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Jayme Gershen

This is a story about an all-American machine, and two women who are leading an unusual effort to prepare our cities for climate change.

The machine is known as a Heavy Hitter. It’s an aluminum box about the size of a bulldog that rides on 10-inch diameter pneumatic wheels. Push the Heavy Hitter forward, and a spring-loaded gizmo inside sifts a dusty line of powdered chalk onto the ground below.

You’ve probably seen one of these bad boys being used for its intended purpose: to draw the lines on a baseball field. But back in 2007, an artist named Eve Mosher found another use for a Heavy Hitter: She used it to transcribe a line from a map onto the streets of New York. The line marked 10 feet above sea level, tracing areas of the city that would be flooded in a serious storm surge — an event made more likely by climate change.

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The project, which Mosher called HighWaterLine, got a smattering of media attention — and she won some proof-of-concept in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy pushed floodwaters right up to the line in some spots. But the most remarkable thing was the buzz it generated on the streets. People came out of their houses to see what she was up to, she told me when I wrote about the project in 2011. “Kids followed me around like the Pied Piper.”

In the Heavy Hitter, Mosher had found a way to do something that environmentalists and scientists have struggled mightily to do: broach the topic of climate change in a way that made it real for people, right where they lived, and that brought it to them in a non-threatening way. “It wouldn’t have worked if I was walking around dressed up as a jellyfish or something,” she told me recently. “There’s something about pushing a baseball field line machine — it’s odd, but it’s not too weird.”

Eve Mosher talks to a couple of curious onlookers during HighWaterLine Miami.

Jayme GershenEve Mosher talks to a couple of curious onlookers during HighWaterLine Miami.

The project caught the attention of Heidi Quante, an activist who was working on climate-related art with the group 350.org. In 2012, Quante contacted Mosher about taking the project to other cities.

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“The current narrative about climate change is that it’s happening very, very far away. The animals that are vulnerable are, like, polar bears,” Quante says. “When you say, ‘This is how it’s going to happen right here on your block,’ it immediately transforms the issue from one that scientists are going to work on to one that I’m gong to work on right here in my neighborhood.”

Together, the two cooked up a plan to use the HighWaterLine concept not just to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change, but also to empower communities to act on their own behalf. Their first testing ground: the most climate-vulnerable city in the world.

And so it was that on a balmy Sunday in November, a crowd of local residents was found pushing a Heavy Hitter around the streets of downtown Miami. The group included climate scientists, architects, artists, marketing specialists, a community gardener, a transit activist, a member of the clergy, and at least a dozen kids, who took turns pushing the chalker and reloading it with blue-tinted chalk supplied via five-gallon buckets placed strategically along the route. Their line circumscribed the parts of the city that will be inundated with six feet of sea-level rise — not an unlikely scenario given the rate at which we’re heating the oceans and melting the ice caps.

“It’s time to stop arguing semantics. The world is changing,” said Rev. Grey Maggiano as he pushed the chalker down the sidewalk. The Episcopal Church recently spent $7 million to renovate Trinity Cathedral, one of the city’s oldest churches, which sits right on Biscayne Bay, he said. “We’re now facing the reality that in the not too distant future, the bay is going to rise up and consume the church.”

Talk turned to Noah, and lessons learned the hard way about caring for God’s creation.

Kenny Broad, director of the Leonard and Jane Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami and an extreme cave diver, talked about the difficulty of convincing people to act on climate change when they have much more pressing issues. “Miami is an effed up place,” said Broad, his arm in a sling following a recent diving accident. “It’s the poorest major city in the country. We have the worst schools in the nation. It’s hard to argue that we should put our money into something 30, 40, 50 years down the road.”

Despite the dreary talk, however, it was a lively outing. The kids had chalk fights. Their parents gossiped and chit-chatted. And the merry procession attracted comments and questions as it went, once again proving the power of that curiously familiar chalking machine with a neighbor or three in tow.

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Jayme Gershen

But the chalking was just the most visible evidence of HighWaterLine Miami, organized by Quante, who moved to town for three months from San Francisco to spearhead the effort. In the weeks prior to the event, Quante brought in a team of organizers who used storytelling to strengthen ties between the scattered activists, scientists, and sundry citizens who had become concerned about climate change — particularly the rising seas that regularly flood the streets of nearby Miami Beach. Students at the University of Miami’s architecture school organized a design competition challenging architects to create houses that can withstand the rising tides. On the day of the event, a local cycling group led a group ride through the city to help raise awareness of sea-level rise.

The goal, Quante said, was to get people talking about an uncomfortable topic — and not just the usual suspects: “We didn’t just want to talk to the environmentalists.”

Apparently, it worked.

Mauricio Giammattei, a prominent marketer in Miami Beach who took a turn pushing the Heavy Hitter, says he practically got a standing ovation a few days later when he walked into the meeting of the board of the local botanical garden, which includes many upstanding members of the community. Later, sitting in a restaurant, he overheard a group of developers discussing sea-level rise.

“For the last six years, I have been trying to push the agenda of looking at flooding and sea-level rise. I used to call the city just as a joke and say, ‘Hey, I’m watching water come out of the [storm]drain on Meridian Ave.,'” Giammattei says. With HighWaterLine, “We went from not talking about it to fully embracing it.”

Of course, talking about climate change and rising seas is one thing, addressing them is quite another. But there, too, HighWaterLine seems to hold some promise. Following the chalking, a number of community members expressed interest in continuing to work on the issue. Marta Viciedo, a local transit activist, is spearheading a new group called Resilient Miami to give people more opportunities to get involved.

Mosher and Quante, meanwhile, are planning to take their concept to other cities, starting with London and Philadelphia, via a partnership they’re calling Creative Catalysts. Where they’ll go from there depends to some extent on whether they can attract foundation money.

“Funders want metrics,” Mosher says. “But how do you measure running into a guy like B.J.” — a man who, when Mosher showed him the map the HighWaterLine chalkers were working from, asked, “What about my liquor? How am I going to get my liquor?”

“We’re reaching way outside the choir here,” Mosher says. “The idea is to get people who are living in these communities thinking about this, and talking with their neighbors about how to respond and be a stronger city.”

Tomorrow the world...

Jayme GershenTomorrow the world …