Part I - The Florida Keys: After Irma

The Rising Tide: Sinking Earth

Global warming is creating havoc throughout the world.
Our oceans are warming and expanding causing an increase in hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, flooding and soil erosion.

This project, The Rising Tide: Sinking Earth, will focus on locations throughout the world that are experiencing the effects of coastal soil erosion due to climate change. It will include the Florida Keys, Chesapeake Bay, the South Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, and more.
In each location I will interview and photograph people that are facing displacement, photographing the beauty of these areas that will disappear and creating installations from the debris that has washed ashore.

This project will culminate with film, a monograph and an exhibition, which will include photographs of these areas, portraits of individuals that have been affected by these events, and multiple installations.


The Florida Keys: After Irma

July 23 - 27, 2018


On September 10, 2017, one of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history struck the Lower Florida Keys. Ten months later people are still displaced, debris still lines the canals and pollution is evasive. I travelled to the Keys to document what is happening there in hopes to illuminate these pervasive issues, their cause and effect. 

Hurricane Irma, a category 4 Hurricane, created 10-foot tide surges and 150-mile per hour winds. This caused major damage to buildings, mobile homes, boats, roads, electric supply, mobile phone coverage, Internet access, sanitation, and to the water and fuel supply throughout the one hundred mile-long chain of islands. Over 27,000 homes were damaged; gasoline was in short supply and the power out for weeks.5.5 million people were required to evacuate.

Hurricane Harvey had just drained FEMA Funds, creating a massive shortage. The Senate was only able to provide the Keys 10% of the funds that were given for Harvey.


As I toured the Keys I couldn’t believe the amount of sustained damage. Mobile homes, boats, cars, and refrigerators are still strewn throughout the canals. The water is incredibly polluted due to the amount of paint, round-up and turpentine still remaining under the water.

Brian Vest, the founder of the voluntary organization Conch Republic Marine Army (CRMA) arranged for me to talk to a few of the locals.

 Kendall Klay

Kendall Klay

Captain Kendall Klay, who has lived in the Keys since he was three, navigated his flat bottom boat off Little Torch Key to reach the shores of some of the abandoned islands.

He was devastated that his favorite island, a bird sanctuary, had been shattered into several smaller islands after Irma.

Footage by Bill Megalos

Along the shoreline of another abandoned island I collected PVC pipe, shoes, plastic bottles, beer cans, metal sheeting, light bulbs and other items that I plan on using to create a sculpture from this debris.

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Kendall and his assistant snorkeled to cut and retrieve two of the many ropes attached to the more than 96,000 sunken lobster traps that remain on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Kendall relayed his experience during and after Irma.

He had put all of his belongings in Texas while living in an apartment in the Keys. When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, he lost these belongings only to find one week later that Irma was hitting the Keys. Leaving the day before the storm, he headed to Mississippi. Upon his return, he found all of his childhood memories had been wiped away and covered in garbage. The storm had blown in the windows and doors of his apartment. His sailboat was under an island and his sport fisher boat still has not been found. He could not access the water because of the debris. He tried cleaning the canals but was forced to stop because the water was ridden with disease, including meningitis.


Kendall now lives in a pop-up trailer. He expects more hurricanes will come to the Keys and believes that the community needs to get together to address this threat, like storing toxic materials on an upper floor so that they don’t wash out to sea.

 
 Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan, running for County Commissioner, lives on Big Pine Key.

He was extremely frustrated with the slow response and lack of funding from FEMA. He showed us the 5-foot flood mark on his raised first floor, despite his home not being on the water.

Most of Tom’s valuables were destroyed or taken out to sea even though they were stored in a secure room. He now lives in a trailer on his property until his house is livable and is in the process of installing sheet rock and waiting for windows to replace the plywood-covered openings.

His roof is still covered with blue tarp. 

Footage by Bill Megalos

 

John Teges, age 75, is a caretaker in the Keys since 1978. He cared for seven homes before Irma. He now cares for three.

John has been working non-stop since last September to restore one of the properties - a home he cares for that is now for sale, thus not required to be brought up to code.

Prior to the storm’s arrival, John’s cat did not retreat. This made him believe that Irma would be like past hurricanes, lasting a maximum of 2 hours, so he remained. Irma, however, lasted 19 hours.

When FEMA stopped paying for the pick-up of debris, John was able to make a living by collecting debris from several homes. He collects 25 cans every day. As he says, “The Universe Provides”.

 John Teges

John Teges

 While walking around his property I noticed a baby stroller, a sink, boxes and other items still tucked into the mangroves.

