as much as we love the Keys, there’s going to be a time when it’s going to be less population.”
The people who live on that three-mile stretch of road were less understanding. If the county feels that other parts of the Keys ought to be saved, said Leon Mense, a 63-year-old office manager at a medical clinic, then at least don’t make him pay for it.
“So somebody in the city thinks they deserve more of my tax money than I do?” Mr. Mense asked. “Then don’t charge us taxes, how does that sound?”
She suggested the county could offer residents a ferry, water taxis, or some other kind of boat during the expanding window during which the road is expected to go underwater during the fall high tides.
“If that’s three months a year for the next 20 years, and that gets them a decade or two, that’s perhaps worth it,” Ms. Haag said. “We can do a lot. But we can’t do it all.”
At a climate change conference in Key West on Wednesday, Roman Gastesi, the Monroe County manager, said elected leaders will have to figure out how to make those difficult calls.
“How do you tell somebody, ‘We’re not going to build the road to get to your home’? And what do we do?” Mr. Gastesi asked. “Do we buy them out? And how do we buy them out — is it voluntary? Is it eminent domain? How do we do that?”
The answer will increasingly be take the land by force and give the residents nothing. Meanwhile, whoever ends up holding the new beachfront properties further inland will win the jackpot. As local and state governments look to take a long, hard look at who will win and who will lose in this game of life, they won't take chances. It'll be those with the cash who will come out on top.
And the people who will lose everything to climate change?
Hey, remember, it's a hoax, right?