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Study shows increasing flood risk will disproportionately impact some communities

Posted at 9:33 PM, Mar 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-15 23:20:40-04

TAMPA, Fla — Flooding is often synonymous with hurricanes and heavy rains in Florida. But several new studies show that between now and 2050 rising sea levels and stronger storms mean the problem will get worse for everyone, not just folks who like along the coast.

And one study, in particular, published on goes on to show that black communities and lower-income communities are likely to be the most heavily hit.

ABC Action News spoke to environmental expert Dr. Jennifer Jones at Florida Gulf Coast University about this. She said the issue is systemic.

"Black communities, historically impoverished communities, are often located in lands that already have a lot of risk built-in. They might be low-lying lands, they might be sited next to industrial areas, and so forth. Another important thing to understand is that black communities and impoverished communities historically lacked investment in flood maintenance and flood mitigation and those sorts of strategies," she said, "And then I would also say that today black communities and impoverished communities are increasingly at risk because many households today lack resources to recover from a natural disaster like flooding."

It's a trend researchers at the University of South Florida also noticed while working on a flood vulnerability study in Hillsborough County back in 2020. They're areas like East Lake-Orient Park, Del Rio, the eastern part of Ybor City, and east of McKay Bay.

In the face of this growing issue, ABC Action News also reached out to leaders in the community that are working to do something about it.

They're people like Sean Sullivan, the Executive Director at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council (TBRPC), which brings together six bay area counties, dozens of cities, researchers, developers, and more to talk about "resiliency."

Essentially, they're looking for ways to help communities can bounce back from things like flooding, heat, storms, and other natural occurrences.

"We partnered with a private foundation over the last 22 months called the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. We received funding from them to develop housing resilience. And among the things that we are doing in this study is to look at the impact of extreme weather on homes and structures that reside in environmental justice communities, because we know that folks who struggle a bit are typically the most vulnerable. And that's just not right," he said.

Sullivan told ABC Action News the results of this study will be released in May. But what he can share right now is that when it comes to communities most impacted, better maintenance for existing buildings is key.


"If we work now to become more resilient; I think our future is brighter. We protect our investment, which for most people is their home, is the highest investment in your portfolio," he said.

To get a better understanding of what other solutions are possible, ABC Action News also spoke with Taryn Sabia, the Director of the Florida Center for Community Design and Research at USF.

She said in Hillsborough County, the solutions will differ by location. In addition to better maintenance, when it comes to inland flooding she tells us that more parks could be added as a possible fix.

"Things like floodable parks can be mechanisms of defense and can be strategies for helping to be able to direct and hold water in places where it's safe until it can dissipate. And floodable parks are also a great amenity for communities because when they're not holding water; there are open spaces that can actually be used for recreation by the communities that are nearby," she said.

Along the coast and other waterways, Sabia said creating a "living shoreline" is an option. It means taking natural materials like plants, sand, and rocks and using them to slow water down to protect seawalls and other barriers that help prevent flooding.

"So as that water comes up, instead of the water coming up and hitting the wall or coming over the wall and pulling the wall away, a living shoreline allows the water to come up more slowly. And so it has a lot less impact on the structures that may be sitting behind it," she said.

And while there seems to be planning in place to protect the buildings we already have, ABC Action News also wanted to know how this information factors into new buildings. A more obvious solution is to build higher, so water can pass underneath. But local developer Taylor Ralph tells us there's much more that can be done.

"Other things that are even further along are things like preparing a building to be flooded and actually creating the first floor that actually is planned to either flood and putting in materials that don't get ruined if they are flooded or to actually waterproof the exterior of the building to where water cannot go inside the building. So those are pretty expensive or at least more expensive ideas," he said.

And while the development community is mulling over their own solutions, Ralph added they're also having to work with local leaders to make sure everyone is on the same page.

"Municipalities are studying flood impacts aggressively, extensively, and they're also looking at what can we do to mitigate the risk that our community has? And it might start at the level of should we build in flood-prone areas? Should we build in areas that we know are going to flood during a storm surge? That also could be can we incentivize developers to do things that mitigate or reduce their impact on our infrastructure should this happen?" he said.

When it comes to bouncing back after flooding, experts said skimping on insurance is not the way to go. But they also acknowledge that sometimes people simply can't afford it.

ABC Action News recently spoke to Jake Holehouse with HH Insurance Group, who said the national flood insurance program is about to raise rates in April. It will be a landmark change to what homeowners pay. And that is not helping matters as the Bay area continues to develop and in some spots, overdevelop.

“It’s not just a hurricane pushing water over your seawall. What we are seeing more and more of is non-hurricane-type flooding and it can happen from multiple different sources. So flood is really a pretty big peril that when we think about it is really any source of water coming from the outside into the house," he said.

If you have a mortgage, flood insurance is mandatory; but the latest findings show great economic disparity for flood insurance when a homeowner’s home is paid off. Holehouse told ABC Action News that as inflation takes over and flood insurance rates rise; insurance agents are seeing flood coverage take a back seat when people’s budgets get tighter.

“The people who can afford flood the most typically have it and those who can least afford to take the loss of a flood typical are the first ones to drop it because within their budget they believe they can’t afford it," he said.

He said moving forward, it is always best to reach out to an insurance agent who can shop around the private insurance market and get you the best flood insurance rates.

To help provide the resiliency solutions that people in the community actually want, the TBRPC is also conducting a community survey to get some feedback. Click here to participate.