While walking around his property I noticed a baby stroller, a sink, boxes and other items still tucked into the mangroves.

 The small guesthouse on the property remained untouched. Insulation was ripped from the walls and water-soaked furniture remained.

The small guesthouse on the property remained untouched. Insulation was ripped from the walls and water-soaked furniture remained.

 

On July 25, we went to Boca Chica Beach with Maggie Howes, one of the top volunteers with CRMA, to collect more debris. The mangroves were filled with tires, remnants of boats, high chairs, roofing, shingles, lighting, and the usual plastics and cans. We gathered as much as we could carry, loaded it all into our car and continued on to Geiger Key and Coppit Key to collect more. I had completely underestimated how much debris there would be to collect and ended up filling huge crates.

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 Gina Valeri

Gina Valeri

Brian introduced me to Zoey Hernandez, an ex-manicurist who after Irma became a social service worker. The suicide rate was high and people were in dire need of support. 

Zoey arranged for me to meet Gina Valeri, a single mother, who raised 2 children and lives on the water in Big Pine Key for the past 23 years. She did not evacuate when Hurricane Irma hit. Hotels would not accept her without the necessary papers for her cat, which she did not have.

Gina hid in an upstairs room of her neighbor’s house listening to gale winds blow shingles against the sides of the house. It took her several days to have the courage to return to her home to inspect the damage. A Red Notice was on her front door, which meant that her house was deemed uninhabitable. After changing the “Red” to “Orange”, she could rebuild but only within today’s building codes. This would require extensive renovation and cost.

Upon entering her home, the mud was three feet deep, windows were missing, and furniture as well as the refrigerator and range had all flown out of the windows to be found week’s later 4 blocks away. Everything in the house was destroyed; black mold was everywhere.

They received some money for flood damage but have not received anything from wind insurance and are in a long legal battle against the insurance company.

Gina and her boyfriend are currently living in a trailer on their property until the kids come home. When the kids arrive they stay in the “Bubble Room” created from plastic drop cloths. 

Footage by Bill Megalos

 

My aerial photographs depict the beauty of the area. There are over 1700 islands in the Keys. 43 are connected by bridges.  Flying over over a patch of hot pink water was beautiful until I realized that the color was most likely caused by paint leaking into the water. 

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From the air I could view mobile homes, boats and cars still submerged in the canals.

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Laura has been travelling to the Keys to visit her grandparents since she was three. After deciding to live full-time in the Keys, she rented houses until she could find the perfect one to buy. Five months after finding her perfect home, Irma destroyed it.

One week after Laura evacuated, her neighbor inspected her home and told her to buy a camper because her home was uninhabitable.

When Laura did return, she was shocked to see the damage. Their boat was under the front door, the garage door was blown in and all of her valuables that had been placed in bags on top of the refrigerator were submerged under water.

Black mold covered everything; furniture, sheetrock and insulation had to be removed.

Lines were long in Marathon each day with people trying to retrieve building permits. After 10 months of living in a camper, Laura and her husband finally live in one room of their house. She tells us that her Key’s neighbors are “family now”.

 Laura Talley

Laura Talley

 

It is difficult to contemplate the fact that these tragedies have been caused by extreme weather due to climate change.

There is a direct correlation between global warming and hurricanes. The development of storms like Hurricane Irma is not arbitrary.

As the temperature of the ocean rises, it expands – causing sea rise and coastal flooding. Moisture from the warm Atlantic Ocean evaporates and rises causing enormous amount of heated moist air to twist high in the atmosphere. This low vertical wind shear supercharges the storm leading to more frequent and severe hurricanes. 1

It is predicted that by 2100 the ocean will rise by 2 meters and the temperature will rise by 3 degrees C. At this rate Southern Florida will be under water and millions of people will need to relocate. 2

Through my art I hope to bring attention to the beauty of these areas and emphasize the magnitude of disaster that climate change is causing throughout the world.

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Remnants; New Found Harbor Key

 
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Salt Earth; Cotoe Key

 
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Drifting Borders; Toptree Hammock Key

 
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After Irma; Content Key


CITATIONS


1
PBS.ORG: First Harvey, now Irma. Why are so many hurricanes hitting the U.S.?
Sep 5, 2017
https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/first-harvey-now-irma-many-hurricanes-hitting-u-s


Union of Concerned Scientists, Inc.: Hurricanes and Climate Change
December 1, 2017
https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/impacts/hurricanes-and-climate-change.html#.W31g7IopChA



2

Newsweek: How Long Before All of Florida Is Underwater?
November 3, 2017
https://www.newsweek.com/how-long-all-florida-underwater-700835