Tampa Bay officials release plan for dealing with climate change

Florida’s sandy beaches and beautiful coastlines helped make it the fastest-growing state in the country last year.

About 4 million people live in the region extending from Citrus County to Sarasota — about a fifth of the state’s population. The Tampa Bay metro area’s population has swelled by more than 14% over the last decade.

Local governments across the Tampa Bay area are acutely aware of the risks involved with so many people living near a coast and even inland, where heavy rain can cause destructive flooding.

In November, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council presented a document four years in the making — the Regional Resiliency Action Plan — aimed at strengthening the region against extreme weather. Now, the council will tour the region in the new year and ask governments to adopt the plan.

[Flooding will get worse in Tampa Bay. Tropical Storm Eta showed how.]

The plan has been in the works since the creation of the Tampa Bay Resiliency Coalition in 2018. Each of the 32 members, representing local governments in the region spanning from Citrus to Sarasota counties, has signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate across Tampa Bay to find ways to adjust to the effects of a changing climate.

The coalition has grown over the years to include seven counties and 25 local governments within those counties.

The regional action plan “is sort of our road map for the region, how we work together on resiliency and how we move our priorities that we established in our initial (memorandum of understanding) forward,” Cara Woods Serra, the principal resiliency planner for the planning council, said.

The 72-page action plan is a menu of voluntary options from which local governments can choose based on their budget, staff capacity or geographic location, Serra said.

“We’re not trying to tell any of our member governments what to do,” Serra said. “We’re really trying to convene and provide resources and options for them.”

The geographical makeup of the member governments will be a big factor in what they decide will work for them, Serra said. An action that may work for Pinellas County may not work for a more northern county, like Citrus, she said. In Citrus, the county has more inland flooding than somewhere like Pinellas, which means their resiliency needs are different.

The plan is divided into five chapters that outline 10 goals. The first is making community resilience efforts a top goal for public officials. That plan suggests teaming with local and national scientists to pinpoint climate change indicators and monitor them. After studying these indicators, governments can begin to plan for them.

Another goal is to have the region develop housing that is not only resilient to extreme weather but also sustainable and affordable. A way to do that locally, the plan says, is to find lower-risk areas to build.

“The Regional Resiliency Action Plan is really the first of its kind in Tampa Bay. It’s never been done before,” Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the planning council, said.

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Sullivan said the council voted to adopt the plan in November. He intends to take the plan to each local government this year and ask them to adopt it.

For some places, resiliency efforts are not new, Sullivan said.

“We learned from Pinellas County, we learned from Hillsborough County, we see what Pasco County is doing,” Sullivan said. “And we can gather that information together, build on that.”

This past hurricane season served as a harrowing reminder of the inherent risk that comes with living near a coast. Hurricane Ian, a monster Category 4 storm, wiped out homes and businesses in and around Fort Myers and killed more than 140 people. Even Hurricane Nicole, a historically late-season storm, caused waterfront homes to be swept into the Atlantic.

Hurricanes aren’t the only threat weighing on officials’ minds. Sea-level rise, dangerous heat, wildfires and droughts are also part of the picture. In 2022, for instance, the city of Tampa had its hottest year on record.

[The worst of Hurricane Ian missed Tampa Bay. What if it hadn’t?]

The plan also cites 11 actions that outline ways the region can collaborate to make a larger impact.

“I think those are really the most important things in the plan, is how we work together,” Serra said.

Among the strategies are lowering regional flood risk, talking with residents and businesses about the effects of climate change and creating local groups that define the best way forward for the community’s health.

Serra said the coalition will continue their previous working groups that focus on goals such as clean energy and clean shorelines, and will add more. She expects the next group will focus on stormwater and infrastructure, which will look at how to manage severe rainfall and sea-level rise.

Sullivan said adopting the plan better positions a city or county to apply for state and federal funding to enhance their own resiliency. The plan encourages governments to assess risks that weather poses to critical infrastructure, like fire stations and weather stations.

“We’re, of course, encouraging all of our member governments to conduct a vulnerability assessment, and the state is also encouraging that,” Serra said.

Governments that want to apply for The Resilient Florida Program grant funding must conduct one of these assessments. Regardless of the money, Serra said, it’s important for communities to identify their vulnerabilities to protect themselves.

“While we don’t want to scare anybody with the plan, we just want people to realize … depending upon where you build, you could be more vulnerable than other areas in the region,” Sullivan said. “And then how can we help best prepare you to protect your property, and more importantly, really, protect your life.”

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