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Class of 2020 writes essays of hope: ‘Our coastlines do not have to disappear’

Climate change is the topic of the annual Tribune scholars competition. Nearly 200 of Hillsborough County’s top high school seniors took part.

Top graduating seniors in Hillsborough County suggest a range of measures to tackle the challenge Florida faces from climate change, but they all agree on one thing: Doing nothing is not an option.

“Our coastlines do not have to disappear,” said Wharton High School student Albert Grass. “While some loss is inevitable, I look forward to a future where my grandchildren can run down the beach because we were pre-emptive today.”

Albert Grass, a senior at Wharton High School, wrote one of the winning essays in the 2020 Tribune scholars contest. [ Courtesy of Albert Grass ]

Grass is among nearly 200 seniors who submitted entries for the annual R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune Scholars contest, where they competed for four scholarships of $1,300 each. The contest is named for a former publisher of the Tampa Tribune. The tradition is carried on by the Tampa Bay Times.

This year’s essay topic: What, if anything, should Florida do about climate change?

Most essays suggested intervention to protect state shorelines from rising sea levels, noting their value to Florida’s environment, its identity, its economy, or all three. A few suggested tackling the source of the problem through measures to reduce global warming. Still others called for a response like the mobilization around the coronavirus pandemic, a scourge that has robbed the Class of 2020 of its senior year traditions.

Taravat Tarahomi, a senior at Freedom High School, favors the expansion of "living shorelines." [ Courtesy of Taravat Tarahomi ]

Taravat Tarahomi of Freedom High School favors integration of mangroves and marsh grass to expand “living shorelines that actually build back sealines by absorbing wave energy and allowing sediment buildup.”

“Hard infrastructure and shoreline retreating,” she wrote, “should be recognized as a last resort since they only push off an impending shoreline crisis.”

Tarahomi and Grass are two of the four essay winners. The competition was open to the top 3 percent by grade point average of graduating seniors at Hillsborough County’s public and private high schools. The other winners are Lauren Gajewski of Alonso High and Edward Kuperman of Berkeley Preparatory School.

Lauren Gajewski, a senior at Alonso High School, wouldn't rule out seizing beachfront property. [ Courtesy of Lauren Gajewski ]

Gajewski is one of many essay writers who urged aggressive action by government agencies.

“Exercising powers of eminent domain shouldn’t be ruled out to protect flood-prone areas,” she wrote. “While this interference may result in public backlash, it’s a necessary measure to guarantee enough land is restored to protect the greater good.”

Kuperman wrote from the perspective of a life lived in Florida.

“Growing up with my grandparents on Davis Island, I remember joyfully dancing in the rain as streets flooded, filling our driveway with small crabs and the occasional minnow. Yet now these memories are blemished; future generations may live in constant fear of seeing their livelihoods wiped away by the next super-flood.”

Edward Kuperman, a senior at Berkeley Preparatory School, fears the impact of climate change on future generations. [ Courtesy of Edward Kuperman ]

Essay writers recognized global climate change as a major threat to the well-being of the United States, a view shared by six in ten Americans, according to a poll conducted March 3-29 by the Pew Research Center. There are sharp divisions along party lines over this view, however — nine in ten Democrats said it is a major threat compared to three in ten Republicans.

Still, recognizing how younger voters such as these Hillsborough seniors view the issue, Republican leaders are beginning to develop initiatives aimed at addressing climate change. They include planting trees, reducing plastic and encouraging clean energy.

To read all the climate change essays and student profiles, arranged by school, click here to visit the special Tribune Scholars page.

Following are excerpts from some of the essays:

Phoebe Funai, Brooks DeBartolo

We should restrict development in vulnerable areas and provide tax credits to businesses to encourage relocation. Although this solution is controversial, we could buy out some existing property owners and retreat from the coast. The state will pay less for insurance claims, rebuilding and remediation.

Alexander Klug, Carrollwood Day School

A built-up defense against flood damage could include the implementation of height regulations for new and pre-existing buildings, with those areas closest to the coastline the state’s top priority. It is simply nonsensical to abandon these coastal areas; doing so would eliminate lucrative tourism and harm the real estate industry.

