By Stan Zimmerman
Call it weather roulette. Last year started with a scare as the first named storm of the year came ashore north of Cedar Key just shy of hurricane strength. Tropical Storm Andrea arrived on the sixth day of a hurricane season forecasters predicted to be “busy.”
It wasn’t. Andrea was the only tropical system to make landfall in the United States. Overall 2013 was one of the least active seasons in decades. But it is only a matter of time, and this year Sarasota County is taking the wraps off a plan that will guide rebuilding after “the big one” hits.
It does not take a monster storm to do monstrous damage. Hurricane Ike came ashore along the Bolivar Peninsula of Galveston in 2008, a category two storm, but it wiped the barrier island clean with a 20-foot storm surge. Four years later Hurricane Sandy, only briefly a category two storm, ravaged the coastline from New Jersey to New England with a ten-foot surge.
In the past 85 years, a total of 17 tropical storms and hurricanes have passed within 25 miles of Sarasota. They include Hurricanes Donna (1960), Charlie (2004) and an un-named category three hurricane in 1944 that made landfall on Siesta Key, 70 years ago.
For decades local officials stress storm preparation. Acres of plywood are stored in local garages to cover windows and doors. Water supplies are often refreshed annually, and sales of Spam jump as the first days of storm season approach. People understand preparation.
But what about afterward? Do we rebuild exactly like before the catastrophe? Should homes be allowed so close to the so-called ‘velocity zone?’ As the recent controversy over flood insurance makes clear, how much longer will the residents of Wyoming subsidize Florida beachfront home owners’ federal flood insurance?
This spring local residents will be able to weigh in on these issues. Sarasota County is about to unveil a ten-chapter-long Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan, the long-awaited PDRP.
Not yet ready for prime time
Work on the PDRP began in 2008 with an epic cast of characters. Senior officials from Saraosta County and its cities were involved, barrier island associations were represented, law enforcement and architects, land planners and lawyers and a surprising number of local citizens all spent hours trying to get their arms around a post-storm reality. They were like a theater troupe, playing roles in an as-yet-unwritten play.
It turns out preparing for a storm is fairly easy, facilitated by modern forecasting that gives residents and officials plenty of advance warning. But the after-storm work is complicated, messy and expensive, the PDRP troupe found. Just paying to clear the roadways is a multi-million dollar expense. And taking debris to the dump costs more millions. The $40 million Sarasota County Commissioners socked away as an emergency fund for hurricane clean-up was soon found less than adequate as the numbers added up.
The kick-off meeting was on May 19, 2008. Yes, nearly six years ago. The lead-off speaker was fresh from a disaster of his own. Mitchell Austin, a city planner in Punta Gorda had fresh memories of the head-on collision with the compact and fast-moving hurricane named Charlie. “One year after the storm, half of the affected businesses were still not open for business,” he told the troupe. “There were permitting problems after the storm, because the permitting offices were gone.”
A galaxy of questions were raised at the kick-off. Who determines if a house is safe to reoccupy? Long-term temporary housing, where and for how long? How fast can infrastructure – water, sewer and power – be re-established? Can volunteers be managed, or trusted? How can tourism be restarted? How soon can people get back to work? Will non-conforming buildings be “grandfathered” for reconstruction or replacement?
Participants reassembled on Nov 17, 2008 to review progress. Four task forces were established: environmental restoration; housing and planning; infrastructure and public facilities; and economic redevelopment.
A follow-up meeting was held on Feb. 4, 2009, where attendees got their first glimpse of a vulnerability study conducted by then-doctoral candidate Tim Frazier of Penn State. It looked at how Sarasota County would be impacted by not only the storm surge of a hurricane, but also gradual increases in sea level. For example, a category three storm, combined with a three-foot rise in sea level by the end of the century would look very much like a category five storm from a flooding point of view.
April 15, 2009 saw another working group meeting. and again on July 31 as the participants began grappling with major questions and coming up with draft chapters. Then a disaster of another sort hit, and the PDRP was dropped cold.
When the Deepwater Horizon subsea oil well blew out in 2010, the Sarasota County PDRP was shelved because a real disaster was in progress. Between April and September an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil vented into the Gulf of Mexico during the biggest accidental oil spill in human history.
Sarasota County officials feared a south-flowing current along the western side of the Florida peninsula would carry the oil to local beaches, with catastrophic environmental and economic consequences. For a variety of reasons, that did not happen. The oil didn’t arrive, but neither did tourists who stayed away in droves.
Staffers involved in coastal and environmental issues were diverted to prepare for what seemed a looming disaster. When the oil slicks didn’t appear, their attention turned to civil litigation, attempting to recover from BP the lost tourist income and opportunity costs of Sarasota County’s reaction to the spill.
“We kept in communication with some of the representatives of the barrier island groups, so the concept stayed alive through the intervening years,” said Wreford. It was not until last year that county staff picked the PDRP off the floor, and restarted the process. Much smaller teams were reassembled to draft the chapters.
Early this year Wreford plans to go public. “We are close to the launch of the newly revisited chapters,” he said. “”We’re going to try to kick it off in February.” He plans to post the chapters on a county website, where people can either read it or download it. A series of workshops with neighborhood groups, homeowner associations, the Siesta Key Association and others will be planned, as well as an omnibus public workshop in the coming months.
How vulnerable are we?
Wreford gave us a peek at one of the almost-finished chapters. It addresses Sarasota County’s vulnerability to a hurricane. After receiving his PhD in geography from Penn State, Frazier updated his doctoral thesis with new information from his post as assistant professor at the University of Idaho. It is scary.
Frazier’s analysis finds 75 percent of the population of Siesta Key is “at risk” from the storm surge of a mere category one hurricane. It jumps to 95 percent for a category three storm. Other county areas are similarly impacted by a category three: Warm Mineral Springs In North Port (100 percent), the City of Venice (82 percent), Nokomis (95 percent) and Englewood (98 percent). In other words, the southern half of Sarasota county is at the same risk of storm surge damage as Siesta Key.
Frazier then says what nobody else dares to say: “Sarasota County is particularly vulnerable to the threat of SLR [sea level rise] due to the county’s extensive urban development in low-lying areas and along the coastlines, the economic important of tourism, its unique ecosystems and its reliance on groundwater.”
When Frazier combines a one-foot rise in sea level with the storm surge from a category three storm, much of south county simply disappears under water. More than 190,000 people are affected in their homes, or about half the county’s population. Frazier is now looking at historical rainfall patterns associated with hurricanes from the last 50 years, which just add to the danger and misery. Total rainfall is dependent on how fast a storm moves through the area, making it more difficult to model anything but the least- and most-severe examples. But even a minimal two inches of rain has an impact on the overall inundation.
Wreford knows the PDRP can do nothing to divert a hurricane. Emergency managers already have plans for evacuation, and the hardening of some key structures. “The plan is intended to guide and direct pre-storm activity, and provide an after-storm action plan.” For example, stockpiling forms for federal assistance in advance can save days and weeks of processing time. Simply by having the correct form.
“It is not an exact prescription, but rather an encouragement to look for opportunities to redevelop smarter and better and more resilient,” said Wreford. He’s quick to add, “Current residents and business owners would prefer to get back what they had before, and current law supports that. The PDRP asks, ‘Where are there opportunities?’ Maybe we can retreat a little bit from the Gulf shoreline.”
Meanwhile the people keep coming, and they want to live on the coast. Between1990 and 2008, population density increased by 32% in Gulf coastal communities in the United States. Although Sarasota County has slowed from its explosive population growth rate of the 1970s and 1980s, it grew even during the recent recession by 1.1 percent between 2010 and 2012.
The overwhelming majority of people living here today have never experienced the fury of a serious hurricane. Or the shock of its aftermath. An unspoken function of the PDRP makes residents and officials think beyond the storm to develop both personal and governmental responses that will speed recovery, and create the opportunity to mitigate the impact of the next “big one.”