Rising Sea Levels Made This Republican Mayor A Climate Change Believer

May 17, 2016
Originally published on May 25, 2016 5:45 am

A man moves to a city in Florida and decides he wants to be mayor. He wins the election. He's happy. Then he's told his city is slowly going underwater. Not financially. Literally.

James Cason had settled in Coral Gables, a seaside town near Miami, six years ago. He ran for mayor on the Republican ticket and, soon after he won, heard the lecture by scientists about sea level rise and South Florida that left him flabbergasted.

"You know, I'd read some articles here and there," he recalls, "but I didn't realize how impactful it would be on the city that I'm now the leader of."

Previously Cason was a U.S. diplomat in landlocked Paraguay. The topic of sea level rise didn't come up much there, he says.

But when scientists brought the mayor a map plainly showing that much of Coral Gables would be underwater in a few decades, he wondered why local leaders hadn't tackled the issue before.

"Even if there are no solutions now," Cason remembers thinking, "at least we need to know what our risks are — and our vulnerabilities."

In fact, his town's streets were already flooding more often than before, and seawater was seeping up from beneath low-lying buildings and yards. Cason grew deeply worried, and had officials map the whole city's elevation. They've identified vulnerable places — hospitals, schools, key roads.

Cason says for the most part, his constituents aren't interested.

"Some say, 'I don't believe,' " says Cason. "Some say, 'Well, tell me what I can do about it, and I'll get concerned.' Others say, 'I've got other things I'm worried about now, and I'll put that off.' And others say, 'I'll leave it to my grandkids to figure it out.' "

Cason figured he'd better get to know what the city's legal liabilities might be, so he hired an outside attorney — Abigail Corbett.

"You know, whenever things go south," Corbett says matter-of-factly, "people look around and say, 'Who can I sue?' — especially when there's a lot of money at stake."

Corbett is with the Miami law firm of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson. She hadn't given sea level rise much thought either, she says, but does now — including personal aspects, like her own home's vulnerable "elevation."

"I know my house is at 2 feet," she says.

I ask if that worries her.

"Um, yeah," Corbett says, then corrects herself. "It's on my radar. I wouldn't say it worries me. I'm keeping track."

She's also keeping track of the city's potential legal trouble from sea level rise. Coral Gables is pretty safe, legally, Corbett says. It's tough to win damages in a liability suit against a municipal government. But new issues already are bubbling up with the water.

For example, when the sea fills your street, who has a duty to do what?

"If you have a house and you can't get there and the street is flooding," she says, "the big question is, do you have a right to get to your property?"

Another legal briar patch: Should builders or real estate agents tell home buyers about future sea level rise? Corbett says it's especially important for people who advise others — lawyers, engineers and politicians — to think hard about how life will change as the ocean rises.

Every community is going to have its own problems. Coral Gables, for example, has lots of yacht owners — sailing yachts with tall masts. Many are anchored at people's homes, with a city bridge between them and open water. Boats can barely sail under those bridges now.

Mayor Cason, who's a boater himself, says there are 302 such yachts; his people have counted them. At some point, as the water rises, the boats aren't going to fit.

"And these are $5 million homes with nice boats," the mayor says, "that suddenly see their property values go down because they can no longer get a boat out. So that will be one of the first indicators (of sea level rise), and a wake-up call for people, and I want to be able to say, 'We told you about this.' "

Cason's also thinking about what most politicians don't want to think about: residents forced to retreat from parts of the city.

"When they start flooding, whenever that is, when do they stop paying taxes?" he wonders. "When do we no longer have to provide levels of service that they expect?"

Cason says a number of Florida mayors are finally starting to worry. They worry about things like municipal bonds — a major way cities raise money. Will bond-rating companies downgrade those bonds if the cities aren't prepared for sea level rise? Cason figures it's a mayor's job to tackle these issues, even if many of the people who elected him aren't yet worried.

"History is not going to look kindly on us as elected leaders for not taking a leadership position," Cason says, "even if we don't have the community seemingly engaged."

That means, he says, thinking at least as much about sea level rise as about trash collection, or about the number of parking spaces downtown.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A man moves to a city in Florida and decides he wants to be mayor. He wins the election. He's happy. Then he's told his city is slowly going underwater. Not financially - literally. NPR's Christopher Joyce visited that mayor and reports on his dilemma.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Six years ago, James Cason settled in Coral Gables, a seaside town near Miami. He ran for mayor on the Republican ticket. Soon after Cason won, scientists came to him to explain sea level rise. He was flabbergasted.

JAMES CASON: You know, I had read some articles here and there, but I didn't realize how impactful it would be on the city that I'm now the leader of.

JOYCE: Cason had been a U.S. diplomat living in Paraguay. The topic of sea level rise hadn't come up much. Those scientists had brought a map, though. It showed much of the city would be underwater in a few decades.

CASON: When I saw it, I said, wow, this is - of all the issues we're discussing, how come no one is taking this on, even if there's no solutions now? But at least we need to know what our risks are and our vulnerabilities.

JOYCE: In fact, city streets were already flooding more often. Sea water was seeping up underneath the town as well. Cason grew deeply worried. He had officials map the whole city's elevation. They identified vulnerable places - hospitals, schools, key roads. But he says most of his constituents still aren't very interested.

CASON: Some say, oh, I don't believe it. Others say I've got other things that I'm worried about right now, and I'll put that off. And others says I'm going to leave it to my grandkids to figure it out.

JOYCE: Cason wanted to understand the city's liability. He decided to hire an attorney.

ABIGAIL CORBETT: You know, whenever things go south, people look around and say who can I sue, especially when there's a lot of money at stake.

JOYCE: Abby Corbett's with Stearns Weaver, a firm in Miami. She hadn't given sea level rise much thought either. Now she knows her elevation.

CORBETT: I know my house is at two feet (laughter) it's two, yes.

JOYCE: Does that worry you?

CORBETT: Yeah, it's on my radar. I wouldn't say it worries me. I'm keeping track.

JOYCE: Corbett's also keeping track of potential legal trouble from sea level rise. She says the city is pretty safe from that. It's tough to win a liability suit against a municipal government. But new legal issues already are bubbling up. For example, when the sea fills your street, who has a duty to do what?

CORBETT: Where if you have a house and you can't get there and your street is flooding, the big question is do you have a right to get your property?

JOYCE: Another legal briar patch - should builders or realtors tell homebuyers about future sea level rise? Corbett says it's especially important for people who advise others - lawyers, engineers, politicians - to think hard about how life will change as the ocean rises.

Coral Gables, for example, has lots of yacht owners - sailing yachts with tall masts. Many are anchored at people's homes, with a city bridge between them and open water, a bridge those boats can barely sail underneath now. Mayor Cason says there are 302 such yachts. His people have actually counted them. At some point, these boats aren't going to fit under those bridges.

CASON: And these are $5 million homes with nice boats that suddenly are going to see their property values go down because they no longer can get a boat out. So that will be one of the first indicators and a wake-up call for people, and I want to be able to say that we told you about this.

JOYCE: Cason's also thinking about what politicians don't want to think about - retreating from parts of the city.

CASON: And when they start flooding, whenever that is, when do they stop paying taxes? When do we no longer have to provide levels of service that they expect?

JOYCE: Cason says lots of other Florida mayors are starting to worry too about things like municipal bonds, the way cities raise money. Will bond rating companies downgrade those bonds if the cities aren't prepared? Cason says thinking about all this is his duty as the city's mayor.

CASON: History's not going to look kindly on us as elected leaders for not taking a leadership position even if we don't have the community seemingly engaged.

JOYCE: He says that means thinking as much about sea level rise as, say, trash collection or more parking spaces downtown. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.