Margret Jones, Newsome

If we can restore our natural coastal ecosystems, we will be better protected from the rising sea levels. Some of our communities may need to relocate to make room for this change. While flooding may only occur in cities along the coast, it is the responsibility of the entire state to help support the efforts to strengthen our coasts.

Andrea Colon, Hillsborough Virtual School

Communities should understand the risks of living so close to a shore and the dangers of rising water which are becoming more apparent due to climate change. Overall, there are many solutions to solve this issue, the most important is that we protect not only our citizens but also respect Florida’s nature.

Carly Catnois, Plant City

Armoring shores can be expensive. I believe that property owners and government jurisdiction should split the cost of the work because rising water is affecting private and public parts of the coast. Living on the coast of Florida is something that residents enjoy; therefore, it should not be taken away from them.

Reagan Overton, King

If we move our communities away from the water in fear of natural events, years in the future, our economy would suffer. Floridians have not left the coast due to hurricanes; instead, they have found ways to improve building structures and build natural barriers.

Peyton Potter, Tampa Bay Tech

Some would argue that it is the government’s place to step in and manage risky areas, thereby having taxpayers pay to relocate citizens away from the dangerous shores. As the resident or property owner chooses to own a property along the shore, they should be the responsible party to pay for the protection of their property.

Caitlin Singer, Gaither

Florida will be underwater, an irrefutable fact directly stemming from the effects of global warming. The complete evacuation of Florida will not be immediate, rather it will be progressive. Subsidies must be funded by state and federal governments, the amount of financial aid awarded based upon the household’s tax bracket.

Galen Rydzik, Freedom

As sea level rises, saltwater intrusion will put a greater strain on our freshwater resources. This should be mitigated by a universal tax on water usage and drastic reduction in allowed pollutants from agriculture; reducing consumer pesticide usage; and integration of desalination in proposed nuclear power plants.

Isaias Martinez, Spoto

Leaving home is terrifying, and for families like mine nearly impossible. It should be the government that buys the property of all those in high-risk zones in order to give them a fighting chance to relocate. We just witnessed the government sign a two trillion-dollar relief bill for this current pandemic. Once the ocean starts knocking on our doors it will have to be the government that answers.

Chanel Campbell, Lennard

It is not the government’s responsibility to buy out property owners that knowingly build in flood areas. Doing so would open Pandora’s box to allow other consumers to demand buyouts for their particular level of risk based on where they reside. Consumers should make educated decisions.

Junhao Zhang, Plant

When someone purchases a property close to the coast, the risk of natural disasters should have already been considered and factored into the cost and the duty to make complete reparations in a case of disasters should not fall onto the shoulders of the government. Man prides himself in sculpting and architecting the face of the Earth, but this power, as we all should keep alert in our minds, is but minuscule compared to the force of nature.

AnnaGrace Brackin, Blake

The carrying capacity of our shoreline should be established, which would, in turn, result in a statewide development moratorium. It may even make sense to consider lobbying for National Park designation to conserve and protect a percentage of our state shoreline.

Alanis Torres, East Bay

Funds should be set aside for wave breakers, sea walls, marine vegetation, and even implementing stricter laws on protection of wildlife such as mangroves. For example, when doing SEAS Club, we were able to plant over 400 plots of seagrass in three hours which helped in reducing the impact of erosion on coastal communities.

Andrew Pham, Sickles

Everyone living in Florida should contribute to the work required, most likely through taxes, because everyone contributes to climate change whether it be through automobile emissions or waste production and rising waters is a developing concern for the safety of everyone in Florida, not just the people living on the coast.

Cara Pamintuan, Tampa Catholic

Homes, condominiums, hotels, restaurants, and businesses in low-lying areas on the coast should initiate a plan to retreat from shores. Residents must take pre-emptive measures to avoid the impending danger. The government should buy out the property while slowing erosion through the construction of physical barriers.

Jennifer Vazquez Chavez, Jefferson

The people of Florida are very strong. We all form one very large community with over 20 million people. This means that if all of us just took certain measures, surely we could make a difference for everyone.