'Body Bags' Haunt My Vision at Everglades Conference

For decades my husband Frank has periodically mentioned the "cultural lag" theory that he first heard in college in the 1960s. It refers to what happens when things change so fast that our culture cannot keep up. I experienced what that meant when I attended the 31st Annual Conference of the Everglades Coalition at the elegant Biltmore Hotel in Miami January 8. The potential consequences are frightening.

Comprising more than 50 leading environmental organizations and federal agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers, state and local agencies, government leaders, ecological and environmental scientists and planners, the Coalition includes some of the most influential people in the country focused on restoring the Everglades since 1985.

After a hiatus of several years during which we've learned the imminent threat that sea level rise poses to the South Florida peninsula, I returned to the conference to find that the Coalition is still focused almost exclusively on protecting the lands and processes of the western undeveloped Everglades. Plug "South Florida, sea level rise" into any search engine and you will find varying versions of:

"Florida is in the crosshairs of climate change. Rising seas, a population crowded along the coast, porous bedrock, and the relatively common occurrence of tropical storms put more real estate and people at risk from storm surges aggravated by sea level rise in Florida, than any other state by far. Some 2.4 million people and 1.3 million homes, nearly half the risk nationwide, sit within 4 feet of the local high tide line. Sea level rise is more than doubling the risk of a storm surge at this level in South Florida by 2030."

So it was a shock to walk into the Biltmore where in 1999 the Coalition gave us the George Barley Award, and find many of the same people of the same demographic makeup (99% white in one of the most racially diverse areas of the country) having the same conversation about buying land and restoring water flow in the 'Glades.

Practically all-white attendees at the Conference are a shocking contrast to the demographic makeup of our country and the Everglades Ecosystem South Florida region.

In this case, "cultural lag" might refer to our inability to respond to the new environmental reality - that we can protect nothing in South Florida without dealing with sea level rise and its well documented consequences in the near-term of 15 years.

Frank and I have a long history with the Coalition, dating back around 1996. Our small company strove to integrate the interests and concerns of people in the urban core who are minorities or socially and economically disadvantaged. We sought funding to help educate urban communities about the restoration and its urban arm, Eastward Ho!, the plan to redevelop the urban core to accommodate more than two million more people in 15 years.

We tried to get the Coalition to support the Environmental Justice Act of 2000 which requires federal agencies to prioritize the fair treatment of these communities, and asked members to press for the safe remediation of Superfund sites in Black communities including Wingate in Fort Lauderdale. At our urging US Rep. Carrie Meek included a section in the 2000 Federal Water Resources Development Act, "Community Outreach and Assistance" requiring outreach and education of the urban population and involvement of the minority business community in the billions of dollars flowing from the restoration.
This process of working to integrate the issues of urban and poor communities in the restoration was so involved that we recorded it in our book, Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care, published 2009. Repeatedly we found that the leaders were unable to give equal weight to the human aspects of the restoration. It seems evident now that this tendency will continue, at great detriment to the local population, the national parks and everything in this ecosystem.

It was a shock to find this year's conference jubilantly celebrating the new infusion of federal dollars for restoration projects in the natural Everglades, while seeming to completely overlook the threat from water that surrounds us on three sides. The state and local political leadership appear wholly unprepared to deal with this predicament - one mayor calls for depopulation; another places his hopes on technology, and the governor has forbidden mention of climate change. So I had high hopes that the environmental leadership would be out front on this issue.

The cost of failure to deal with looming environmental problems was illustrated in the most ghastly way for me in 2005. At an environmental meeting in Atlanta, the keynote speaker told the audience he'd just returned from New Orleans. He said he took a helicopter ride over the levees with city and federal officials and they discussed how the dikes would not stand up to a Category 5 storm.

"So, they've bought 1,000 body bags and have them in storage. . ." he said.

Two weeks later Katrina hit. (According to a CNN report dated Sept. 9, 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered 25,000 more body bags to accommodate the demand.)

Listening to speakers at the Coalition conference, I couldn't help thinking how few people know what's coming and how little time we have to prepare. On the panel, Ecology and Economy: National Park Restoration for Local Communities, I suggested that the Coalition take the lead in making the case for our economy to be retooled to focus on protecting us from the coming floods. 15 years is very little time to determine what kind of flood control measures will work and to develop and build the required structures, I pointed out.

I don't know if I made a difference, or if former astronaut and longtime Florida US Senator Bill Nelson, who spoke passionately on the same subject at lunchtime, changed any minds. But God forbid that 2030 is the year that our "cultural lag" manifests with the purchase of thousands of body bags for South Florida. It's urgent to act now to present such a catastrophe.

While we're at it, you should probably check what the projections are for your neck of the woods. It's as simple as plugging your zip code in.