Long famed for its spectacular fishing, sprawling coral reefs and literary residents such as Ernest Hemingway, the Florida Keys is now acknowledging a previously unthinkable reality: it faces being overwhelmed by the rising seas and not every home can be saved.
Following a grueling seven-hour public meeting on Monday, held in the appropriately named city of Marathon, officials agreed to push ahead with a plan to elevate streets throughout the Keys to keep them from perpetual flooding, while admitting they do not have the money to do so.
The string of coral cay islands that unspool from the southern tip of Florida finds itself on the frontline of the climate crisis, forcing unenviable choices upon a place that styles itself as sunshine-drenched idyll. The lives of Keys residents – a mixture of wealthy, older white people, the one in four who are Hispanic or Latino, and those struggling in poverty – face being upended.
If the funding isn’t found, the Keys will become one of the first places in the US – and certainly not the last – to inform residents that certain areas will have to be surrendered to the oncoming tides.
“The water is coming and we can’t stop it,” said Michelle Coldiron, mayor of Monroe county, which encompasses the Keys. “Some homes will have to be elevated, some will have to be bought out. It’s very difficult to have these conversations with homeowners, because this is where they live. It can get very emotional.”
Once people are unable to secure mortgages and insurance for soaked homes, the Keys will cease to be a livable place long before it’s fully underwater, according to Harold Wanless, a geographer at the University of Miami. “People don’t have a concept of what sea level rise will do to them. They just can’t conceive it,” he said.
On Monday, the county gave details of its plan to spend $1.8bn over the next 25 years to raise 150 miles of roads in the Keys, deploying a mixture of new drains, pump stations and vegetation to prevent the streets becoming inundated with seawater. The heightened roadways are eagerly anticipated by residentswho told the meeting of cars being ruined by the salt water and of donning boots to wade to front doors.