Hemingway Would Not Be Pleased: The Sinking of Key West

And it is not under rum. The entire Floridian peninsula is a very flat territory, hardly a hill in sight. Flat as a pancake and quickly filled with water. A bit of rain and the entire state is a marsh. The fact that only the coasts of Florida are inhabited proves that the rest of it is more or less wetland. The center where Orlando sits had to be drained before rising for Disney.

The Everglades are swamps of immense size and are called the River of Grass, where the water is only a few inches deep. When hurricanes and other storms strike South Florida, the water has nowhere to run and stays stagnant in parking lots and yards. Alligators strive everywhere, as they are flat as well and fit perfectly in an environment with little depth.

There are no basements in Florida; good thing tornadoes are pretty rare. Key West, at the very end of the chain of tiny islands forming the Florida Keys, is in a very dire situation. The rock is sinking. It's not a very new problem, but the urgency of the dooming is becoming more life-threatening, and needs fixing.

When I first visited Key West, 25 years ago, I discovered a rosary of about 60 small coral inlets linked together by one unique road, a causeway really, a continuous two-lane narrow ribbon all the way down to the south end of the North American continent. The feel of setting yourself free at the end of a line is exhilarating, and from this day on, I had what is called the "keys disease," an astonishing attachment and a love of the islands sneaking up on you when you only thought you were driving down for the weekend. I could not stop returning.

I discovered the famous Hemingway cats at the Hemingway house, all of them with six toes on each paw, a mutation that made them one of the curiosities of the island. To this day, Key West has roaming cats everywhere with the extra toes. The house where Hemingway lived -- the first with a swimming pool in the garden -- has a miniature replica of the big pale yellow house, built especially for the cats to protect them from the visiting public and to lock the newborn kittens in a pretty cage, as a way to prevent tourists from stealing them and boasting owning a Hemingway cat.

At four-by-one-mile surface, Key West is the most famous of all the Florida Keys. Yet so flat, so low, predictions have been made that Key West could one day disappear from the horizon line, to be covered by a mix of Atlantic Ocean waters and Gulf of Mexico rise. The problem now is rain water. This is not a dry tropical island, it's wet, wet, wet, and the humidity brings dreaded mosquitoes. Even outside hurricane season, water sipping everywhere is a legendary problem here.

The island is now taking measures to hopefully solve their water problem. New city ordinances include rising all new buildings by at least a foot and a half higher than the old standard, enforcing green building codes, and mandate every new construction to include large freshwater cisterns, to use the collected water to irrigate parks and private gardens, fill up swimming pools, and any facilities using water. The reservoirs can reduce flooding by holding water and preventing it from flooding the streets.

Right now, a 155-mile long pipeline is bringing fresh water to the key; it would certainly make more sense to use what falls from the heavens, to water a heavenly place. In worst case scenarios, Key West could be separated from the rest of Florida, as only the thin US-1 road is bridging the gaps between islands, and what if that was cut by various possibilities of doom? I don't know that the stores have enough bottled water to allow residents to survive very long.

During high tides and full moons, Key West already has a drainage problem, and seawater sometimes clogs the city drains. Each and every month sees rainfall, from two to seven inches of water. There is no feasible way to raise the island to higher grounds entirely, but new pumps are getting installed at a cost of $4 million. None of this will ever stop people from living near the water, and with a yearly average temperature of 77 degrees, Key West will remain paradise in a seashell. I know I will return.