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Full Circle: Battered and bruised by extreme weather, the race is on to make Florida more resilient

Full Circle resilient Florida.
Posted at 4:43 AM, Dec 22, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hurricanes like Ian and Nicole are storms Floridians have faced for generations. But, scientists tell us they are one problem in a growing list of climate-related issues communities must prepare for before it is too late.

In this Full Circle report, we sat down with experts in communities across the state to get a better look at what's at stake, what they are preparing for, and what it will take to keep Florida resilient; and, more importantly, livable.

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"So as we look at the future of Tampa Bay, we know that we're going to be dealing with sea levelrise," Peter Clark, President, and Founder of Tampa Bay Watch, said.

We watched as dozens of volunteers filled 15 tons of oyster shells into bags and carried them down to the bay. The teams are working to combat erosion on a section of Lassing Park. One of many living shorelines taking advantage of green infrastructure, allowing nature to fight nature.

"It's taken 100 years for Tampa Bay to get where it is today. It's going to take 50 or more years to restore it back in the bay," Clark said. "We are seeing some of the best water quality in Tampa Bay since about the 1950s. But we had this huge population growth, and we're dealing with climate issues. So we really need to double up our efforts to continue making those positive trends in the Tampa Bay estuary."

The projects are part of a larger plan to make our region more resilient and hardened. They won't stop the devastation and destruction of a major hurricane, especially a cat 5, but they can help.

"The types of green infrastructure these living shorelines that we build around the bay really help with the storm events, tropical systems, and hurricanes or extreme weather events. But the more types of green infrastructure we can construct around the bay helps to buffer and protect our community from these extreme weather events," Clark said. "Scale matters, size matters, a wide breadth of mangroves helped to reduce extreme weather events. Having these rows of reef balls helped reduce the waves coming ashore. So it's really important to think about those extreme weather events when you're designing living shorelines and green infrastructure projects in our communities."

"When we look at green infrastructure. We look at this team of volunteers behind you; how optimistic are you about keeping the bay safe, keeping the bay clean, and protecting us from storms? Paluska asked Richard Radigan, the Oyster Shell Program Coordinator at Tampa Bay Watch.

"Incredibly, I mean, obviously, they're, you know, it's a monumental task; the Bay is a very large place, we have a very large footprint," Radigan said. "I'm incredibly enthusiastic; I'm really happy with how things are going. When it comes to our living shoreline installations, we couldn't do it without our incredible volunteer base; we have 50 to 60 people show up to these events on a regular basis, which is incredible. The passion that the locals have for the bay is really inspiring. So that gives me even more hope that people are taking more and more interest in keeping the bay clean and safe and enjoyable for everyone, including ecologically and economically."


"What is Monroe County and the Keys preparing for? ABC Action News reporter Michael Pluck asked Rhonda Haag, Chief Resilience Officer, County of Monroe.

"Well, and in the just few years that I've been with the county, we've seen quite dramatic changes in the Keys," Haag said. "With the levels of the seas rising as fast as they are, we now see widespread tidal flooding in October, November December period. And it's no longer a nuisance because it can be really deep now, up to a foot or more, and lasts for weeks to three weeks at a time or even more in some certain cases."

Using advanced modeling studies that take advantage of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)engineers can pinpoint which areas are the lowest lying and prone to flooding from rain events, storm surge, or sea level rise. As a result, the Keys are preparing for the worst.

"We determined by the year 2045. Half of our roads are going to be subject to inundation from sea level rise. That's half, that's 150 miles. And so we had to figure out, well, what do we do?" Haag said. "And here now we have, you know, for those 150 miles of roads that need elevation, that's a cost of $1.6 billion and an annual operating cost of $3,000,000. And so that's 100, almost 100 neighborhoods that are going to need to be elevated in the next 25 years. We just now got to figure out how to fund it."

"If you didn't raise the 150 miles of roads that are inundated? Would it create a place where people couldn't live their lives as they normally did?" Paluska asked.

"Yes. It's already that way in our worst neighborhoods in Key Largo. There are a couple of really bad ones at the top of our project. They are already seeing flooding out on the road for weeks at a time; it can be anywhere from a few inches to more than a foot. And it's impacting their lives not just their daily life, but it's impacting the level of services they receive, like the mail delivery, police, you know, patrols, garbage pickup, all those things. So it's impacting many, many things. And so it, it won't be in it's not a plate, you know, if we didn't can't maintain access to and from their homes and for the services, then it's not going to be a place where people are going to be able to stay."

"Is there a plan to lift homes as well?" Paluska asked.

