The area has been lucky, but it is due for a ma­jor hur­ri­cane. It isn’t ready.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAR­RYL FEARS IN TAMPA BAY

Mark Luther’s dream home has a win­dow that looks out to a world of wa­ter. He can slip out the back door and watch dol­phins swim by his pri­vate dock. Shore birds squawk from nearby nests in gi­ant man­groves.

He said it’s hard to imag­ine ever leav­ing this slice of par­adise on St. Peters­burg’s Bayou Grande, even though the wa­ter he adores is start­ing to get a lit­tle creepy.

Over the 24 years since he moved into the house, the bayou has inched up a pro­tec­tive sea wall and crept to­ward his front door. As sea level rises, a re­sult of global warm­ing, it con­trib­utes to flood­ing in his Vene­tian Isles neigh­bor­hood and Shore Acres, a neigh­bor­ing com­mu­nity of homes worth as much as $2.5 mil­lion, about 70 times per year.

“Why stay?” asked Luther, an oceanog­ra­pher who knows per­fectly well a hur­ri­cane could one day shove 15 feet of wa­ter into his liv­ing room. “It’s just so nice.”

Tampa Bay is mes­mer­iz­ing, with 700 miles of shore­line and some of the finest white sand beaches in the na­tion. But an­a­lysts say the met­ro­pol­i­tan area is the most vul­ner­a­ble in the United States to flood­ing and dam­age if a ma­jor hur­ri­cane ever scores a di­rect hit.

A Bos­ton firm that an­a­lyzes po­ten­tial cat­a­strophic dam­age re­ported that the re­gion would lose $175 bil­lion in a storm the size of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. A World Bank study called Tampa Bay one of the 10 most at-risk ar­eas on the globe.

Yet the bay area — greater Tampa, St. Peters­burg and Clear­wa­ter — has barely be­gun to as­sess the rate of sea-level rise and ad­dress its ef­fects. Its slow re­sponse to a ma­jor threat is a case study in how Amer­i­can cities re­luc­tantly pre­pare for the worst, even though signs of im­pacts from cli­mate change abound all around.

State lead­ers could be part of the rea­son. Repub­li­can Gov. Rick Scott’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­port­edly dis­cour­aged em­ploy­ees from us­ing the words “cli­mate change” in of­fi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Last month, the Repub­li­can-con­trolled state leg­is­la­ture ap­proved bills al­low­ing any cit­i­zen to chal­lenge text­books and in­struc­tional ma­te­ri­als, in­clud­ing those that teach the sci­ence of evo­lu­tion and global warm­ing.

The sea in Tampa Bay has risen nat­u­rally through­out time, about an inch per decade. But in the early 1990s, sci­en­tists say, it ac­cel­er­ated to sev­eral inches above nor­mal, so much that re­cent pro­jec­tions have the bay ris­ing be­tween six inches and more than two feet by the mid­dle of the cen­tury and up to nearly seven feet when it ends. On top of that, nat­u­ral set­tling is caus­ing land to slowly sink.

Sea-level rise wors­ens the sever­ity of even small storms, adding to the wa­ter that can be pushed ashore. Hard rains now reg­u­larly flood neigh­bor­hoods in St. Peters­burg, Tampa and Clear­wa­ter.

By a stroke of gam­bler’s luck, Tampa Bay hasn’t suf­fered a di­rect hit from a hur­ri­cane as pow­er­ful as a cat­e­gory 3 or higher in nearly a cen­tury. Tampa has dou­bled down on a bet that an­other won’t strike any­time soon, in­vest­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in high-rise con­do­mini­ums along the wa­ter­front and ship­ping port up­grades and ex­pand­ing a hos­pi­tal on an is­land in the mid­dle of the bay to make it one of the largest in the state.

Once-sleepy St. Peters­burg has grad­u­ally fol­lowed suit, adorn­ing its down­town coast with high-rise con­do­mini­ums, new shops and ho­tels. The city is in the fi­nal stages of a plan to build a $45 mil­lion pier as a ma­jor at­trac­tion that would ex­tend out into the bay.

Wor­ried that area lead­ers weren’t ad­e­quately fo­cused on the down­side of liv­ing in a tropic, the Tampa Bay Re­gional Plan­ning Coun­cil re­minded them of the risks by sim­u­lat­ing a worst-case sce­nario hur­ri­cane, a cat­e­gory 5 with winds ex­ceed­ing 156 mph, to demon­strate what would hap­pen if it en­tered the Gulf of Mex­ico and turned their way.

