82 Days Underwater: The Tide Is High, but They’re Holding On
KEY LARGO, Fla. — Before he leaves for work, Rick Darden, an accountant with his own firm, stuffs a long-sleeved shirt, slacks and dress shoes in a backpack. Then he heads out, clad in shorts and waders, for the half-mile trek through the seawater that has flooded the streets of his Florida Keys neighborhood for the past 82 days.
A colleague picks him up at the Winn-Dixie grocery store on the main road, Overseas Highway, and drives him to the office to change. In the afternoons, he puts his boots on again and catches another ride back.
“Humiliating,” said Mr. Darden, 54, describing his routine since the sea invaded the Stillwright Point community in Key Largo, leaving him and his neighbors leery of taking out their cars in the corrosive saltwater that now floods the streets. “It just restricts your ability to move out and around.”
Life during the unusually high “king tides” in South Florida this fall has become a maddening logistical task for people along the Blackwater Sound, a scenic but low-lying stretch of the Upper Keys. For nearly three months, the residents of Stillwright Point’s 215 homes have been forced to carefully plan their outings and find temporary workarounds to deal with the smelly, stagnant water — a result not of rain, but a rising sea — that makes their mangrove-lined streets look more like canals.
Another Key Largo neighborhood, Twin Lakes, is similarly inundated. Scientists say a combination of factors, including disruptive hurricanes, have contributed to this year’s exceptionally high tides.
“King tides” take place predictably each fall, when the alignment of the moon, sun and Earth creates a stronger gravitational pull on the warm oceans. Rising sea levels caused by climate change make the flooding worse.
This year, Hurricane Dorian and other tropical storms in late August and September likely interrupted the Gulf Stream, which moves water away from southern Florida. Instead, the water backed up, said Chris Rothwell, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Key West. Tides from the Carolinas to Florida, and from the Florida Keys to Tampa, have been six to 18 inches higher than expected.
“This is a high anomaly,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “But as time goes on, what we think of as high anomalies will gradually become more normal. There’ll be a time at some point where what used to be our high tide becomes the mean sea level.”
The last time Miami set a record for an average monthly low tide, measured by a tidal gauge in Virginia Key, was in 2009, Mr. McNoldy said, adding that he would not be surprised if that record is never broken. In contrast, Virginia Key set average monthly records for high tide this year in March, July, August, September and October, “and in November, I have full confidence that we’ll break that monthly record too,” he said.
Longtime Florida Keys residents and officials say they have never seen tidal flooding this bad outside of a hurricane — and certainly not when they bought their properties 20 or 30 years ago. The most flooding that Stillwright Point regulars remember was for 22 days in 2015. When this year’s flooding reached biblical proportions — 40 days and 40 nights — the dramatic news made the front page of The Miami Herald.
That was more than a month ago. The water, which neighbors say reached 18 inches in some places, briefly started to recede; then, overnight during the last full moon, it swelled again, surprising residents who had thought the worst was behind them.
“You feel like a trapped rat,” said Jan Darden, 61, who is Mr. Darden’s wife, as she stood outside the couple’s house with water up to the driveway.
She had postponed a trip to the mainland to pick up prescription eyeglasses. Her neighbor, Betina Kiss, 55, who had hoped to finally go for a walk with Duke, her Rottweiler, instead was keeping him safely in the backyard. The fetid water smells like rotten eggs and has brought with it tadpoles, minnows and algae.
Credit…Rose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times
Emilie Stewart, 60, resigned herself to buying yet another quart of Salt-Away, usually used on boats and Jet Skis, to rinse the undercarriage of her Jeep. Seemingly every person on the block has a story about expensive car repairs — new mufflers, brakes, axles, rims — attributed to salt damage. George Smyth, 62, who attributes a skin rash on his arm to exposure to the brackish water, decided that it was worth driving through the muck to keep his doctor’s appointment.
“We’re on the front line of what is happening with sea-level rise,” Mr. Smyth said. “It has now changed how we live life down here. We haven’t come to grips with where we are and where we’re headed. It’s not an isolated problem — it’s happening more and more.”
Stillwright Point was once an enclave of fishing cottages that later drew commercial pilots craving the island life, just an hour from Miami International Airport. Now, the neighborhood has some million-dollar homes. A single road, North Blackwater Lane, leads in and out of the community.
Residents want Monroe County to elevate their roads and install pumps, similar to what Miami Beach did to mitigate its sunny-day flooding. Rhonda Haag, the county’s sustainability director, said she would ask commissioners next month to expedite road-modeling work, but any actual construction would still be far off. Pilot elevation projects for Twin Lakes and a low-lying community in Big Pine Key that have been in the works for years are planned first.
Elevating a third of the county’s 300 miles of roads could cost $1 billion, Ms. Haag said. “We are the most vulnerable county in the state, if not the nation.”
Last week, Bill Marlow and his wife, Debbie, decided to paddle board across a canal to Jim and Marilyn Anderson’s house for drinks — these are the Keys, after all — rather than expose their car to the elements. The Marlows later hosted a weekend party that involved organizing carpools, identifying paths across yards, and setting up a freshwater station for guests to clean off their boots.
“Being a prisoner in Key Largo is not that bad,” Mr. Marlow, 65, said with a laugh.
Then he measured the water outside his house. On Tuesday, Day 77, it was 10½ inches. “The deepest I’ve seen it,” he said. Nearby, a few wading birds enjoyed a swim down the street.
Neighbors bring groceries to older adults and give them rides so they can leave their homes. They worry that sheriff’s deputies will not want to patrol. Garbage and recycling bins put out for pickup sometimes float away. Restaurants stopped delivering weeks ago. The Postal Service (stopped by neither rain, nor snow, nor high tides, it seems) still comes.
“For sale” signs sit outside several houses. Two streets have handwritten “No wake” signs, reminding drivers to go slow to avoid splashing onto other cars, driveways and what used to be gardens. The rapper Pitbull, who neighbors say keeps a house here, has been spotted in a Maserati navigating the floods.
At the end of Sexton Way, the most flooded street, is a large property where former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is said to have once vacationed.
“If you are lucky enough to live by the sea,” reads a painted ceramic tile by the door, “you are lucky enough.”