Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

Thousands of years ago, researchers say, the people who lived in what we now call Florida had to accommodate rising seas.

They responded, excavations suggest, by retreating. Kenneth Sassaman, a University of Florida archaeologist, has theorized that some even picked up and reburied the bones of their ancestors.

This ancient problem is not so different from the conundrum Floridians face today, he thinks. It shows that nature is always in control, but people can adapt.

“The challenge we face today, though, is you just can’t pick up a city and move it,” said Andrea Dutton, a geoscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The world’s oceans are rising at an accelerating rate. Humans are quickly making the Earth hotter by burning fossil fuels, which puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Tampa Bay is already prone to storm surge flooding, a threat that sea level rise is only making worse.

So what should we do?

The only logical approach, experts say, is to study the risk and react.

Rising Threat: Neighborhood risk map

Search any Tampa Bay address to look up how many nearby buildings could flood from hurricanes.

Why should I worry about a flood that might happen many years from now?

Quite simply, because our investments — public and private — are supposed to last. If someone buys a house, they are likely taking on a 30-year mortgage.

The same goes for the roads and bridges we drive on or the pipes attached to our toilets and sinks. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to build something intended to last 75 years that washes out in 40.

Karen Love sweeps out water from inside the More Bazaar store in Gulfport the morning after Tropical Storm Eta in November 2020. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Florida has always suffered floods. We know how to deal with this, right?

Flooding exacerbated by climate change is a uniquely tricky problem.

Cities and counties run on tight budgets. Compared to priorities like scarce affordable housing, overcrowded jails or pothole-riddled streets, future flooding may seem less pressing — and its solutions less visible — to both politicians and the residents who vote them in or out of office.

The solutions are not cheap, either. In South Florida, further along on planning than anywhere else in the state, consultants for a regional climate change compact estimated it will take billions of dollars to build defenses for vulnerable cities, like raising structures and seawalls.

Related: Own or rent a home in flood-prone Florida? Here’s some advice.

The investment would probably be wise. Looking at federal grants, researchers have estimated every $1 spent to head off disasters today saves $6 in the long run.

But coming up with the money is already hard and could get harder. Some experts have suggested climate change could lead to a drop in home values near the water, but whether — or when — that will happen widely remains unclear. A recent report from Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit that tracks state government spending, warned that lenders will be less willing to offer 30-year mortgages for risky properties.

Water pools on W. Maritana Drive in St. Pete Beach, where work on drainage improvements was ongoing last fall.
Water pools on W. Maritana Drive in St. Pete Beach, where work on drainage improvements was ongoing last fall. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Local governments rely on property tax revenue, and public coffers will dwindle if the value of coastal buildings drops. Florida TaxWatch cautioned that the state could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes over the coming decades, while businesses stall and infrastructure is destroyed by flooding.

Bond rating agencies like Moody’s also are beginning to figure out climate risk. If vulnerability one day triggers lower bond ratings, it could become more expensive for governments to borrow money for flood-mitigation projects.

Related: Read the entire Rising Threat series

Florida TaxWatch recommended that leaders across the state explore several options, including cutting emissions, building to tougher standards in some places and retreating in others.

“It will be expensive, but the costs of inaction will be much greater,” the nonprofit’s report said. “Perhaps the most important first step is to stop making the problem worse.”

Visitors to Clearwater Beach wade in the shallow tide south of Pier 60 in June 2019.
Visitors to Clearwater Beach wade in the shallow tide south of Pier 60 in June 2019. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Can we build our way out of this problem?

Unlikely.

Building up only parts of a neighborhood creates other issues. Leaders have elevated roads higher than surrounding properties in Miami Beach. Some owners sued, according to the Miami Herald, saying their buildings flooded from water that previously drained to the street during storms.

Floridians have long defied nature by damming, draining and diverting water.

“The traditional way of dealing with water has been to engineer around it,” said Laura Lightbody, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Flood-Prepared Communities project. “Now, with all of the data that we have and the increased flood risk, we have to be planning with water versus engineering our way out of it.”