The fic­ti­tious Phoenix hur­ri­cane sce­nario projects that wind dam­age would de­stroy nearly half a mil­lion homes and busi­nesses. About 2 mil­lion res­i­dents would re­quire med­i­cal treat­ment, and the es­ti­mated death toll, more than 2,000, would top the num­ber of peo­ple who per­ished from Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in Louisiana and Mis­sis­sippi.

Florida’s most densely pop­u­lated county, Pinel­las, could be sliced in half by a wave of wa­ter. The low-ly­ing county of about a mil­lion is grow­ing so fast that there’s no land left to de­velop, and main roads and an in­ter­state con­nect­ing it to Tampa get clogged with traf­fic even on a clear day.

“If a hur­ri­cane 4 or 5 hit us,” St. Peters­burg City Coun­cil Chair­man Dar­den Rice said, re­fer­ring to the two high­est cat­e­gory storms, “there’s no doubt about it. The plan is you’d bet­ter get out of Dodge.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buck­horn’s warn­ing was even starker. Stand­ing out­side City Hall last year, he de­scribed what would hap­pen if a hur­ri­cane as small as a cat­e­gory 3 with 110 mph to 130 mph winds hit down­town.

“Where you’re stand­ing now would be 15 feet un­der wa­ter,” he said.

‘You live in a par­adise, and that’s won­der­ful, but it has storms’

Video sim­u­la­tions of hur­ri­canes that strafed Florida but missed Tampa Bay look like an epic game of dodge­ball.

“It’s like we’re in this sweet spot. It’s like we’re blessed some­how, pro­tected,” said Al­li­son Yeh, a plan­ner for Hills­bor­ough County in Tampa.

The last di­rect hit from a cat­e­gory 3 in 1921 left the area in ru­ins, but few peo­ple lived there then. A sin­gle death was recorded.

Now, with 4 mil­lion res­i­dents and gleam­ing new in­fra­struc­ture, the stakes are higher, and Yeh and her fel­low plan­ners are wary. They know a ma­jor hur­ri­cane like one of sev­eral that barely missed the bay in re­cent years would have a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect.

There are few hur­ri­cane-proof build­ings in the bay area. One is a gallery, the Sal­vador Dali Mu­seum in down­town St. Peters­burg with 18-inch-thick con­crete walls and pres­sured glass sup­ported by steel frames that could with­stand any­thing the afore­men­tioned storms could dish out. The build­ing su­per­vi­sor could stand at the win­dows and watch a hur­ri­cane pass as though it were on the Weather Chan­nel.

The mu­seum is bet­ter pro­tected than one of the largest hos­pi­tals in the state, Tampa Gen­eral, which sits on Davis Is­land, a spit of earth that was dredged from muck at the bot­tom of the bay a few years af­ter the last hur­ri­cane hit. Buck­horn said a cat­e­gory 3 hur­ri­cane would level the is­land’s houses, in­clud­ing his own.

Tampa Gen­eral has a thor­ough evac­u­a­tion plan, in­door gen­er­a­tors that can sup­ply en­ergy for sev­eral days, and safe floors with re­in­forced walls and win­dows.

But parts of two bridges that lead to and from the is­land would be cut off by flood­wa­ters, a con­cern of of­fi­cials in spite of as­sur­ances by the hos­pi­tal’s man­agers that there’s a con­tin­gency for that, too.

Florid­i­ans view hur­ri­canes with the same bravado of Ok­la­homans who face tor­na­does and Cal­i­for­ni­ans who brave earth­quakes and wild­fire: They come with the ter­ri­tory, a fact of life in a tropic, they say.

But other prob­lems are less ab­stract than big hur­ri­canes. Sea-level rise doesn’t need a megas­torm to make its pres­ence felt.

“Even when we don’t take a di­rect hit, even when it’s a trop­i­cal storm or a cat­e­gory 1, the rain it de­liv­ers to our city puts enor­mous stress on our rain­wa­ter and sewer col­lec­tion sys­tem,” Rice said.

Wa­ter is bub­bling up all over Florida. Within the next 12 years, ac­cord­ing to an as­sess­ment by a group of re­searchers, Risky Busi­ness, the value of state prop­erty that will van­ish un­der en­croach­ing wa­ter could reach $15 bil­lion. By 2050, it could reach $23 bil­lion.

