Keeping Miami Beach above water

Facing the constant drumbeat of fear and pessimism over Miami’s future as it struggles against the oncoming impacts of climate change and sea level rise, Elizabeth Wheaton sees nothing but opportunity.

As the head of the environment and sustainability division of the City of Miami Beach, she’s changing the tide by seeking innovative ideas to ready Miami Beach against the threat of sea level rise, engaging with community members to learn what they need and teach them what they need to know.

“We’re trying to work to change the conversation from ‘We’re all doomed, we’re sinking, we’re not going to be here in 20 years’ to ‘Ok, there’s a lot of people in government who are working on this.’ We don’t have all of the answers, but as a community, we all have a part in helping us get to the next stages,” she said.

Wheaton began cultivating a sense of wonder for the environment as she grew up in South Jersey, playing outside, climbing trees and exploring the water. She even vacationed in South Florida as a child, where she fell in love with our coral reefs.

“Once you appreciate it, you want to protect it,” she said. “Especially with the delicate ecosystems we have here, we’re realizing that if we don’t protect them, my children and my grandchildren will not see them. That’s definitely a motivator to make the world a better place.”

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Miami, studying marine affairs and policy with a concentration in economics and anthropology. Her interests turned to studying how general populations interact with coastal environments and how government policies can protect the environment, a balance act constantly playing out across all of South Florida.

Even though she never planned on staying in the city, 14 years later, she’s watched Miami-Dade change and is glad to be working on one of the biggest issues facing the community.

“Miami has a way of pulling you in and it definitely lured me in,” Wheaton said. “I realized I could be a part of helping shape the city into what I would like it to be. I feel like there’s a lot of hope from being a part of that type of movement.”

For her part, she is excited about projects that are encouraging action from the community, like the South Florida Climate Change Compact, which includes Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, along with its municipal partners looking at climate change on a regional scale. It’s the first in the nation to come together on a regional scale and it highlights Wheaton’s belief that one municipality can’t solve the issue. Surviving climate change requires collaboration.

The Miami Beach resiliency plan is a big focus for her division right now as it works to ready the city against the rising tides by raising public infrastructure, roads and sidewalks in a way that will maintain the city’s unique character.

She’s also excited about the Beach Walk project, which provides a path for pedestrians and bicyclists along the ocean and away from the main street and cars allowing, people to connect with the beach and dune environment.

“Little choices like that, as a community, can start changing the culture. I think that’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

Aside from actively working with the city and environment, a critical component for Wheaton is educating and connecting with community members through workshops. There’s a struggle to communicate all the changes that are happening in a way that doesn’t instill fear, but shows that action needs to be taken. The workshops also help her understand what the community needs.

“We have a lot of challenges,” she said. “It’s not just sea level rise that we’re going to be dealing with, and I think as a community, more so than the rest of Florida, we’re really, addressing it head on and not shying away from it.”

Her hope is that locals remember the community is dependent on its natural systems, creating a genuine connection to the area Miamians call home.

“There’s a new energy that’s being brought into our city,” she said. “I think that we need to just continue to love the city and I think giving back into it it’s going to grow and become a city like no other.”

Want to learn how you can help? Wheaton’s hosting a climate change kick-off meeting on Friday, June 12, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Miami Beach Botanical Gardens.