Already, officials are using federal dollars to buy and demolish homes that have flooded in the Florida Keys.

Workers finish an elevated waterfront home last fall overlooking Pass-A-Grille Channel near the mouth of Tampa Bay.
Workers finish an elevated waterfront home last fall overlooking Pass-A-Grille Channel near the mouth of Tampa Bay. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Why do we continue to build on the coast?

It’s lucrative because people dream of living there.

Developers can raise new buildings with sparkling views and make a quick payday. Cities benefit from the expanded tax base.

Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist with Florida Sea Grant, an education and research group that works with government agencies, said builders have the luxury of perhaps a five-year horizon to finish their work, giving them better odds of getting out before a flood.

But the threat does not go away.

“Who’s left with the long-term risk?” Ruppert said. Owners, banks, governments. “It’s the privatization of profits and the socialization of risks and costs.”

Sea level rise is such a major challenge, he said, that it may force leaders in Florida to reconsider even basic concepts relating to property, development and risk — including who shoulders the cost of vulnerability long-term and how.

What’s the difference between sea level rise and storm surge?

Sea level rise is incremental. Water levels have risen by fractions of an inch each year as global warming melts ice sheets and expands seawater, according to the National Ocean Service. Scientists say the Earth is locked into more warming because people burn fossil fuels. Research shows sea level rise could continue to pick up pace.

Higher water causes flooding. In Florida, it doesn’t only flow over seawalls but through the peninsula’s porous crust. Low-lying parts of Tampa Bay occasionally experience flooding on sunny days during peak tides, but it will take years for that phenomenon to become more widespread and frequent.

High winds and waves from Tropical Storm Eta buffet Bayshore Boulevard in November 2020.
High winds and waves from Tropical Storm Eta buffet Bayshore Boulevard in November 2020. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Storm surge is sudden and temporary, a result of hurricanes and tropical storms. Sea level rise makes the surge worse by escalating water levels. The resulting flood is like a fast-forward button, revealing places that could be soaked even by normal tides in the future.

Will people have to move?

Retreat is usually a last resort. Most governments are not seriously discussing the concept. People still pay millions of dollars for waterfront homes.

One testing ground is Satellite Beach, population just over 11,000, sandwiched between the Banana River and Atlantic Ocean. Water during Hurricane Irma in 2017 flooded the street outside the city’s fire station.

A canal channels water under S Patrick Drive at Cassia Boulevard in Satellite Beach in December 2019. The city's fire station sits in the background.
A canal channels water under S Patrick Drive at Cassia Boulevard in Satellite Beach in December 2019. The city’s fire station sits in the background. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Satellite Beach is moving the station and public works department to a spot inland that computer models show is less likely to flood.

City Manager Courtney Barker said both departments were due for an upgrade anyway.

“When you’re going to construct a new building, you want it to be there 50 years, otherwise it’s a waste of money,” she said.

Grounds supervisor John Heer, left, lubricated a brush cutter, while Andrew Robichaud, center, and Brad Elam repaired a tractor at the Satellite Beach Public Works building in December 2019.
Grounds supervisor John Heer, left, lubricated a brush cutter, while Andrew Robichaud, center, and Brad Elam repaired a tractor at the Satellite Beach Public Works building in December 2019. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Years ago, leaders in Satellite Beach commissioned the kind of vulnerability studies that other municipalities are only now pursuing. Barker said city leaders used to feel confident they would easily get the money whenever they applied for a grant. But now competition has picked up.

“Back in 2009, I think we got made fun of more than anything else,” she said. “Now we’re invited a lot to talk about our experiences.”

The city’s past studies have shown sea level rise alone will not imperil most homes for decades, but higher water levels with storm surge are already a danger. Residents assumed the Atlantic Ocean was their biggest threat, but models show neighborhoods closer to the Banana River are under the greatest risk.

The Banana River borders the western edge of Satellite Beach. Studies show neighborhoods in this area, on the Intracoastal Waterway and not the Atlantic Ocean, have the greatest risk of flooding.
The Banana River borders the western edge of Satellite Beach. Studies show neighborhoods in this area, on the Intracoastal Waterway and not the Atlantic Ocean, have the greatest risk of flooding. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Satellite Beach increased its stormwater fee, forcing the tax collector to change a computer program to accept three-digit numbers. It moved setback lines to the middle of existing properties. Homeowners might not be able to rebuild the same way if a storm wipes them out. Some made a legal challenge but later withdrew.

“I’m sorry, but we’re not taking your property,” Barker said. “The ocean is.”

Lawyers in Satellite Beach are drafting paperwork the city hopes to give to anyone requesting a future building permit. It will explain data showing increased flood risk. Barker said she wants people to understand what they are getting into, because too many assume securing a permit means they’re safe, when the city has little option but to approve applications that follow existing rules.

That does not mean she wants people to leave her hometown, where a decorative shorebird and sea turtle adorn the welcome signs and windsurfers slice through the waves at sunset. Barker believes Satellite Beach can organize itself around higher ground and better drainage.

“There will be 2 feet of water in my living room before I leave,” she said.

The Florida coastal city of Satellite Beach has been at the vanguard of climate change planning.
The Florida coastal city of Satellite Beach has been at the vanguard of climate change planning. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

What are Tampa Bay governments doing?

Some local cities and counties formed a resiliency coalition in 2018, nearly a decade after governments in Southeast Florida led the way. Fast-growing Pasco County initially did not join because a commissioner said he did not believe humans caused global warming. The county later reversed course.

Over the past few years, governments from big to small have taken steps toward preparedness. Tampa and Pinellas County hired coordinators to lead climate change and sustainability projects. St. Petersburg employs a sustainability director. An advisory committee formed in Tarpon Springs, and Oldsmar developed a climate plan.

An aerial photo shows downtown St. Petersburg with downtown Tampa in the background in October 2021.
An aerial photo shows downtown St. Petersburg with downtown Tampa in the background in October 2021. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Both Hillsborough County and Pinellas have commissioned studies on future flooding. Funding for Pinellas came in part from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement — money from one calamity going toward understanding another. In May, flood plain administrator Lisa Foster told county commissioners that Pinellas’ research shows some buildings along the coast should be elevated beyond federal standards. Clearwater’s leaders have already adopted those local standards for construction, according to a spokesperson.

Pinellas also has created a tool for community planners to contemplate sea level rise before investing in long-term projects.

“To plan for it, you have to understand what it looks like,” said Kelli Hammer Levy, the county public works director. “That’s kind of the first step we’re doing.”

An aerial photo shows the edge of the Palmetto Beach neighborhood in Tampa in September 2021.
An aerial photo shows the edge of the Palmetto Beach neighborhood in Tampa in September 2021. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Tampa’s engineering office won a $75,000 grant from the state to draw up a vulnerability study and strategy focusing on stormwater systems at risk of sea level rise, said spokesperson Lauren Rozyla. The city is pursuing additional grants for more research on how to protect its coast.

St. Petersburg, among other efforts, is planning a study on seawalls, hoping to toughen codes and make stronger barriers.

The city in 2020 moved toward a major shift in how it develops neighborhoods near the water. It historically had not allowed builders to increase density in places that could flood in a Category 1 hurricane, known as the Coastal High Hazard Area. That meant a property zoned for a single-family home could not suddenly be overhauled to fit a multistory condominium.

An aerial photo shows waterfront neighborhoods of St. Petersburg with the downtown skyline in the background.
An aerial photo shows waterfront neighborhoods of St. Petersburg with the downtown skyline in the background. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Council members and then-Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, backed a plan to allow more development in the risky zone in select cases, while also increasing building code standards. Critics, including some environmentalists, argue it’s foolish to steer people toward places that could flood.