Along the bar­rier is­lands that lured more than 6 mil­lion tourists who spent nearly $10 bil­lion last year, gov­ern­ments spend a mix of lo­cal and fed­eral funds to re­nour­ish beaches lost to ero­sion that even a trop­i­cal storm can cause.

“The bay’s get­ting higher, and the bay needs to go some­where else. But there’s nowhere for the wa­ter to go,” said Mark Hafen, a Univer­sity of South Florida in­struc­tor who spe­cial­izes in ur­ban and re­gional plan­ning.

A team of plan­ners in Hills­bor­ough County said they fight against the po­ten­tial im­pact of ris­ing wa­ter ev­ery day, cre­at­ing al­ter­na­tive bus routes and de­tours for flooded roads and try­ing to get the mes­sage out to res­i­dents in low-ly­ing ar­eas that their homes could be ru­ined.

“You live in a par­adise, and that’s won­der­ful, but it has storms,” said Eu­gene Henry, mit­i­ga­tion man­ager for Hills­bor­ough County. He preaches about im­proved coastal in­spec­tion, color-coded warn­ings for res­i­dents de­pend­ing on how low their homes are in a flood zone, mak­ing them more aware of the threat so they can take steps to pro­tect them­selves.

“If the in­evitable mon­ster storm comes, it’s not go­ing to keep you safe from 30 feet of storm surge,” he said, but they’ll know when the tide rises to put shut­ters up. New struc­tures built on the Florida coast, along with homes seek­ing ma­jor ren­o­va­tions, are man­dated to have three feet of clear­ance from flood­wa­ters.

Plan­ners in Tampa Bay are notic­ing that flood­wa­ter is stick­ing around longer. As the wa­ter rises, it’s fill­ing huge out­fall pipes, push­ing wa­ter that would flow down a storm drain back onto streets.

Tampa and Hills­bor­ough County of­fi­cials have con­sid­ered levy­ing a tax to help fix a grow­ing prob­lem, but in a state where Repub­li­cans op­posed to taxes con­trol the gov­er­nor’s of­fice and the leg­is­la­ture, that’s a tough sell.

“We do have a real chal­lenge with our storm wa­ter drainage sys­tem,” said Beth Alden, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Hills­bor­ough Metropoli-

tan Plan­ning Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which re­cently spent mil­lions to clear huge pipes blocked by bar­na­cles left by in­creas­ingly swollen tides. “This isn’t a glam­orous ex­pen­di­ture, some­thing you’re go­ing to go have a rib­bon cut­ting for.

“It’s some­thing that if we don’t have the fund­ing to keep up, it’s not go­ing to be there. What we’ve been see­ing is a very con­ser­va­tive state leg­is­la­ture that has been com­ing out and try­ing to re­duce the abil­ity of lo­cal gov­ern­ments to levy taxes.”

In Hafen’s eyes, there’s an ad­di­tional prob­lem, one that of­fi­cials who work at the plea­sure of politi­cians are re­luc­tant to dis­cuss.

“We’ve had a re­ally hard time get­ting buy-in on sea-level rise on this side of the bay,” Hafen said. “Hills­bor­ough County and Tampa are su­per con­ser­va­tive. They’re bury­ing their heads in the sand.”

Pinel­las County, on the other side of the bay, is more pro­gres­sive about ad­dress­ing cli­mat­e­change im­pacts, Hafen said. But that didn’t hap­pen un­til fairly re­cently. It took a nerdy Univer­sity of Florida county ex­ten­sion agent to help open ev­ery­one’s eyes.

‘They weren’t do­ing a lot to ad­dress cli­mate change and sea-level rise’

El­iz­a­beth Car­na­han was plucked from academia by the county’s di­rec­tor of sus­tain­able liv­ing. Her new role was to fo­cus on cli­mate change and en­gage with oth­ers to make the county more re­silient to its im­pacts, and Car­na­han took it se­ri­ously.

But Car­na­han didn’t see a lot of area col­lab­o­ra­tion in plan­ning.

“They weren’t do­ing a lot to ad­dress cli­mate change and sea-level rise,” she said. “They were will­ing, but no one was go­ing to the head of the pack to take it on.”

