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‘Preach now or mourn in the future’: How Key West faith leaders are confronting climate change

‘Preach now or mourn in the future’: How Key West faith leaders are confronting climate change

Downtown Key West, Florida

This Story was producedThrough a collaboration with Southerly Climate Central and Newsy. It is republished under a Creative Commons License.

In the heart of Key West’s downtown, a towering chapel made of ivory surrounds greenery. Founded in 1832, St. Paul’s Episcopal Key West is not only the oldest Christian congregation in the area, but one of the oldest congregations of any religious tradition south of St. Augustine. 

The church is now on its fourth building after the destruction of three others by fires and a hurricane. After nearly two hundred years of its congregation working to keep it standing, Reverend Donna Mote, the newest rector at St. Paul’s, is now worried about a more subtle risk: rising seas. 

“It would be a shame to preserve all these buildings, and then have people scuba diving in them in 100 years,” Mote said.

St. Paul’s is located on one of the highest points of Key West; one of the 1,700 islands that make up the Florida Keys, where 90 percent of the land mass sits only five feet above the Atlantic Ocean. While scuba divers won’t be visiting the church in the coming century, with seas rising and storms intensifying, the eight-square-mile island city is facing more frequent and chronic flooding. 

Local officials and other organizations are working to prevent the seawater from rising higher, which threatens to plunge the area underwater by 2025. But billion-dollar resilience projects in the pipeline — intended to raise roadways and flood-proof infrastructure to combat flood risk — will depend on community buy-in. 

Just five months into her role at St. Paul’s, Mote intends to roll out a renewable energy audit of the church site to see how they can use cleaner energy. She also tries to set a sustainable example for her parishioners: She’s on a plant-based diet and encourages them to bike instead of drive, when possible.

While St. Paul Episcopal Key West sits on land high enough to protect it from all but the worst storm surges, a Climate Central analysis found that by 2080, rising seas will introduce a 1 percent annual chance of coastal flooding to the church’s property. That creates a one-in-four chance of a flood impacting the site every 30 years — a hazard so severe only 3 percent of the U.S. population currently lives in areas subject to this kind of risk. 

Mote is part of one of many faith-based communities in Florida that are turning their attention towards climate action. They make religious arguments for clean energy, environmental preservation, and emission reductions. At St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, parish members lead beach clean-ups. The First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee donates to the city’s Sustainability carbon fund as they seek to reduce their carbon footprint to net zero. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized the First Baptist Church of Orlando as a leader in reducing pollution. Energy efficiency

Experts and leaders of faith believe that provincial churches have a significant role to play in facilitating this support and helping people to take part in local environmental and social justice issues. “We can either preach now to help people realize this,” said Ryan Gladwin, Palm Beach Atlantic University associate professor of ministry and theology. “Or we’re just going to have to be mourning with them, in the future, what we’ve lost.” 

Key West is home for more than 24,000 residents and draws millions of tourists every year. Cobblestone walkways line tourist-saturated stores, next to a sprawling, weathered, dock overlooking the sea. It’s picturesque until it starts to pour. Many locals are quick to name two converging streets downtown — Front and Greene — as frequent flood zones. The archipelago’s longest island is located in the lowest part of the archipelago. Heavy rainfall and high tides cause streets to flood, damage homes, and submerge vehicles. Monroe County anticipates another 17 inches in sea-level rise. 2040

“The flooding has definitely been more than I’ve ever seen,” said Stephanie Piraino, manager at the Key West Key Lime Company, just a two-minute walk from the waterfront. Piraino said heavy rains can be brutal on the older properties and high tides often mean she’s taking her shoes off before wading through ankle-deep water in the parking lot. 

Hurricane Irma swept through In 2017, the force of the Category 4 storm surge strong enough to flip the store’s giant hundred-pound freezers upside-down. “We had everything covered. We put tarps in front of everything, did the sandbags with wood next to the door, but there’s really no way around it,” she said. The seawater got up to a foot in. 

Piraino recalls how local churches donated donations to those in dire need after Irma struck. “Bug spray and charcoal saved the week for me and my kids,” she said. 

Downtown Key West, Florida
Downtown Key West mauinow1 / Getty Images PLus

She lived in a trailer in Stock Island, where chronic flooding was a daily part of her life. “Every time there was a high tide, the water would flood so much that it would come all the way to my front porch,” she said. She’d often struggle with electrical outages because of seawater submerging parts of her mobile home. 

An average home market value of just over $200,000 $700,000Key West is one the most expensive places to live in Florida. Workers need to make a living. $33 an hour to afford rental rates, according to the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse. However, there are more than 11.6 percent of the population falls below the national poverty threshold, the city only has 390 properties set aside as affordable housing stock for those that can’t manage steep rental costs. Highest proportions of extremely poor people are Black, Indigenous, and Latinx. Renters. More than 43 percent of Key West’s population is poor, including 37 percent of Black and Hispanic residents.

It’s those residents who feel the consequences of climate change more intensely. Programs for government assistance after disasters are structured in a way that is most effective. Disadvantage them. “The least expensive, or the most affordable housing, also tends to be the most unsafe,” said Tom Callahan, executive director of Monroe County’s Star of the Sea SOS Foundation, run by the local Catholic church, which distributes 2 million pounds of food every year to nearly 10,000 residents in the Keys.