But about 40 percent of land in the city falls in the Coastal High Hazard Area, forcing St. Petersburg to balance booming growth with the undeniable threat of storm surge. Supporters say allowing more development should encourage builders to replace old houses that would not withstand a storm.

This is like a flipside to retreat in a city that touts itself as one of the state’s most environmentally conscious: Where it’s impossible to live without risk, build higher and harder.

What is Florida’s state government doing?

The summer after he took office, Gov. Ron DeSantis hired Florida’s first-ever chief resilience officer. Julia Nesheiwat stayed less than a year before moving to a homeland security position under then-President Donald Trump.

She left a report that called the state’s climate change work “disjointed.”

For much of the previous decade, state leaders in Tallahassee had ignored or questioned the reality of climate change, while scattered cities and counties used grant money to study the risks.

“Florida needs a statewide strategy,” Nesheiwat wrote. “Communities are overwhelmed and need one place to turn for guidance.”

No one held the chief resilience officer position full time again until late 2021.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces a flooding resilience plan in Oldsmar in December 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces a flooding resilience plan in Oldsmar in December 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Former state Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and homebuilder, in 2019 said Florida had “lost a decade” on climate change.

Much of that era came under former Gov. Rick Scott, now a Republican U.S. senator, who oversaw the dismantling of Florida’s early efforts to reduce emissions and plan for climate change. Scott questioned human-made global warming during his campaign and later injected doubt by saying: “I’m not a scientist.” One news report suggested his administration banned the term “climate change” in state government, which Scott denied.

The Legislature is playing catch-up. Last year, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, spearheaded new policies under the moniker “Always Ready.”

The bills and annual budget steered hundreds of millions of dollars toward flood infrastructure projects and called for the creation of a research hub at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science. State officials and scientists will have to compile data on future flood risks and write a vulnerability assessment that contemplates sea level rise.

“There is no question of if it will happen — if we will have significant flooding in our state. The question is only, ‘When?’ ” Sprowls said when DeSantis signed the bills in May in Tarpon Springs.

Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls speaks at a news conference in September 2021, flanked by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls speaks at a news conference in September 2021, flanked by Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The governor in December debuted an initial Statewide Flooding Resilience Plan that would cover dozens of projects over three years to improve infrastructure, including building out stormwater systems and seawalls. During that announcement, DeSantis, a Republican who grew up in Dunedin, discussed the realities of living in storm-prone Florida.

“We’ve looked at what would happen if we had a big one in the Tampa Bay area: It would not be pretty in terms of the potential vulnerabilities,” he said. He mentioned Hurricane Michael and the intense winds that hit the Panhandle, but said newer buildings can withstand fierce gusts.

“When you just get a lot of water coming in, I mean, that’s like the worst for damage and it kind of paralyzes everything,” DeSantis said.

A couple of months later, DeSantis announced $404 million in resilience grants — an unprecedented package for Florida that drew on federal money. State leaders say they hope to devote hundreds of millions more toward similar projects in the next couple of years.

Category 5 Hurricane Michael devastated Mexico Beach in October 2018. Storm surge and wind leveled many houses by the water, floating this roof inland to U.S. 98.
Category 5 Hurricane Michael devastated Mexico Beach in October 2018. Storm surge and wind leveled many houses by the water, floating this roof inland to U.S. 98. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Environmental groups take issue with Florida’s approach to sea level rise. The nascent efforts focus on adapting to the consequences of climate change, critics say, and not aggressively cutting fossil fuel emissions that cause global warming. DeSantis has indicated Florida will probably not change its approach soon. When asked about tackling the causes of climate change during the December announcement, he said people who talk about global warming use it “as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing stuff they’d want to do anyways.”

In the last couple of years, bills to move Florida fully onto renewable energy sources within decades have died in Tallahassee. Lawmakers last year passed a policy making it harder for local governments to independently transition to renewable energy while at the same time approving the “Always Ready” package.