But they were else­where, in Gulf Coast states that were hit by Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and the South­east Florida area of Fort Laud­erdale and Mi­ami that was raked by hur­ri­canes con­stantly in the first years of the new cen­tury.

Car­na­han dropped in on their meet­ings, talked to plan­ners and lis­tened to their sea-level rise pro­jec­tions and vul­ner­a­bil­ity as­sess­ments. Af­ter three years of net­work­ing out­side the bay, she gath­ered what she con­sid­ered the best ideas she heard and im­ported them to Pinel­las County.

The county spon­sored a three-hour work­shop at the Wee­don Is­land Pre­serve that Mark Luther can see from his flood-risk home. Af­ter that gath­er­ing, Car­na­han no­ticed a change in of­fi­cials in the 30 cities in Pinel­las County.

“I could see them call­ing each other a lot more to share what each other were do­ing,” she said. Watch­ing this, Car­na­han’s boss, Mary Camp­bell, floated an idea to get sci­en­tists to­gether to make cli­mate-re­lated rec­om­men­da­tions to lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

That group be­came the Cli­mate Sci­ence Ad­vi­sory Panel. Within months, they helped es­tab­lish the One Bay Re­silient Com­mu­nity, loop­ing Hills­bor­ough and Pasco coun­ties into a net­work that works on cli­mate-re­lated prob­lems.

Tampa Bay now pro­duces a cli­mate re­port that com­pares to the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment, of­fer­ing pro­jec­tions for sea-level rise specif­i­cally for their re­gion. It is used to plan bridges and roads, to site govern­ment build­ings that are sup­posed to last at least 75 years.

‘You hear when it starts to storm, and you can’t sleep’

Liv­ing in near-poverty in Clear­wa­ter, Jes­sica Lopez said she has lit­tle time to worry about a threat that might ar­rive years down the road. For her, the fu­ture is now.

Last year around June, she fell asleep as rain pounded her mo­bile home and awoke to a ter­ri­fy­ing sight. The rain hadn’t stopped, and wa­ter from an over­flow­ing creek had climbed the stairs to her front door.

Lopez, her hus­band, Matt, and their daugh­ter, Aurora, were trapped. Wa­ter was four feet deep in places, up to her neck. She was six months preg­nant with a sec­ond daugh­ter.

At least two ven­omous wa­ter moc­casins swam past a trailer. A com­mu­nity sep­tic tank that sits di­rectly be­hind Lopez’s back win­dow flooded. “The fe­ces,” she said, “was ev­ery­where.” She put her head in her hands. “It was so gross.”

The prob­lem got worse. Wet dirt shifted un­der her trailer, caus­ing it to tilt. Lopez wor­ried they would not sur­vive.

But Pinel­las County res­cuers quickly rushed to the scene. The county is so flood prone that the Mariners Cove Mo­bile Home Park is one of nu­mer­ous “hot spots” that emer­gency man­age­ment de­part­ment of­fi­cials watch closely when it storms.

“We know at those lo­ca­tions, if we get too much rain and get high tide, we know they’re vul­ner­a­ble,” said Kelli Ham­mer Levy, di­rec­tor of the county’s en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment divi­sion.

Three months later, Mariners Cove Mo­bile Home Park flooded again when Trop­i­cal Storm Her­mine took a swipe at Tampa Bay.

Now Lopez is fright­ened when­ever it rains. “You hear when it starts to storm, and you can’t sleep,” she said. “I’m con­stantly wor­ried now when it floods and the dirt shifts, it’ll tilt us more and more side­ways.”

She and her hus­band had no idea that the mo­bile park home was a county hot spot when they moved there about a year ago. Like sev­eral res­i­dents there, she said man­agers didn’t in­clude that in­for­ma­tion when they signed leases for the land where their trail­ers sat.

The county’s flood­plain co­or­di­na­tor told Levy that no­ti­fy­ing po­ten­tial ten­ants of a flood risk is rec­om­mended but not re­quired. Renters and lease­hold­ers are of­ten left in the dark.

Leav­ing is not much of an op­tion, Lopez said. “If we were to move with­out pay­ing off the trailer, they would undo every­thing we’ve done. We’ve paid about $2,000. They would just void that.”

Repet­i­tive flood­ing is so dire that county of­fi­cials con­sid­ered buy­ing out the mo­bile home leasers and re­lo­cat­ing them but lacked the funds, Levy said. The county had al­ready spent $300,000 to pur­chase nearly three dozen homes near McKay and Allen creeks in Largo and re­lo­cate the own­ers.