"Yes, there actually is. So the county did our $1.6 billion plan. The US Army Corps of Engineers came to town three years ago and did a three-year study on how to make the keys more resilient from storm surges and sea level rise, and their resulting plan is $2.7 billion. And that includes the potential elevation of over 4,600 ground-level homes. The plan has been approved but needs to have its funding appropriated by Congress, which happens in fits and spurts. It's not like they give us $2.7 billion."

"Is there a concern that there are so many places that are susceptible to flooding that people will say, 'you know what, we can't do the Keys; this is too much?' And they say, 'hey, just let it get flooded?'" Paluska asked.

"Yes. And so we realize we're a tiny community; we're a county of 75,000 full-time residents, maybe, you know, a few more. And we have really big needs because we are an Island community. And it's going to take a lot to be able to keep us there. But we'll see. It's a very special place. There will be areas that we're not going to be able to save if you want to call it that; there will be areas that go underwater, especially when you're looking at that five feet of sea level rise by the year 2100.


In St. Petersburg, a master stormwater plan is in the works.

"What are we looking at for sea level rise here by 2050?" Paluska asked professional engineer Brejesh Prayman the Engineering Capital Improvements Director at St. Pete.

"So the most recent projections was approximately 1.44 feet. I believe there was an update taken to 1.48 feet," Prayman said. "The projects that we get started on now are setting the state for where we need to be in the future, taking our risk into consideration or the risk of our residents. And, you know, focusing on mitigating that restore essence, property, and life. But, now, with the LIDAR, enhancing it, and complementing it with survey data and topographic survey data, we got a better definition of where our drainage barriers or ridges are.

"How concerned are you about getting this done before we get hit by a hurricane, Nicole or Ian?" Paluska said.

"Yes, we're very concerned here. Ultimately, we all focus on protecting our residents and their welfare, property, and life. And that is always a concern for us, not just for the stormwater system, but all assets, really designing and incorporating for resiliency and sustainability. I believe there's been recent research also published by the University of South Florida giving us a good understanding of the risk on how much we need to start spending because if we don't spend it now, it's going to cost us more in the future, either by loss or by damage or actually the replacement costs."

"And if we don't do this, we won't have the same Florida we have now. Is that correct?" Paluska asked.

"Correct. The risks are real. Just because it happened somewhere else does not mean it can't happen here."

Prayman said St. Pete would also need to use mechanical pumps similar to what they use in New Orleans as sea levels continue to rise.

"So this is the first out of a series of projects; there's an additional project for pump station, an additional project for upstream canal clearing, and widening and elevations of roadway sections. And you'll see more and more in the future because we hit a very important topic: Florida is generally flat. And there's little ability to get that grid as we flew out to allow that velocity of the water," Prayman said. "So, we are going to get to the point soon, with a sea level rise, that we're going to have to use a mechanical system to pump that water out of our communities. And it's not something that's typically done. But we will eventually get to that point."

Sea level rise will also impact freshwater in the aquifers.

"Just because the sea level is rising, you know, several 100 feet away. What it also means is the groundwater elevation in your neighborhood is also rising. So we'll see other elements of failure, such as base failure on roadways. And those are the elements that we are not really thinking about; we're thinking about the flooding, but there other infrastructure that can suffer; we have pipes that are underground, and you touched on the right topic in stating that stormwater management is going to help avoid that infiltration and inflow."

"Can we do this as humans? Can we do this as a community?" Paluska asked.

"We need to do it for the future," Prayman said without hesitation. "I don't think we have a choice. We have to do it."


In 2021, the state launched a new program called theFlood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation. We sat down with Tom Frazer, the Executive Director of the Flood Hub and dean at the USF College of Marine Science.

"We have designed systems that were based on historical data. But, as we have more people that are moved into the state, we've got more water moving into the stormwater systems, we've got more impervious surface surfaces, we've got, you know, larger built footprint," Frazer said. "And so we have to deal with global issues, right sea level rise, front and foremost, for us, it's going to continue to rise, you know, into the foreseeable future. But we also have to deal with the effects of tropical storm events, hurricanes, the storm surge associated with that, and the changes in our precipitation patterns; we're seeing more extreme rainfall events. And so all of those things together, coupled with the fact that we have a relatively old or aging stormwater system kind of throughout the state, all of those things together actually can lead to compound flooding. So flooding certainly is a huge challenge for Florida, not just here in St. Petersburg, but across the state."

