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Climate change debate in Tampa Bay area is evolving from denial to action

Flooding, rising insurance costs spark focus on solutions
Posted at 8:46 AM, Jun 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-22 17:49:37-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Writing about climate change is never an easy task. For reasons that are often distorted and not based on measurable reality, the environment has become like a kid caught in a custody battle.

Instead of it being viewed as a natural resource that would be mutually beneficial for all of us to conserve and take care of; it’s often colored as a political issue that predictably falls into two different boxes. Red vs. Blue. Denier vs. Science. The reality is the weather doesn’t care what party people vote for, nor do rising sea levels. Record-breaking temperatures don’t care about political philosophies.

Whatever you call it, there is a change happening. Change, as the saying goes, is inevitable. The climate has always changed, that’s been a constant. What makes it different and more consequential now is that we now live on Earth with 7.8 billion other people. And that number keeps growing. Just 10 years ago, it was 6.9 Billion. So that’s nearly a billion more people in a decade. By 2030, the global population is expected to hit 8.5 billion.

Yes, change happens. But it’s how the change unfolds and where. Here in Tampa Bay a subtle, yet profound change is starting to unfold. The argument over climate change is moving away from whether it’s happening and more toward working the problem and finding solutions.

From hurricanes to floods to fires, paradise has its price. One of the most glaring signs that something is different is the changing face of flood zones in our region.

“Change is inevitable,” says Lisa Foster, the Floodplain Administrator for Pinellas County. “Things change over time, topography changes, buildings change, the weather conditions change, so your probability will change over time. As well as the extent of inundation from a flood. We are developing these maps so we can see into the future and plan for that.”

Foster leads the team that helps reduce the risk of flood to thousands of homeowners. It’s a risk that’s increasing as Foster said the area is seeing more blue-sky flooding than in the past.
Blue-sky flooding shows streets underwater where there hasn’t been a drop of rain. New FEMA Flood maps show the phenomenon. Nowhere is the impact of climate change and sea level rise felt more acutely than in the coastal communities of Tampa Bay and elsewhere in Florida. Communities like Pass-a-Grille, near St. Pete Beach along Casa Blanca Avenue.

Here’s looking at you… Water.

David Nixon has lived on the water’s edge for 21 years. But the edge wasn’t always his front yard.

“We are looking at sea level rise, obviously,” said Nixon. “It used to do this two or three times a year, and the last three or four years, I’ve noticed now it’s every month when we get a full moon, because the tides fluctuate with the moon.”

On a day when they haven’t seen a drop of rain in 34 days, their neighborhood is a wake zone.

“It throws everything saltwater up into people’s yards, kills the grass,” says Nixon. When asked if it was ever enough to make him want to move, Nixon says flatly, “I just deal with it.”

But dealing with it is becoming increasingly expensive for many homeowners in Tampa Bay. Consumers are seeing their insurance rates soar to double-digit increases and thousands of property owners in Florida are being dropped by their private Insurance companies.

“Unfortunately, there are things outside of our control that is really affecting premiums and our ability to take on additional risk,” said Jennifer Pintacuda with AAA.

AAA is not one of the three companies that recently dropped coverage for thousands of Floridians, but Pintacuda said there are four main reasons causing insurance companies to make that difficult decision including contractor roofer fraud, claims for past hurricanes, rising re-insurance cost, and excessive litigation.

What should a homeowner do if they are dropped?

Pintacuda said with hurricane season beginning; it’s a good time for everyone to check up on their insurance and really get to know your policy.

“If you receive a notice that your policy is being canceled, call your licenses insurance agent immediately, you need to verify your policy is active , that you have the right coverage and that you are with a financially strong insurance carrier,” she says.

And like the climate itself, flood Insurance is about to undergo a transformational shift. Beginning in October, FEMA is coming out with a new flood risk assessment called Risk Rating 2.0.

“That’s going to change a lot of insurance rates, it’s based on several parameters like the distance to the water how big the water is, and how the structure is built,” said Foster.

FEMA said Risk Rating 2.0 will correct insurance rate disparities that currently exists. The agency acknowledges on its own website that homeowners, “in lower-valued properties are paying more than their share of risk while policyholders with higher-valued homes are paying less than their share.”

FEMA said its new data will help set flood insurance rates that are fair and reflect a property's unique flood risk, taking into consideration your home's distance to a flooding source, the types and the frequency of flooding as well as the unique property characteristics of your home.

But some experts say the easiest solution is to stop doing what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years: Building on the shoreline.

“We can stop having the most heavily developed regions being in the most vulnerable places which by the way we’ve done in the Tampa Bay Area,” said USF Oceanographer Dr. Robert Weisberg.

To do this, Dr. Weisberg said there should be incentives for people to move away from the water.

“I think we can use our brains instead of thinking we can solve every problem by engineering. Maybe we can solve every problem by a slow, systematic funded retest from the coastline,” Weisberg said. “I’m not advocating anything radical, whoever lives on the shore here in Tampa bay enjoy it but at some point, don’t rebuild there that’s all,” says Dr. Weisberg.

Another solution could lie in the Bay itself.

Maya Burke is the Assistant Director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, a government partnership between local counties, cities, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She said, “We’ve been able to double the amount of seagrasses that we see in our bay today than what we had back in our low point in the 80s.”

Their work on restoring natural habitats on the bed of Tampa Bay is one of the few environmental success stories in the past 40 years, and it draws a direct link to protecting homeowners from future floods and Hurricanes.

“Seagrasses marshes mangroves they are also really good at attenuating wave action so they slow down those waves so the coastal flooding that we might otherwise experience is lessened because we have those habitats,” said Burke. “It’s really central to who we are as a region and all the work we’ve done to improve water quality in Tampa Bay makes us more resilient.”

Part of that resiliency recently paid off during the leak at the Piney Pointe facility where millions of gallons of wastewater had to be dumped into Tampa Bay.

“That was a year’s worth of nitrogen delivered to Tampa Bay over the course of about a week or two and that’s huge. But because we worked so hard to reduce nutrient loads in that part of the bay, perhaps that part had been able to absorb those nutrients better than it otherwise would,” Burke pointed out.

So where could be in 30, 60 years?

“If it keeps going like what I see in my time here...I believe this will all be underwater,” said Nixon.

Foster is more optimistic but said for people who live right on the water, daily life could indeed change.

“I think we’ll still be here,” she said. “I think that flooding will be more in the forefront. I believe in some areas, we may be checking tide charts before we go do our errands…But If we continue on this path of planning for the future…then we might be okay.”

Part of the solution is informing yourself with the most updated and useful knowledge. ABC Action News is making that easy for you by providing links where you can check to see if you are in a flood zone. You can also check to see your county’s current “Flood Insurance Reports” and the state’s “Insurance Rate Maps.” There is also critical information about the upcoming deadlines surrounding FEMA’s new Risk Rating 2.0 study that will impact your insurance rates starting next year.

Pinellas County Map Service and Flood Information:
Hillsborough County Flood Maps: