Florida’s climate change efforts ‘disjointed,’ former state resilience officer found

Julia Nesheiwat resigned for a homeland security job with President Donald Trump, leaving an uncertain future for her suggestions.
Redington Beach is one town scientists say could see flooding from sea level rise this century.
Redington Beach is one town scientists say could see flooding from sea level rise this century. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published April 22, 2020|Updated April 23, 2020

Florida’s first chief resilience officer was in the job only a few months before she determined the state lacked a strategy for dealing with climate change.

“Florida resilience is taking shape throughout the state but efforts are disjointed,” Julia Nesheiwat explained at the end of 2019 in a 36-page report she prepared for her boss, Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Like a series of islands, local officials work on vulnerability assessments and contemplate raising roads, she said, but their “efforts are siloed, leaving some behind.” Infrastructure standards are outdated, according to the report, and builders “can’t design based on old weather patterns.”

“Florida needs a statewide strategy," Nesheiwat declared. “Communities are overwhelmed and need one place to turn for guidance.”

Julia Nesheiwat, Florida's former chief resilience officer.
Julia Nesheiwat, Florida's former chief resilience officer. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TIMES ]

Over the next year, she vowed to grow her office into a needed resource, pushing for scientific analysis, more funding and an advisory council to evangelize best practices and planning standards for sea-level rise.

“Florida’s coastal communities and regions do not have time to waste,” she wrote.

Nesheiwat was gone within half a year, taking a job as a homeland security adviser for President Donald Trump. The main legacy of her tenure could be the 2019 report, which the Tampa Bay Times requested in January. The governor’s office released it Tuesday.

Related: Florida’s first climate czar is leaving to be Trump’s homeland security advisor

A spokeswoman for DeSantis did not reply to a request for comment.

Resilience advocates took Nesheiwat’s hiring last August as a cause for optimism and a possible turning point in a state where leaders had for years ignored or expressed doubt about climate change. Upon her departure, the governor said Department of Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein will take over Nesheiwat’s responsibilities. But part of the reason for the position had been to establish an obvious leader for resilience, directly under the governor, who could collaborate across agencies.

“Secretary Valenstein will continue to prioritize coastal resilience in Florida and prepare for the effects of sea-level rise," Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Weesam Khoury wrote in a statement.

Nesheiwat’s report offered a broad road map but outlined few initiatives in detail. She could not be reached Wednesday.

Messaging was a top concern, and she called for the state “to be unified on critical climate topics," using clear science to build acceptance and understanding of the risks of climate change. She sprinkled numbers from various studies throughout the report such as: “$26 billion of residential property in Florida at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.”

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Related: Florida’s new resilience officer doesn’t shy away from saying ‘climate change’

Her hope was for the state to serve as a repository for ideas and data, so cities could find basic guidelines and tips without duplicating efforts. As it stands, leaders contemplate similar projects or studies without always joining forces, said Jenifer Rupert, the regional disaster resilience coordinator for the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council. “Each local government is having to play Sisyphus every time, everyone’s having to try to lift the rock up the hill,” she said.

The decisions ahead, Nesheiwat asserted, are too big for local officials to face alone. She mentioned how Monroe County would need $75 million to raise fewer than three miles of road in Sugarloaf Key.

Rhonda Haag, Monroe’s resilience officer, said she had not seen the report before Wednesday. Raising roads is a good example of where the state could help with thorny questions, she said. For instance, how much responsibility should municipalities take on for runoff from higher streets pooling on private properties?

“We can prepare in the Keys on our own, but it makes much more sense to coordinate," Haag said.

Some of Nesheiwat’s bullet points are old concerns for climate advocates, like the needs for affordable housing for “climate refugees” forced to flee flooded areas and for a statewide plan around septic tanks vulnerable to rising water. She mentioned the possibility of a rule requiring flood hazard disclosures in coastal real estate.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seas could rise by several feet across parts of Florida this century.

Jennifer Jurado, Broward County’s chief resilience officer, said infrastructure guidance is a long-running frustration mentioned in the report, with engineers relying on decades-old metrics to set rainfall standards for stormwater pipes. “We know those storms are intensifying," she said.

Nesheiwat suggested the state make resilience planning districts similar to its water management districts, leaning upon existing collaborations like the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, a leader of the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, said that might make sense if the Legislature gave more funding. “It surely would help if we could get the leadership at the state level," she said.

Last month, a bill that would have made the state Chief Resilience Officer position permanent died.

“Somebody with some influence put their thumb on the scale, and we never could figure out how to un-stick that piece of legislation," said Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who introduced the proposal. The bill called for $500,000 in funding and a statewide sea-level rise task force. The senator, a homebuilder, said some of his colleagues and others representing special interests like development "don’t want to know the answer to what things are going to look like 50 years from now.”

Lee said the governor’s office never pushed back on the bill.

“He’s not a science denier," Lee said.

Read the full report

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.