This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on October 20, 2017. Alexandra Cohen, Talia Fox, and Caleb Kurowski contributed to the production of this story.
"I come from two of the most climate vulnerable cities in the world. I’ve lived in Miami for most of my life, but I was actually born in New Orleans. My family moved there from Nicaragua as political refugees. They lived in New Orleans for about 10 years until my dad lost his job. We came to Miami when I was very young. I grew up here, went to public school here, and attended the University of Miami for my undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Hurricane Andrew reportedly destroyed 25,524 homes and damaged another 101,241 (National Hurricane Center).
15 people died as a result of Hurricane Andrew, and one-quarter million people were left temporarily homeless (National Hurricane Center).
Hurricane Andrew damage in the United States is estimated to be near $25 billion (National Hurricane Center).
The first time I thought about climate change was when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. It was scary because it came at night. We were trying to sleep but we couldn’t because we could hear the howling of the wind. It sounded like a freight train. I didn’t know how long it was going to last, when it was going to be over, or what was going to happen. We all huddled in a room–my three sisters, my mom, my dad, my grandmother, and my dog. We had pieces of plywood on the windows to help with flying debris and electrical tape on the windows to protect them from breaking. I remember peeking out the window. My parents had recently bought me a small inflatable pool. The moment I looked out the window, I saw my pool fly away. That image is ingrained in my mind: my pool flying away and rain that’s completely sideways.
The next day, my mom had to go back to work. I drove with her through one of the hardest-hit areas. I remember seeing fields filled with wooden strips that used to be walls from people’s houses. It left an impression on me about how a storm can come in and just level communities. I remember thinking, 'How can a storm be so powerful that it can knock down all these structures?' I wanted to know why it happened.
I started watching the weather and tracking storms during hurricane season. I pursued a degree in meteorology. I thought I wanted to be a hurricane specialist, but when I started interacting with hurricane specialists, I realized that I wanted to communicate more with the public. I wanted to help people understand what’s going on. For my graduate degree, I focused on climate and communication."
"Now I work for Moms Clean Air Force, where I’m the Florida Field Consultant and in charge of Latino outreach. In Miami, we are faced with sea level rise and flooding in our streets because of king tides. We continue to break heat records. It’s really concerning because we have a high population of older adults and a lot of children with asthma.
According to National Geographic, Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has already risen four to eight inches. The annual rate of rise over the past 20 years has been 0.13 inches per year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years (National Geographic).
By 2030, sea level is projected to rise six to ten inches above 1992 mean levels (Sea Level Rise Working Group).
By 2060, sea level is projected to rise 14 to 34 inches above 1992 mean levels (Sea Level Rise Working Group).
By 2100, sea level is projected to rise 31 to 81 inches above 1992 mean levels (Sea Level Rise Working Group).
At the end of last year, I was filmed as part of a documentary series about climate change. The filming crew met me in a county park along the southern portion of my county where I remember going as a child. We would go there once or twice every month, especially in the summer. I used to play in the sand there. It’s a smaller beach compared to the more popular Miami and Virginia Key beaches. It was where locals would go to hang out. I used to sit there in the sand with my beach toys and play in the water. I could walk out pretty far without it being too deep. It was an escape. I still love the beach and miss the water when I’m not near it.
Last year, when I went there, I was knee deep in water for the majority of the day. The water was salt water that had overtaken the parking lot and beach because of high tide. The county park was closed to all residents for that entire week. We were there almost six hours, and when we left, the water still had not retreated to where the roads were passable or businesses could operate. The next day, in another part of Miami, I spoke with a woman who said, 'I can’t go to my dialysis appointment because I have no way of getting there without having to tread in the water.' The water was mixing with dirt, oil, trash, and chemicals that were in the street, so it wasn’t the best water to be wading through.
I was wearing rain boots and my boots had a little metal piece on them. The next day, they were oxidized because of the salt water. That is such a small thing but, when I looked at them, I thought, 'Wow, this is really happening.' It was hard seeing that this place where my six-year-old self would play was now completely changed. I am taken aback by how politicians and leaders can just deny it."
People of color are exposed to more pollution than white people. In 2000, people of color experienced 40% higher pollution exposure, and, in 2010, people of color experienced 37% higher pollution exposure than white people in the United States (University of Washington News).
African American people in the United States are 75% more likely than non-Hispanic white people to live in communities next to industrial facilities (NAACP).
68% of Hispanic people live in areas that do not meet the federal government's air quality standard, compared to 58% of white people (Moms Clean Air Force).
"The environmental movement has been predominantly white for a long time. It’s really important to bring new voices, new faces, and new colors to the movement. It’s the Hispanic populations, the Latino populations, and the African American populations that are already seeing the impact of climate change. They are living closer to oil and gas operations, and closer to toxic chemical facilities. The only way that we’re going to get movement and action is if we address this inequality and hear the stories of those directly impacted.
The culture of Miami is built predominantly by people from Latin America and the Caribbean. Part of that lifestyle is being outdoors. People sit on their porches, or hang out in parks. People are already struggling down here and we’re seeing heat waves limit what people can do. Outdoor activities for kids—softball, football—are being cancelled or moving indoors. Utility costs are rising because people have to run their air conditioner more. That impacts how much food you can buy and what you can provide for your families. It impacts how people can get to job interviews if they have to watch their gas because they’re paying more for a utility. If it’s 90 degrees out for many days, we’re not going to leave the air conditioner off. Last summer, the county had to open cooling centers because homeless people were passing out from heat exhaustion."
Under Governor Rick Scott, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials were ordered not to use the words 'climate change' or 'global warming' in any official documents (Miami Herald).
"We have to remember that politicians work for us, and it’s our job to tell them what we want in our community. That’s how I operate. The reason I’m passionate about this work is because I see things happening. I am a scientist by training, and I know what’s happening. In Florida, we already see the impacts and it’s like, 'C’mon, get on board!' I’m doing my work to make sure that my nieces and nephew can experience some of what I experienced growing up in Miami. I want them to know the Miami that I know.
Sometimes people in the Latino community feel like they’re not from here. They say things like, 'Yeah, we’re living here and it’s where we’re going to be, but we shouldn’t express our concern.' But, this is our community now. This is where we live. We need to raise our voices and urgently tell our stories."
"My goal is to bring additional voices to the climate movement in South Florida. People often think that to get involved, you have to do an extreme action. My advice is: start small. Let your elected officials know how you feel. Let your neighbors know. And also, keep hope alive. It’s important to take action now. It’s important to implement solutions now. Our South Florida community isn’t waiting for what’s happening at the federal level. We already have plans here."
Karina asks you to:
Share her story and amplify the power of her voice.
Watch the video (right), 'Reality: The Power of Now,' about how Karina’s community is grappling with rising sea-level and recurring flooding.
Attend a 'Moms and Mayors' Event (happening between May 7 and May 27, 2018) in your city to connect with your mayor and city council members about local climate action. On May 10th 2018, Karina and others will host Miami’s 'Moms & Mayors event to highlight what they are doing in Miami to address climate change.
Join Moms Clean Air Force today.