‘Peo­ple who want to live on the wa­ter­front will al­ways live on the wa­ter­front’

In Shore Acres, the wealthy com­mu­nity next to Mark Luther’s neigh­bor­hood, res­i­dents are much bet­ter in­formed about the area’s flood­ing, and have far more op­tions.

Like Lopez, they’re stay­ing. Many Vene­tian Isles and Shore Acres res­i­dents have poured thou­sands of dol­lars into homes to ac­cent their bayou views. But it might be a trap. Nearly all of Shore Acres is con­sid­ered a repet­i­tive loss area where homes have flooded more than once and re­quired com­pen­sa­tion from in­sur­ers. Street flood­ing hap­pens af­ter rains and high tides.

Eighty per­cent of homes in the area are what plan­ners call “slab-on-grade.” It means their liv­ing rooms are one step from the ground or less. More than 1,500 are sub­ject to flood­ing, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of repet­i­tive loss flood­ing by the city of St. Peters­burg.

Since 1978, 29 homes have made 129 flood in­sur­ance claims to­tal­ing $2.9 mil­lion. A sig­nif­i­cant flood or a cat­a­strophic storm could ruin a thou­sand more, trig­ger­ing ma­jor in­sur­ance claims.

St. Peters­burg, like Tampa, is spend­ing mil­lions in an at­tempt to clear storm drains that are sup­posed to col­lect wa­ter from streets and dump it back into Tampa Bay. The city is also im­plor­ing own­ers of slab-on-grade homes to con­sider build­ing mounds to raise them three feet from the ground.

It’s a tough sell for some­one like Luther, whose home was built long be­fore any­one started talk­ing about ac­cel­er­ated sea-level rise.

“I’m not sure you can el­e­vate this type of house,” he said. “It’s U-shaped and fairly large, 3,700 square feet.” Luther’s house is brick with ter­razzo floors “that would crack to pieces.”

But there’s one op­tion that Vene­tian Isles res­i­dents have that Lopez in her Clear­wa­ter trailer park does not, and Luther is con­sid­er­ing it. The real es­tate mar­ket in par­adise is hot, and he can sell.

“Peo­ple who want to live on the wa­ter­front will al­ways live on the wa­ter­front,” Luther said, a ref­er­ence to the rich. “Ev­ery house on my street that sold within the past 10 years, they’ve knocked it down and built a 10,000- or 12,000-square-foot mini-man­sion on top of it.”

Car­na­han sec­onded that. On the edge of Tampa Bay, where the dan­ger from a colos­sal storm is worse, homes in Vene­tian Isles and flood-prone Shore Acres are still be­ing snatched up.

“I can’t be­lieve what houses here are sell­ing for,” she said.

“I’m con­stantly wor­ried now when it floods and the dirt shifts, it’ll tilt us more and more side­ways.” Jes­sica Lopez, who lives in a mo­bile home park in Clear­wa­ter, Fla.


Mark Luther and Jes­sica Lopez, who both live in the Tampa Bay area, could see ma­jor dam­age to their homes in the event of a hur­ri­cane.



Tampa Gen­eral, one of the largest hos­pi­tals in Florida, has a backup gen­er­a­tor and re­in­forced walls. But of­fi­cials are con­cerned about the bridges lead­ing to it be­ing cut off by wa­ter dur­ing a storm.

Note: Data il­lus­trate height of pos­si­ble storm surge flood­ing and are es­ti­mates. This map should not be used to re­place those used for hur­ri­cane evac­u­a­tion zones. Sources: NOAA SLOSH storm surge data (2014), Florida Ge­o­graphic Data Li­brary. Pop­u­la­tion gri

Amount of high tide in­un­da­tion un­der cat­e­gory 5 storm surge 1 foot 19 Clear­wa­ter Mariners Cove Mo­bile Home Park Gulf of Mex­ico De­tail R I D A Old Tampa Bay St. Peters­burg 275 589 Tampa Bay 21 feet or more Tampa Int’l Air­port MacDill AFB Vene­tian Isles Shore Acres Dali Mu­seum 41 275 Tampa 4 Tampa Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal 75 5 MILES


The view from St. Peters­burg’s Sal­vador Dali Mu­seum, which was de­signed to with­stand a ma­jor hur­ri­cane.

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