Recent Op Eds

Florida, the Seas are Rising and the Time is Short

Tampa Bay Times, May 18, 2023

In the 1970s, an iconic commercial filled the airwaves promoting a margarine that was supposed to taste just as good as real butter.  At the end, a hippie earth mother with flowers in her hair intoned, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

Perhaps a more accurate statement is, “You can’t fool Mother Nature.”

But we keep trying anyhow.

After the impacts of Hurricanes Ian, Nicole, Michael and more have dominated the headlines in Florida for several years now, our state seems to be having the same discussions:  How quickly can we rebuild damaged and destroyed roads, bridges, and homes, how soon can we armor our coasts to lessen future damage, when can we get back to “normal”?

Meanwhile, South Florida is staggering from an “unprecedented” 1000-year storm event, with rainfall equaling that of a high-powered hurricane.  Fort Lauderdale received almost 26 inches of rain over a 24-hour period, with more on the way.   Hundreds have been rescued, the airport is closed through at least Friday morning, several exits on I-95 have been shut, and assessment of the full damage has yet to start.

While not on the same scale, Volusia and Flagler County residents are lamenting that they could not rebuild their seawalls – damaged from coastal erosion caused by Hurricanes Ian and Nicole – in time to stave off further damage from this week’s storm.

It is clear our changing climate is bringing increasing challenges to Florida.  In March, 1000 Friends of Florida and the University of Florida Center for Landscape Conservation Planning released the GIS-based Florida’s Rising Seas:  Mapping Our Future. Intended to guide Floridians to a clearer understanding of the vulnerability of our state’s lands, waters, and communities to the combined impacts of population growth, sea level rise, and development patterns, this project underlines the need to better plan for the future.

The Sea Level 2040 component indicates that within two decades, Florida’s population could grow by almost 5 million more residents and lose a million acres of land to sea level rise, resulting in the need to relocate more than 200,000 residents.  Of course, South Florida would be hit particularly hard with more than 36,000 residents in Miami-Dade, 18,000 in Lee and 15,000 in Broward counties facing relocation.

By 2070, Florida could have more than 12 million more residents, 1.7 million acres of land lost to sea level rise, and more than 900,000 residents needing to relocate, with more than half of them in South Florida alone.

It’s time to pivot the conversation from returning to “normal” to identifying how to plan for the “new normal.”  This involves tough conversations about where we should and shouldn’t allow development and redevelopment in Florida, whether it is sound public policy to continue taxpayer investment in roads and other infrastructure in vulnerable areas, how to protect natural lands that can buffer the impacts of storms and flooding in urban areas, and how to make “whole” residents who have experienced the trauma of losing everything.

Mother Nature is giving clear signals here.  It’s time to listen.

Oh, and Chiffon Margarine?  It hasn’t been on U.S. shelves for decades.

Vivian Young, AICP, is Communications Director for 1000 Friends of Florida and serves on the team for the Florida’s Rising Seas Project (1000fof.org/sealevel2040). 1000 Friends is a statewide not-for-profit organization that promotes planning strategies to save special places and build better communities in Florida.

Floods Show Persistent Need to Prepare for Climate’s ‘New Normal’

Orlando Sentinel, April 16, 2023

Our changing climate is bringing increasing challenges to Florida and “business as usual” no longer works.  Hurricanes – from Charlie, Irma, Michael, Ian, to Nicole – and the recent “unprecedented” 1000-year storm event in Fort Lauderdale show the pressing need for a better way forward in this era of more intense and frequent hurricanes and storm events. 

These events flood and destroy homes and businesses, damage public infrastructure, cause serious beach erosion, contaminate drinking water, harm local ecosystems, and much more.  They come with serious and sometimes lifelong financial and emotional costs for those impacted who must rebuild their lives – or mourn the loss of loved ones.  They also have a high price tag for taxpayers, who must cover the costs associated with repairing or replacing damaged public infrastructure and pay higher insurance rates to subsidize development in inappropriate locations. 

In addition to catastrophic events, Florida must also address the impacts of steadily rising seas.  The University of Florida Center for Landscape Conservation Planning and 1000 Friends of Florida recently released the GIS-based study, Florida’s Rising Seas:  Mapping Our Future.  In a nutshell, between now and 2070 Florida could add more than 12 million more residents and lose 190 acres of land a day to development.  Compounding this, Florida could lose another 92 acres of land a day (totaling 1.7 million acres) to sea level rise, resulting in close to a million Floridians needing to relocate, including about 200,000 residents in the coastal counties around Tampa Bay.  

While 2070 may seem a long way off, the study also reveals by 2040 Florida could grow by almost 5 million more residents and lose a million acres of land to sea level rise, forcing the relocation of more than 200,000 residents, including about 42,000 residents in the Tampa Bay region.  This is less than two decades away and a shorter timeframe than a 30-year mortgage.  It is also within the typical 20-year planning horizon used by many communities in our state.  

Florida’s Rising Seas provides guidance on planning for a more sustainable future.  First, Florida must commit meaningful and consistent funding to conserve the state’s priority natural and agricultural lands, including those in the Florida Wildlife Corridor.  If Florida would commit $500 million a year over the next 48 years it could protect 6 million acres of land, roughly three-quarters of the unprotected acreage in the Florida Wildlife Corridor.  With Florida standing to lose close to 70,000 acres of land a year to development, it is important to prioritize which lands are most essential – including lands needed to buffer developed areas from the impacts of sea level rise and storms – and which could be first lost to development. 

Second, Florida must encourage more sustainable development patterns.  This means avoiding development and redevelopment on sensitive lands in coastal areas and floodplains and promoting more compact development patterns to help slow the loss of Florida’s natural and agricultural lands.

Third, Florida – and its communities – also must take a page from the business community and incorporate fiscal responsibility into the planning process.  Insurance and mortgage companies routinely evaluate whether investing in development in vulnerable areas is a sound business decision and increasingly – and understandably – are reaching the decision it is not.  State and local government should likewise “run the numbers” before approving new development and redevelopment.

Our state and local leaders need to have the vision and political courage to protect sensitive natural and agricultural lands, support sound and fiscally responsible community planning, and make wiser decisions regarding the location, density and timing of new development and redevelopment moving forward.  The time to start is now.

Vivian Young, AICP, is Communications Director for 1000 Friends of Florida and serves on the team for the Florida’s Rising Seas Project (1000fof.org/sealevel2040). A statewide not-for-profit organization, 1000 Friends builds better communities and saves special places to create a more sustainable future for Florida.