According to Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), extreme rainfall from Hurricane Ian produced a 1-in-1000 rainfall event in some places. "For example, Placida, north of where Ian's eye made landfall, received more than 15 inches of rain over 12 hours, and Lake Wales, in central Florida, reported nearly 17 inches of rain within 24 hours."

Frazer says the Flood Hub will dive deeper into those types of events for answers.

"And, so what the Flood Hub does is think about all those factors that contribute to flooding. Again, there's a sea level rise component, there's often this storm surge component, but there's a rainfall component, and all of that is connected to our water conveyance systems. And what we, what we're thinking about is. Can we provide better data moving into the future? Or refined estimates of sea level rise? Can we better forecast extreme rainfall? And if we can have that information, we can think about how we design the systems moving into the future so we can accommodate a greater flow of water in the system."

"Will the data that you provide help a city, like St. Pete, that's behind you build higher sea walls or build up certain areas that are low lying? What will the data do to help when it comes to construction?

"Yeah, that's a great question. And so what we'll be able to do with this data, this information, and improved models is we'll be able to identify those areas across the state most vulnerable to the flooding risk, right? And so the goal is to get down to the smallest scale possible, even to the parcel level," Frazer said. "Do we need to consider investing in that infrastructure in locations that weren't previously considered? For example? Do we need to think about potentially modifying our sea walls? Or do we rely solely on built infrastructure in that regard? Or do we rely a little bit more on green infrastructure? And so there are many potential benefits from the data that will come out of the Flood Hub."

"I guess the fear when I talk to people is that we haven't done this fast enough," Paluska said.

"The reality is that we're living some of the things that are happening now. Climate change has affected the change of sea level rise. It has been rising and will continue to rise. We're going to have to do some adaptation. And the question is, we need to plan for the now, but we also have to plan for the future, moving forward. So there's a how do you balance that portfolio of investment? You know, what do you do now? You know, what do you do to make sure that you're improving things moving forward? So, again, there are only limited resources out there. We'll try to make the best use of those resources to balance that portfolio so we can have a resilient Florida moving forward."


The City of Clearwater isn't wasting time, either. Instead, they are preparing for worst-case scenarios and collecting the data to make informed decisions.

"We have a local tide gauge; the closest one that we have is actually in St. Pete; it shows that we've already experienced just over seven inches of sea level rise in the last 50 years," Sustainability Coordinator Sheridan Gemuendt said.

Paluska met Gemuendt at Coopers Bayou Park. The city purchased the Florida gem to keep it out of the hands of developers. The old-growth mangroves soar into the blue Florida sky while their roots spread deep down into the mud.

"I could talk about mangroves forever because mangroves have a huge resilient benefit. And then they have a huge sustainability building benefit. From a resilient standpoint, you see, when you have a storm surge coming from a hurricane, the mangroves act as a buffer. So it's incredible how they can take, you know, a huge wave or huge, a huge storm surge level and protect the local community that's behind the mangroves," Gemuendt said. "And when you see the comparisons of, you know, an area that has mangroves in between, it's in the water and doesn't the impacts are very different."

A new program, Resilient Florida, launched by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is helping the city plan for the future.

"And it's allowed us to start a vulnerability assessment. So we're working with a consultant using funds from a grant that we received from the Department of Environmental Protection in the Resilient Florida office. And for us that will allow us to do a community-wide assessment to understand how climate hazards are going to affect our assets in this city. And our assets are anything that we really value, right? So it could be critical infrastructures like water and wastewater treatment facilities. Or it could be other really important things like public health and the economy," Gemuendt said." So we're going to be looking at sea level rise; we're going to be looking at storm surge flooding from hurricanes. We're going to be looking at extreme heat. So what we're going to be doing in this vulnerability assessment that's really unique is we'll be building a digital twin of the city. And not only will it allow us to look at the effect of certain climate hazards on our assets. But we'll also be able to add possible solutions and mitigation tactics to that simulation and see the effect that they could have. So allow us to know if we did a living shoreline here, what's the effect it could have on storm surge, if it's great, maybe that's where we want to invest, you know, attention and money in the future."

Like many other places in Florida, Clearwater Beach experiences sunny day floods during high tide cycles, especially in the North Beach area. However, Gemuendt tells Paluska that climate changes and extreme weather events are always top of mind.

"So I think for me and residents, right? It's just It's a present, a reminder. It's not a wake-up call because we know it's possible. It's always in the back of our minds. But it reminds us that it's very much possible. And in many ways, we've been lucky. But we're still vulnerable to those same conditions happening here. So it reminds us, you know, that this could happen in Clearwater and that we need to have a hurricane plan," Gemuendt said.