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Written by Adam Schachner -- BT Contributor   
November 2013

Science and performance art combine to picture Miami under water

IPix_AdamSchac’ve heard one sentiment repeatedly from residents, scientists, and activists concerned with climate change and sea-level rise: Miami will set a global example, either through action or inaction.

This month, November, nationally renowned artists and Miami’s concerned residents will collaborate to overcome our glacial approach to confronting sea-level rise. The High Water Line/Miami project is a citywide visualization of rising tides.

On Sunday, November 17, participants will make their way downtown, using industrial chalk markers to create a continuous line to mark anticipated scenarios for sea-level rise. “We’ll start on 36th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, marking the six-foot sea-level-rise line all the way south into Brickell,” explains organizer Marta Viciedo.

A similar event will take place on Miami Beach on November 13 and 14. Combining performance art and civic engagement in both projects, participants will express their hopes for a Miami that’s willing to adapt to the climate challenges it faces.

Viciedo made a local impact this past March, bringing together Buena Vista’s Purple Line mass transit installation (See the BT’s “All Aboard for the Future”). She’s no stranger to combining artistic endeavor and civic-mindedness. “This is in many ways what Purple Line was about,” she says. “Collaborative urban art demonstrations, where it takes the community to make it happen.”

High Water Line was conceptualized by New York artist Eve Mosher in 2007, after she began reading reports, especially a study done by Columbia University with several federal agencies, about the increasing likelihood of more frequent and more disastrous storms hitting the region.

Mosher was eager to communicate the reality of sea-level rise, from grim reports of flooding in New Orleans to melting Arctic ice. One Bush administration report on climate change, she recalls, “softened the language [of environmental impact], introduced uncertainty, and framed it as an economic benefit.”

The Columbia report, published in 2001 by the federal multi-agency Global Change Research Program, described a ten-foot flood zone across the 31-county New York City metropolitan area, which also includes New Jersey and Connecticut.

Mosher adapted the report’s data and created a walkable map of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the High Water Line project began. Using a pushable chalk dispenser like those that mark the lines on a baseball field, she walked a 70-mile path through New York’s at-risk areas, marking the high-water line and engaging onlookers as she strolled. The project took her about six months.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the great awareness of climate change,” Mosher tells the BT. “Out of the hundreds of people I talked to, only one didn’t believe in climate change, and one didn’t believe it was caused by humans.”

Then in 2012, the stark reality of Mosher’s High Water Line message was realized during Hurricane Sandy.

She recalls watching the storm via social media (fortunately, she didn’t lose power) and seeing the water levels rise. Although the ferocity of a storm like Sandy had been predicted in 2001 studies, Mosher was still horrified: “I was witnessing what I had marked -- worse, actually.”

Sandy’s storm surge brought images of a perilous future most of us don’t want to confront. Yet Miami has had similar experiences.

The first time I felt the chilling prospect of a watery future was on June 5, 2009. I was consoling my fiancée over the phone as she was trapped in her car for four hours during flooding of Alton Road and 5th Street on South Beach.

That torrential downpour dumped at least ten inches of rain on the Beach in about five hours. The water overwhelmed the city’s drainage system, which sends rain runoff into Biscayne Bay. (The photograph accompanying this column was shot on April 3, 2013, in South Beach, with flooding the result of spring high tides.)

Conversations about slow drainage and high tides are now commonplace, but we seem to brush past the true alarm and go straight to annoyance. As recently as October 17, Channel 4, the CBS affiliate, dismissed the South Beach phenomenon under the headline: “Blame the Moon for South Florida’s Tidal Flooding.”

The report nods to rising sea levels, but more as a rust hazard for the undersides of automobiles than a portent of struggles ahead. There’s a lot more than the moon to account for in our gradual inundation, and whether we wish to blame the tides or lame sewer lines, we have challenges to confront.

“While mapping our route, we were talking to some old-timers who were born and raised in Miami Beach,” explains Heidi Quante, a national organizer for High Water Line. “They said things are different on Alton Road. There’s more water than ever.”

Miami Beach is just one canary in the coal mine, and while its streets may have been transformed into canals occasionally over the years, today’s frequent floods should prompt talk about topics more pertinent than the lunar cycle.

The same goes for the City of Miami, which published its climate action plan, the MiPlan, in 2008. The plan, which mostly addresses limiting greenhouse gas emissions from city buildings, makes passing reference to sea-level rise.

Robert Ruano, the former director of the city’s Office of Sustainable Initiatives during the drafting of MiPlan, clarified that flooding wasn’t the focus: “The plan was not as much about adaptation as it was about mitigation. Sustainability is for the next iteration.” The update has yet to be developed.

High Water Line/Miami has arrived at the perfect time to address our climate concerns. “Anything that gives notice or highlights the issue is a good thing,” says Debbie Griner of the Miami-Dade Office of Sustainability, whose department helped provide the upcoming project with reference materials and contacts.

Organizers have concentrated the largest portion of High Water Line/Miami in downtown, instead of the Beach. “A key part [of the project] is to show that water will not only be coming from the east, like many assume,” says Quante. “A lot of water will come from the Everglades and the Miami River, which is an equal-opportunity disaster.”

At its heart, the High Water Line/Miami will reflect the neighborly interaction of Mosher’s original experience. The project organizers are eager to dispel the doom and gloom of climate change, and to talk instead about Miami’s “resilient” population.

“There’s tremendous potential to help this young, hungry workforce adapt its city before it is too late,” says Quante. “If you view this as an opportunity, it is far more hopeful and inspiring than sticking our heads in the sand.”

 

Volunteers are welcome to help chalk Miami’s high-water lines. For more information, contact Marta Viciedo at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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