For those affected by a hurricane or flood, non-profits as well as places of worship can be a vital resource. People seeking help often find comfort in churches. They offer everything they need. Food to housing repairs to counseling

Many also serve as staging areas during a storm, or placesTo stay for emergency response volunteers. A 2020 FEMA assessment of faith-based responsesTo disasters found that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit Louisiana, “local churches and community organizations often served disenfranchised groups missed by formal response efforts.” 

The Star of the Sea Foundation lost its roof during Hurricane Irma; it took six months to rebuild. Restoration funding came partially from the Archdiocese of Miami, which is made up of 118 Catholic parishes and missions spread across South Florida. Archbishop Thomas Wenski oversees all of those coastal congregations, where he says people are reminded of climate change every time there’s a hurricane or high tides. 

But as oceans rise, so do social divides. Climate gentrification is threatening affordable housing in Miami and across the region, as developers pour investment into premium elevation areas, pricing out existing residents. 

Callahan stated that Key West is facing similar problems, including rising rents and increasing floods. Many people have moved north to find work and affordable housing. Four percent of the Keys population left following the 2017 hurricane because of a lack of affordable housing options. Three years later, islands were devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Sealed off for months. Many businesses have since been successful. ReboundedThe most recent, however, record-breaking surge of the COVID-19 delta variant in Florida has exacerbated the problems.

Monroe County enacted a $1.8billion plan in June Fund 150 miles of roads over the next 25 years. However, this elevation solution will not apply to Monroe County roads that aren’t incorporated or areas that aren’t governed by the city.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a storm-risk management study for Keys earlier this year. It suggested that almost $3 billion be invested in floodproofing infrastructure. Nearly 4,700 homes were raisedThe city is responsible for approximately $1.2 billion in annual costs due to the 43 percent of these buildings being located in Key West. The federal government will pay 65 percent if it is approved by Congress. Rhonda Haag (Monroe County Chief Resilience officer) said that the proposal was being submitted soon.

Silhouettes of boats and yachts at colorful sunset twilight blue hour with landscape view on blue cloudy sky with clouds by Mallory Square of Key West, Florida
Silhouettes showing boats and yachts at Mallory Square, Key West, Florida. krblokhin / iStockphoto via Getty Images Plus

“We have a list of infrastructure projects and we’re ready to move forward, but the biggest problem is the funding,” Haag said. It is likely that taxes will rise. “We’re going to need the residents and businesses to work with us.” 

A small island could be influenced by houses of worship. “Stories move people, right? And we know that pastors are very, very effective public speakers,” said Erum Sattar, a lecturer at Tufts University and a former Harvard Law Visiting Fellow of The Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World. “They can get to your heart and they can motivate action.”

Alison Higgins, city of Key West sustainability coordinator, has lived in Key West more than 20 years and can only recall one local church who has been vocal about climate changes. 

That doesn’t mean it isn’t on their minds, though. “There’s no concern about flooding at this site, not at 11 feet above sea level,” said Reverend John Baker about the Basilica St. Mary Star of the Sea, one of the largest and oldest places of worship in Key West. “But if there’s a storm surge, it doesn’t matter if you’re 11, or 20, feet above sea level, you don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

Climate Central analysis has shown that half of the Basilica site will be at risk from flooding by 2070. The entire area will be subject to at least 1% annual flooding risk by 2080. By century’s end, the likelihood of flooding for the more than 200-year-old church property will increase 10-fold.

Baker’s led the only Catholic church on the island for 14 years. He’s less worried about flood risk at the church, and more about the consequences of climate change for the region. Although he’s quick to cite Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, a landmark document Credit with driving faith-based environmental action, Baker doesn’t believe it’s his role to engage his congregation on the need for climate action. 

“I talk about Jesus Christ. And that’s why people come here. To discuss something that’s a controversial issue, you’re not bringing people together,” Baker said. “It’s best to not touch it because of that divisiveness,” he added. 

A new study published in Environmental Research Letters found that over the last five years, a majority of U.S. Catholic bishops have been “nearly silent and sometimes even misleading,” in their official messaging to parishioners about climate change and the pope’s encyclical.

But a member of the Basilica St. Mary Star of the Sea’s congregation, Callahan, from the food bank, doesn’t think local government is doing enough to prepare for climate change, especially for the groups that need it most. 

“Climate change is the 800-pound gorilla that the county is trying to ignore,” Callahan said. “But they have finally, most recently, at least, started looking at it.”

The city’s preparing an adaptation plan for vulnerable infrastructure, like the low-lying roads and historic buildings already enduring flooding, which they expect to be ready by 2023. They’re also collaborating with the U.S. Navy to map flood patterns by tracking high tide as it moves through the island. 

“I think it’s kind of a good thing that we have been getting our feet wet once in a while,” said city sustainability coordinator Higgins. “You’re learning to live with that water because that’s what you’re going to have to do if this community is going to survive.”

Higgins hopes that more religious sanctuaries will be involved in their adaptation and mitigation plans. “They’re an incredibly trusted messenger,” she said. She sees these collaborations as an opportunity for local places to worship to help amplify support for such initiatives. This includes everything from encouraging their congregations to participate in ongoing projects to planning events to promote them. 

“They can call me anytime to come and talk to them about how we can work together.” 

In the meantime, some faith leaders like Mote, from St. Paul’s Episcopal, are taking the moral call to environmental action more urgently. Mote is a disaster chaplaincy specialist, providing spiritual guidance to people affected by a crisis like a hurricane. He also trained other clergy members in how to be first responders. 

“We are called to be on the ground in the wake of a disaster,” Mote said. “What about our role in addressing the factors that are leading to the increase of these disasters?”

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