“This is like mopping a flooded bathroom floor without turning off the faucet,” Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of the climate advocacy CLEO Institute, said then.

Nicole Montalvo, 24, left, and Maurice Chinchilla, 25, walk with 3-week-old Emma Chinchilla at DeSoto Park Recreation Complex on McKay Bay in Tampa last month.
Nicole Montalvo, 24, left, and Maurice Chinchilla, 25, walk with 3-week-old Emma Chinchilla at DeSoto Park Recreation Complex on McKay Bay in Tampa last month. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Are there any lessons to learn outside Florida?

People who study flooding and preparedness sometimes point to the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina as a model.

Leaders there have aggressively pursued buyouts in neighborhoods at risk of repeated floods by overflowing creeks and streams. They have purchased and removed more than 400 homes, apartment buildings and businesses over roughly two decades at a cost of about $67 million. The buildings get torn down, the land returned to a more natural state. Some properties, if clustered, can be strung together into trails or a community garden.

“We’ve got a couple hundred lots out there where we’re just mowing the grass,” said David Love, a project manager in the flood mitigation program.

Officials estimate that buyouts have helped prevent $25 million in flood damage, and those savings could eventually top $300 million. The program helps taxpayers, according to the city, by reducing spending on emergency rescues and disaster relief.

The buyouts are voluntary, Love said. Every property in the flood plain is assigned a risk ranking, based on factors like elevation, whether outbuildings are exposed and where cars get parked. The government determines what fixes would work best — possibly elevating or demolishing a building entirely. This helps staff prioritize what to buy.

Officials send a letter or set up a meeting to tell residents about high flood risk and the city’s interest. People looking to move sometimes ask for a deal. The government pays for appraisals, then offers what it views as fair market value.

The system at one point involved substantial federal money but is mostly supported today by revenue from a local stormwater utility fee levied on surfaces like roofs, patios and concrete driveways that keep rain from seeping into the ground. Charlotte says the investment is about $4 million per year.

“We haven’t tried to stop and control the flooding,” Love said. “Our approach has been retreat.”

That may not work everywhere, he acknowledged. Mecklenburg County is not built out, meaning there’s plenty of room for people to move without shrinking the tax rolls. The water is not necessarily an amenity, either, especially by small creeks.

“That wouldn’t be the case on a barrier island or on a canal,” Love said.

Evana Foisy, 17, of Palm Harbor, examines a rock on the beach at Honeymoon Island State Park in April 2021.
Evana Foisy, 17, of Palm Harbor, examines a rock on the beach at Honeymoon Island State Park in April 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

St. Petersburg recently conducted a study of the area around Shore Acres and Riviera Bay, where hundreds of homes repeatedly flood. The city determined that buying and demolishing houses does not make financial sense.

“Not everyone wants to sell their home, so a checkerboard pattern of vacant and occupied lots often remains after a buyout project, leaving ‘holes’ in the neighborhood,” the city wrote. “There is no reduction in expenses to maintain the neighborhood’s infrastructure for the city, although the tax base is reduced.”

Part 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

Part 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don’t understand the risk.

Part 3: Read our guides for grasping and managing the threat — both individually and collectively.

The team

REPORTERS: Zachary T. Sampson, Langston Taylor

EDITORS: Amy Hollyfield, Mark Katches

PHOTOGRAPHERS: Douglas R. Clifford, Luis Santana, Martha Asencio-Rhine, Dirk Shadd

PHOTO EDITOR: Chris Urso

GRAPHICS: Langston Taylor, Paul Alexander and Ron Borresen

PRINT DESIGN: Paul Alexander

DIGITAL DESIGN: Martin Frobisher

COPY EDITOR: Tim Tierney

ENGAGEMENT: Meaghan Habuda, Carly Thompson and Joshua Gillin

VIDEO: Jennifer Glenfield

CONSULTANTS: Carolyn Fox, Maria Carrillo, Ashley Dye and Adam Playford

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