Brainstorming how Tampa Bay can address climate change | Column
The region will hold its first resiliency summit in January to hear from experts about ideas ranging from zoning to housing, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long writes.
Sunny day flooding in Shore Acres, a St. Petersburg neighborhood vulnerable to rising sea levels. (Times Staff)
Sunny day flooding in Shore Acres, a St. Petersburg neighborhood vulnerable to rising sea levels. (Times Staff) [ Susan Taylor Martin ]
Published Dec. 27, 2019

The new year is bringing new hope to find solutions for sea level rise in Tampa Bay. In the first week of 2020, our region will hold its first resiliency summit. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council is hosting “Champions of Change: Creating Resilient Communities,” to discuss best practices and innovative ideas for preparing for sea level rise and extreme weather events.

In Tampa Bay alone, studies have shown more than $15 billion in real estate and 17,000 jobs are at risk due to rising seas and extreme weather threats. Tampa Bay’s sea level is expected to go up 1 to 2.5 feet over the next 30 years, according to the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long.  [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]

At the summit, our community will have the opportunity to learn from state, national and international experts in sea level rise. One of the speakers will be the chief resiliency officer from Norfolk, Va. The sea level there has risen more than a foot in the last 80 years, causing persistent flooding and damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

In response, Norfolk city council recently passed a new zoning code, requiring developers to meet resilience standards that promote flood risk reduction, storm-water management and energy efficiency. In Tampa Bay, we should consider incentivizing building on higher ground to reduce costs of losing taxable properties and repairing infrastructure in flood-prone zones.

Stephen Costello, the chief recovery officer for Houston, will share lessons learned after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the city in 2017. While the state of Texas will receive $4.3 billion in federal funds for flood mitigation projects, Costello has said that Houston isn’t getting its fair share, and the application process to receive funding is cumbersome. These are key insights that can help our leaders prepare to navigate the federal processes should a disaster strike our region.

We can also learn from the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys. After thousands of homes were destroyed in 2017, community leaders teamed up to build a new type of sustainable, storm resistant, inexpensive cottages. Gladys Cook, a technical adviser for the Florida Housing Coalition, has been part of this innovative project. She’ll speak about ways to rebuild resilient communities with affordable housing like they’re doing in the Keys.

Florida’s Chief Resilience Officer Julia Nesheiwat will also attend the summit. She’s trying to create a statewide strategy for addressing climate change. With 80 percent of Florida residents living on the coast and 2,500 miles of the state’s roads prone to flooding, the risks are huge.

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But the positive momentum to address these challenges has never been greater. Sea level rise legislation is gaining political support from both Republicans and Democrats, as they recognize the economic threat of doing nothing. At least 10 bills have been filed in the Florida Legislature this year to directly address climate change, sea level rise and resiliency.

In Tampa Bay, we formed a resiliency coalition in 2018. This means we have 28 local governments and more than 80 partners in our business community working together to increase our region’s resilience. At the summit that starts Jan. 7, we will have the mayors from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa sharing the stage to talk about solutions. Becoming more resilient is a mission that is greater than any one person. What we are doing now is not for us, but to ensure our children, grandchildren and future generations can enjoy the beauty of our region for years to come.

Janet Long has served on the Pinellas County Commission since 2012.