MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – South Florida has already experienced record heat so far this year, and it’s only going to get hotter.
There is no denying the Earth is heating up, but how can we protect our lower-income communities as well as the planet?
Residents of all faiths, races, and income recently packed the pews at St. James Catholic Church in northwest Miami-Dade County, but not for a prayer service.
They were all members of PACT: People Acting for Community Together, demanding county leaders move swiftly to protect Miami-Dade’s most vulnerable neighborhoods from the impending killer heat fueled by our ever-warming planet.
“I am a longtime resident of West Little River District here in Miami and the heat index is just ridiculous,” said resident Elizabeth Favier. “It’s a real issue.”
Unfortunately, it’s about to get hotter.
According to data provided by First Street Foundation, scientists predict Miami-Dade will experience heat indices of 103 degrees, 34 days a year by 2033.
“It’s already started to accelerate,” said Miami-Dade County Chief Heat Officer Jane Gilbert. “We’re going to see that accelerating, particularly if we keep emitting more trapping gases into the atmosphere that is going to continue to warm us up.”
It’s South Florida’s historically redlined neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates that are also the hottest of the county.
“They’re urban heat islands because they have lower tree canopy, less pervious surfaces,” said Gilbert.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is on a mission to change that by growing the county’s tree canopy 30 percent by 2030. It’s a top priority in her climate action strategy.
“It’s a very important part of the overall picture of how we move forward to reduce heat, remove carbon dioxide, and build for a more resilient future,” said Levine Cava.
Trees are nature’s first line of defense against climate change. They act as carbon sinks that suck up heat trapping gasses from the atmosphere, help prevent flooding and keep us cooler on those scorching hot days ahead.
PACT has identified 15 cities and neighborhoods with canopies below 20 percent: Opa-locka, Brownsville, Gladeview, West Perrine, Naranja, West Little River, Goulds, Pinewood, Westview, Norland, Miami Gardens, Lake Lucerne, Scott Lake, Bunche Park, and Hialeah.
“It gets really hot. Temperatures are in the 90s most of the time,” said Hialeah resident Dr. Martha Johnson-Rutledge. “It’s because we have a lot of concrete in our front yards as well as a lot of asphalt. We’ve cut down our trees and we’re just not concerned about our ecosystem.”
Compare that with the lush green canopy of Coral Gables.
It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about social justice.
“Lower-income neighborhoods don’t have the tree canopies that the higher income neighborhoods have,” said Pastor Ana Jackson with PACT.
It is also the poorer neighborhoods that really need the trees. They can help lower air conditioning rates, which is so critical for those on a fixed income, like Willie Mae Guyton. She’s seen her bills double in recent years, especially during the summer.
Asked if that can be a real struggle for her, she replied, “Yes, because I’m on Social Security. I’m disabled.”
Expanding Miami-Dade’s tree cover has been an ongoing effort for over 10 years. Monday night, the mayor committed to develop a project budget to finally make it a reality.
“Mayor Levine Cava, will you develop a project budget by May 12, 2023 to reach 30 percent tree canopy across the county by 2030?” asked St. Stephens Episcopal Church Reverend Willie Allen-Faiella with PACT.
“Yes,” replied Levine Cava.
“We’re really thrilled that they’ve organized and mobilized around this tree issue because we’re going to need them,” added Levine Cava. “It’s not just what I say. Budgets have to pass, communities have to accept trees, they have to care for trees. It requires community engagement, 100 percent.”
Miami-Dade has received $1.5 million in funding towards restoring and maintaining trees on county right of ways.
Levine Cava was also able to get the Board of County Commissioners to approve an additional $2.5 million earmarked for new tree planting.
Over the past year, the county’s parks department planted 8,000 new trees.
An additional 2,500 trees were planted in PACT’s priority neighborhoods, DERM planted 6,600 trees in environmentally-endangered lands, and now Miami-Dade Public Schools is on board, which is critical, since the school district is one of the county’s biggest landowners.
“We have to be united. It’s one collective effort that we’re coming together for this very, very important initiative,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres.
For heat-weary residents like Favier, those new trees can’t be planted soon enough.
“I would love to see oxygen levels increase. I would love for the heat index to go down. And I think it would definitely increase a quality of life for everyone,” she said.
Levine Cava also committed to giving six month progress reports on the county’s tree-planting advancements, but as the mayor said, this only works with community involvement.
Budgets must be passed to pay for all this, and the county can only plant trees on public land.
That’s why property owners must step up and plant trees in their backyards, gardens and front lawns in order to achieve that 30 percent tree canopy.
The county’s making things easier through an adopt-a-tree program, giving away free trees to residents who want them. To learn more, click here.
Local 10 News is also committing to helping to plant more trees, launching our Green Street campaign. For more information, click here.