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Tampa Bay business leaders: Billions needed for climate change

The Tampa Bay Partnership released a report that says protecting against sea level rise flooding is a wise investment for the region.
Waterfront homes seen in Oldsmar, at the top of Tampa Bay, will be vulnerable to storms and sea level rise. The Tampa Bay Partnership’s Resilience Task Force on Tuesday released a report that lays out $13.4 billion in spending to prepare the region for climate change. It would be even more expensive if Tampa Bay does nothing, the report says.
Waterfront homes seen in Oldsmar, at the top of Tampa Bay, will be vulnerable to storms and sea level rise. The Tampa Bay Partnership’s Resilience Task Force on Tuesday released a report that lays out $13.4 billion in spending to prepare the region for climate change. It would be even more expensive if Tampa Bay does nothing, the report says. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 5|Updated Apr. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — Building up Tampa Bay to keep it safe from rising seas and storms over the next 50 years could save the region more than $2 for every $1 it spends, according to a new report.

The suggested price tag for those upgrades is enormous: $13.4 billion.

“This is about what our region needs to do to be ready for what is going to be inevitably devastating results of sea-level rise,” said Brian Auld, president of the Tampa Bay Rays and chair of the Tampa Bay Partnership’s Resilience Task Force, which commissioned the report and released it Tuesday. “It’s obviously going to take every single one of us to get it right.”

Related: Climate change to rule Rays out of St. Pete waterfront stadium?

The region could lose $16.9 billion in property values by 2070 because of high-tide flooding alone from Citrus through Manatee counties, the report says. At the same time, governments could lose $238 million every year because of declines in property, sales and tourism taxes.

To protect the region from flooding, the report recommends an array of options, including raising and replacing seawalls; constructing berms; replenishing eroded beaches; and elevating homes. It relies on a projection that shows St. Petersburg could see 3.4 feet of sea level rise by 2070, compared to the year 2000. The study estimates losses and savings in 2021 dollars.

Severe weather will add to the cost. A storm that has a 1-in-10 chance of occurring in a given year, the report found, could in 50 years cause several billions of dollars in property damage from flooding.

Related: Read 'Rising Threat,' a Tampa Bay Times special report

Auld noted one way that climate change is already affecting the bay area: It’s influencing where the Rays may choose to build a new stadium. Waterfront sites such as St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Stadium are becoming “more expensive and more challenging” because of the threat of flooding and rising sea levels. The team once had hoped to build a 34,000-seat, $450 million stadium there in 2007, then decided not to seek a public referendum on the plan.

Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld takes questions from fans during the 2020 Ray's FanFest.
Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld takes questions from fans during the 2020 Ray's FanFest. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The Tampa Bay Partnership is a coalition of business leaders looking to grow the Tampa Bay region and its economy. Consultants from two engineering firms, Brizaga and AECOM, produced the study with help from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. JPMorgan Chase & Co. provided funding.

The findings align with a recent Tampa Bay Times special report, “Rising Threat,” which revealed that sea-level rise will make storm surges much more damaging.

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Related: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

Existing inequalities will worsen the pain. The neighborhood around Bartlett Park in St. Petersburg is listed in the report as a place that is both vulnerable to future flooding and where more people live in poverty than across the region overall.

“So many times those with the least means are least able to insure themselves against huge catastrophes that might come their way,” Auld said. He later added: “We’ve got to avoid putting Tampa Bay in the equivalent position of being a poor citizen who’s not able to make the investments in their future that they need to be able to make.”

Preparing for climate change is too expensive for governments or residents to handle alone. Merely beefing up infrastructure will not be enough, the study says. For every public road raised, the surrounding private driveways may need to be lifted, too.

The study suggests that tasks like improving seawalls and restoring beaches could require as much as 74 percent private investment.

“A lot of our shoreline is owned by private residents,” said Alec Bogdanoff, co-founder of Brizaga. “They’re going to have to invest in coastal protection.”

Related: Own or rent a home in flood-prone Florida? Here’s some advice.

The consultants and Tampa Bay Partnership debuted the report Tuesday morning at the first day of the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Leadership Summit in St. Petersburg.

Bemetra Simmons, the Partnership’s president and CEO, called it a “first step” by the local business community to collectively push for more planning for climate change.

“This is not something we’re going to solve just by our business community or just by our local governments,” she said during a panel discussion at the summit.

Florida’s attempts to improve its flood defenses have ramped up in recent years as the state has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to infrastructure projects after years of scant action in Tallahassee.

Related: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk

Tampa Bay cannot simply build its way through climate change, though, according to the Partnership’s report. People need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, which cause global warming by filling the air with greenhouse gasses. Rising temperatures melt ice sheets and cause water to expand, stoking sea-level rise.

Emissions are an international problem, but the report says state and local governments should do their part by limiting their reliance on fossil fuels.

The Florida Legislature has not supported sweeping policies to curb emissions. Last year, lawmakers voted for rules that clean energy advocates say will make it harder for cities and counties to reduce their dependence on natural gas.

Auld said government support is important for business leaders who are “wary of putting fingers into political leaders’ eyes.”

“We need a government that makes it clear to business: ‘Hey, if you take a couple steps forward, we have your back, not the opposite,’ ” he said. “I think we’re starting to experience that now in a very material way.”

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