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Major Hurricanes Helping Shape Regional Resiliency Climate Change Plans

St. Petersburg workers fill sandbags in 2016 in preparation for storm flooding.
City of St. Petersburg/
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Hurricanes such as Dorian are providing valuable data and modeling for planners and politicians working to battle climate change.

The process is called resiliency

For the past year, a coalition of six counties and 22 cities around Tampa Bay has gathered and coordinated data for everything from new transportation needs to zoning rules. The plan is to combat sea level rise and other climate change impacts. 

Dorian, last year's Hurricane Michael and 2017's Harvey showed that catastrophic tropical weather and their soaking days of rain are here to stay.

“This is sort of, unfortunately, the new normal,” said CJ Reynolds, the director of resilience and engagement for the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, “and we have to figure out how we need to look at our cities and our roads and our houses and think about how can we make ourselves more resilient.”

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The coalition’s members include the coastal counties and cities from Citrus to Manatee. They hope to develop regional solutions for issues including rising sea levels, rainfall, heat, wildfires, droughts, flooding and storms. The Tampa Bay regional coalition covers 4 million residents, or one in five Floridians. 

The idea is to coordinate the governments’ response to climate change, coming up with, among many other things, new building codes, zoning designations and transportation projects -- as well as adjusting county and municipal budgets to pay for them.

While major hurricanes such as Dorian are disastrous, they also provide a wealth of knowledge for storm-proofing buildings, roads and bridges, as well as effective disaster relief.

“The hurricanes provide really excellent information for us to figure out how storms are changing over time,” Reynolds said. “So as we saw with Dorian, quite a large development, very strong winds, and it just sort of slowed down and caused a lot of damage to the Bahamas.

“And we also looked at last year's hurricane and the impacts on Mexico Beach, where the extensive winds of the Category 5 creating a huge storm surge that just really severely impacted that community,” she continued. “And so the questions we all ask ourselves, how are we going to rebuild after that? What do we really need to take into consideration?”

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Reynolds adds that residents may not be aware of the Resiliency Coalition efforts but are already benefiting from the lessons learned from the major hurricanes.

Take neighborhood flooding, for example. The impact of major rain events, on top of already saturated ground, as Florida experienced this summer, is causing city and county officials to rethink how quickly they need to fix their infrastructure.

“It wasn't something that we needed to think about 50 years ago when we built the streets and the storm drains,” she said. “So if the (stormwater) outfalls were, you know, built in the ‘50s, we've had more than seven inches of sea level rise since 1946.“

It is an exercise going on statewide, especially in South Florida, where rising sea levels are already seen more dramatically. The state hired its first chief resilience officer earlier this year, and the city of Tampa plans to hire one, as well.

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Wayne Garcia is working with the WUSF newsroom and its digital media interns for the fall 2019 semester.