Looking For A Way To Stay: Key West Faces Rising Seas With Plans For Resiliency

Sep 12, 2016

When it comes to sea level rise, Key West is pretty much as vulnerable as it gets. The island's average elevation is less than five feet above sea level. A tide gauge at Key West Harbor tracks the steady rise of the sea over the last century.

Rising sea levels mean Key West streets flood more frequently.
Credit City of Key West

  But it's the intermittent and increasing cases of nuisance flooding that have the city concerned. That's when the streets become impassable just from heavy rains or high tides — or a combination of both.

WLRN recently sat down with Alison Higgins, Key West's sustainability coordinator, to talk about short and long term prospects for living with sea level rise in the Southernmost city.

These are some excerpts from the interview:

WLRN: Why does Key West need a sustainability coordinator?

Higgins: Since we are at the end of the road, our water resources, our electric resources, all of those things come from the mainland. So the more that we can do to reduce our use of them makes us more resilient in the long run.

We can't put our heads in the sand, because we're on a rock. And we'll search for the way to stay here as long as we can. - Alison Higgins, Key West sustainability coordinator

What is Key West doing right now to handle more frequent flooding from sea level rise?

What's really interesting is we've been doing this for 20, 30 years. Miami Beach just got a lot of accolades for putting in all of their duckbill sewers. But we did that back in the '70s. So all the places that used to be our worst flooded areas are no longer because we've already done something in those spots. So now we're working on our secondaries.

 Some of the projections for sea level rise are pretty scary. Is living on a low-lying speck in the middle of the ocean even a sustainable proposition?

The one thing Key West has always been good at is exploring these new grounds. I think that if we weren't doing it, it's just the next inland area that has to. And even if you said, 'Hey, it's coming. The smartest, cheapest thing to do is everybody pack up now,' it's not going to happen anyway. So we might as well make the transition as slow and painless as possible. We can't put our heads in the sand because we're on a rock. And we'll search for the way to stay here as long as we can.

Alison Higgins is the sustainability coordinator for the city of Key West.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

What should individuals be doing? Do little things like recycling and riding our bikes matter when we're looking at global issues like this?

Absolutely. There's definitely the idea that it's just a drop in the bucket. But that's how the bucket gets filled. There's a strong sense of social norm. So if everybody's doing it, other people that are new or have not done these things before are more likely to join on the bandwagon because that's what we do. This is what island life is.