As a young boy growing up in “colored town” west of the railroad tracks in Dania I lived through the great flood of 1947 that completely reshaped South Florida. Two hurricanes hit us within days of each other and like the Biblical flood, it seemed to rain for a full 40 days and 40 nights. Water swept in from the Atlantic and the Intracoastal, and when my dad packed the family into his truck and drove a short distance we saw fish flopping in the street and whitecaps breaking on US 1.
“When the water get to the top of this stick, I’m taking the boys and going to Alabama,” mom warned my father ominously.
She had staked a pole into a ditch and watched it every day to keep track of the rising waters.
When the rains finally stopped, the sun shone down on an inland sea – five million acres of water stretching from Lake Okeechobee across the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp to Broward and Dade counties. Dania sat right in the middle. Ninety percent of eastern Florida from Orlando to the Keys, stood under water.
The flood marked the end of Dania and much of Broward County as a farming community. That year, Babe Ruth had been our Grand Marshall at Dania’s Annual Tomato Festival, but now the flood drowned the crops of tomatoes, beans, bell pepper, lettuce and other vegetables. And it disturbed the ecological balance, allowing salt water to penetrate the underground aquifers that provide our drinking water.
This natural disaster completed a process begun decades earlier when the Danes (for whom the city is named) built the Dania Cut-Off canal to get produce from their farmlands to the Intracoastal. Within a short time after the flood, once-rich agricultural fields became infused with salt and lost the capacity to support crops. The market was ripe for “development.”
Out of the watery holocaust of the flood the Federal Government declared that such a disaster would never be unleashed on South Florida again, and put the US Army Corps of Engineers in charge of solving the problem. The ‘Restudy’ produced by the Corps led to the creation of the South Florida Water Management District and ultimately to today’s reality, in which over half of the Everglades has been submerged under development and agriculture.
Among the greatest ecological disasters has been the pollution of our unique Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of the Everglades and largest freshwater body of water completely bordered by U.S. land. From a vibrant fresh water lake so clear that the sun penetrated to the lakebed, nurturing plants that fed fresh fish of every size, the Lake today is a polluted shadow of its former self. Make no mistake, most of us could not live here were it not for the pumps operated by the District, but this comes at a terrible cost.
With sea level rise threatening South Florida as a result of climate change, I am reminded of the ’47 flood and its stunning effects. This climatic threat will have a far more devastating impact over an extremely long period of time. Unlike the howling winds and driving rain of a hurricane, sea level rise creeps along almost like a silent killer. It’s like sleeping with the enemy.
Living in a paradise of 300- plus sunny days, with gorgeous beaches and beautiful birds in every direction, it may be difficult to imagine all this changing. But climate scientists say it’s inevitable. Living on our boat in a marina in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale, we are witness to increasing flooding as higher tides pushes water over the docks and up to the top of sea walls across the way. Storm surges resulting from weather events will increase the dangers.
As a region, how are we preparing for these changes? Because it won’t be enough to put a stick in the water!