Miami's affluent 'climate refugees' seek higher ground

Climate change is prompting Miami's rich to abandon the oceanfront and head for higher ground. That's bad news for the people of Little Haiti, a ridge-top immigrant community suddenly sitting on hot property.

Climate refugees aren't usually spotted driving a Bentley through a low-income neighborhood, searching for a new place to call home. But in Miami, one of the most energetic real estate markets in the United States, property prices on the oceanfront are no longer the city's main draw. Instead, the area attracting the most attention is on the ridge where the city's original settlers built the railroad — the most elevated land in Miami.

Nature and Environment | 03.10.2018

A recent Harvard University study tracked the property values of more than 100,000 single-family homes across Miami going back to the early 1970s. It showed that values of homes along Miami's coastline have been dropping, while those at higher elevations are increasing.

Flooding is becoming more and more frequent in Miami, with so-called king tides — a nonscientific term used to describe unusually high tides — affecting some of the city's most desirable locations. Sea levels are predicted to rise by 13-34 inches (33-86 centimeters) over the next 40 years.

Read more: Climate Risk Index: 2017 broke records for extreme weather

Nature and Environment | 14.12.2018

Heading for higher ground

Some wealthy residents have reacted by looking to higher ground, in a trend that's being called "climate gentrification." And it's putting growing pressure on residents in neighborhoods like Little Haiti, where property developers are offering buyouts and landlords are raising rents.

"The neighborhoods that currently are being gentrified are in higher areas, occupied predominately by people of color," said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of the CLEO Institute, a non-profit dedicated to climate change education and advocacy for vulnerable communities.

Community under pressure: Yoca Arditi, Louis Ramond and Marlene Bastien (left to right)

"They are basically using a predatory approach, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the community," she said. "These communities are not only very economically vulnerable; they also have immigration vulnerability [and] societal problems."

Read more: Climate change burden unfairly borne by world's poorest countries

A cultural hub with history

Haitian artist Louis Ramond is a prominent and long-standing member of the community in Little Haiti. But he fears he may not be there much longer.

"The building where I live, [which] I will have to leave soon, is mostly old people with disabilities. One is 81 years old with a pacemaker," Ramond says in Creole. "I am being forced to leave where I have lived for 35 years."

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The railroad came to Miami in the late 1800s, built predominately by African-American and Caribbean workers who then settled along the tracks. Nearly a century later, large-scale Haitian immigration to the US began in the 1970s with asylum-seekers arriving in small boats, seeking refuge from the country's brutal dictatorship.

Read more: Haitian 'climate refugees' hit dead end at US border

Today, the Haitian-American population has grown to more than 300,000 in South Florida, the largest in the US, with Little Haiti serving as its social center. Located north of downtown Miami, the area's elevation is nearly double the Miami average, with some parts as much as 11 feet (3.35 meters) above sea level.

The Little Haiti neighborhood is known for its street art

'Psychological warfare'

In recent years, developers have targeted Little Haiti for renewal. The proposed Magic City Innovation District — a 17-acre (6.8-hectare) "walkable campus" with 2,500 residential units, 432 hotel rooms, more than 300,000 square feet (27,870 square meters) of retail space and nearly 2 million square feet of offices — would change the area forever.

The plan calls for 17 new buildings, some up to 27 stories tall. If built, they would tower over the neighborhood, which consists mostly of low-level businesses and homes, some with Haitian-inspired colorful designs.

Marleine Bastien, director of the Family Action Network Movement, says developers are putting intense pressure on locals to move away. "Homeowners are facing the biggest psychological wars that I've ever seen," she told DW. "Every day they knock on their doors, telling them to sell and harassing them."

Fighting back

The developers offered residents a benefit package that received huge pushback from community leaders. Miami commissioners decided to defer a vote on the project until February in order to give the two sides more time to come to an agreement on the package.

"We know that things will change, but if you want to come to people's neighborhoods, you need to sit down with the residents of Little Haiti first," Bastien says. "Voices in the neighborhood are important and they should be included."

Jan Mapou's bookstore is a hub of the community, and he has no plans to sell

Libreri Mapou is a renowned bookstore that has been a cultural gathering spot in Little Haiti for decades. Its owner, 76-year-old Jan Mapou, sought political asylum in the US in 1969. Now he's among the area's property owners who have been pressured to sell.

"It is a panic," Mapou told DW. "Can we fight? Can we win? We will try." He says Haitian-Creole speaking realtors come and try to strike a deal with him several times each week.

"They won't be able to buy me out," he insists. "I want to be included in everything they are doing here to keep the culture, to keep our history in Little Haiti alive. This place will stay as long as I can put food on my table."

What happens when ocean temperatures rise?

Atlantis 2.0

As global warming speeds up, so does the rise in sea levels. While 2004 to 2010 saw oceans rise by about 15 millimeters in total, this value doubled for 2010 to 2016. Tropical regions in the western Pacific are especially affected, threatening many of the coastal areas and low-lying islands with submersion by the end of the century.

What happens when ocean temperatures rise?

Breaking the ice

As ocean and atmospheric temperatures increase, glaciers and ice caps shrink in size. In 2016, the global sea ice extent was 4 million square kilometers (1.54 million square miles) below average. Consequently, more meltwater flows into rivers and oceans, which also causes sea levels to rise.

What happens when ocean temperatures rise?

Losing Nemo

Some ocean regions have already warmed by more than 3 degrees Celsius, upsetting marine ecosystems. Seventy-two percent of demersal fish species in the northeast Atlantic Ocean have so far been affected, with warming limiting their abundance and spread. Species that live in tropical ocean waters, like the clownfish, are also experiencing habitat-related population decreases.

What happens when ocean temperatures rise?

Coral bleaching

Warming and acidifying waters affect Nemo's navigation senses, and also threaten his home - coral reefs, one of the most sensitive marine ecosystems. A water temperature increase of as much as 3 degrees Celsius can cause the death of corals and the marine animal species that live in them. Northern parts of Great Barrier Reef have seen coral mortality rates of 50 percent.

What happens when ocean temperatures rise?

Stormy weather

With increased ocean heat, extremely strong tropical storms are set to occur much more frequently. One of these massive storms was Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti in October 2016. The Haitian government put the official death toll at 546, and the hurricane also caused $15 billion (13.8 billion euros) in economic losses on the island nation and in the US, Cuba and the Bahamas.

What happens when ocean temperatures rise?

Heads or tails

There is a strong correlation between atmospheric wind patterns and ocean temperatures, meaning warming waters may also cause the jet stream to get stronger. This could affect airplane travel due to intensified head- and tailwinds. On the upside, this means that some flights may be much faster. On the downside, other flights may take longer and could experience more turbulence.