Environment

Florida’s climate czar pays a visit to Miami-Dade. Does it signal new state support?

From left: Thomas Frazier, chief science officer at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Julia Nesheiwat, chief resilience officer, Executive Office of the Governor, and Noah Valenstein, secretary, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, attend the Resilient Florida: Planning, Policy and Practice workshop on Thursday, August 8, 2019, at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
From left: Thomas Frazier, chief science officer at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Julia Nesheiwat, chief resilience officer, Executive Office of the Governor, and Noah Valenstein, secretary, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, attend the Resilient Florida: Planning, Policy and Practice workshop on Thursday, August 8, 2019, at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Tampa Bay Times

Florida’s first-ever climate change czar visited Miami-Dade on Tuesday, and local leaders hope the newly created role signals a new era of help from Tallahassee in the difficult — and expensive — battle to adapt to rising seas.

“We’ve been kind of flying by ourselves here for a while,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “All of our efforts are really borne by the people of Miami-Dade.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Julia Nesheiwat, a former hostage negotiator with the state department, to be the state’s first chief resilience officer two months ago. Her job is to help the most vulnerable state in the nation prepare for sea level rise. South Florida alone expects two feet of sea rise by 2060.

Since then, she’s begun a “listening tour” of the state’s 67 counties and other entities that deal with keeping the rising sea at bay. Tuesday, she met with leaders in Miami-Dade County, Miami and Miami Beach, as well as philanthropic and business organizations. The governor’s office declined multiple opportunities in recent months to make Nesheiwat available for an interview with the Miami Herald. When a Herald reporter attempted to speak with Nesheiwat outside one of her meetings on Tuesday, a staffer said Nesheiwat was not doing interviews.

It’s unclear exactly what Nesheiwat’s role in the administration will be, if she will be able to funnel much-needed funding to local governments adapting to climate change or advocate for their needs at the state level.

“I think it’s evolving and she feels she has the support of the governor,” said Miami-Dade Chief Resilience Officer James Murley.

While DeSantis has mostly kept quiet publicly on the topic of climate change, Nesheiwat has not shied away from acknowledging the impact of humanity’s impact on the rapidly warming world.

“It’s here. It’s real,” she told the Tampa Bay Times last month.

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In her meetings with Murley and the other chief resilience officers in the county, Nesheiwat mentioned she’s working on a statewide resilience plan that incorporates best practices from all over the state.

She was also complimentary of the South Florida Climate Compact, a decade-long agreement between Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach Counties to share resources and research on climate change adaptation.

The top issue Miami-Dade resilience leaders discussed with Nesheiwat on Tuesday? Money.

“Obviously funding did come up throughout the course of the day and the need to share the burden not just at the local level but at the state level and maybe even at the federal level,” said Miami Beach’s Chief Resilience Officer Susanne Torriente.

So far, the cost of adapting to climate change in Florida has overwhelmingly fallen on local governments, despite additional money from DeSantis for grants in coastal communities. Miami Beach raised stormwater fees and plans to spend more than half a billion keeping the streets dry. Miami voters agreed to tax themselves and spend nearly $200 million to fight sea rise in the bayfront city.

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“Our investments are gonna be much higher than what’s approved in the Miami Forever bond so we are looking for state support on that,” said Miami Chief Resilience Officer Jane Gilbert.

Gilbert also talked to Nesheiwat about state support for private sector solutions to financing climate adaptation, like loans to help homeowners afford to upgrade their sea walls or switch from septic tank to sewer.

Outside of the need for climate adaptation cash, the resilience officers talked to Nesheiwat about the need to update the state building codes to prepare for sea rise in the same way South Florida set the bar for windstorm codes after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

A better building code could help the state avoid the looming issue of the National Flood Insurance Policy’s plan to update the way it assesses vulnerability, a change that could drastically increase flood insurance prices in South Florida.

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“We’ve already had some insurance companies tell us because of sea rise it’s going to be tough to insure here,” said Mayor Gimenez. “We don’t want that to happen.”

Overall, the resilience officer said, Tuesday’s visit made them feel they have an ally in the governor’s office — one that could come in handy during the upcoming legislative session.

“I think all of us have ended the day with the knowledge that we now have a real live person we can call all the way in Tallahassee and share resources and contacts outside our borders,” said Torriente.

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Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.
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