Manatee officials respond to climate change threats at sluggish pace

Manatee officials respond at sluggish pace

kirby@bradenton.comJune 16, 2014 

MANATEE -- National and local experts say the Tampa Bay area could suffer dire consequences as a result of climate change, but local environmentalists say you wouldn't know it from the way local government officials treat the issue.

Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving public and environmental health, said they've been trying to get Manatee County to address climate change threats for decades, and started a more concentrated effort in 1996.

"I think it's falling on deaf ears," Compton said. "Both with local leaders and our business community."

Park and Natural Resources Department Director Charlie Hunsicker said he gets defensive about such claims, but couldn't name many projects the county was working on to combat the effects of climate change.

"We're not going to be able to stop climate change and sea level rise," Hunsicker said. "It's inevitable."

Hunsicker said the county is trying to stay ahead of sea level rise by funding projects such as construction of salt marsh wetlands, planting more trees and using solar energy to mitigate the effects of climate change. But the county did not try to slow development of the coast or take other action against sea level rise, he said.

The National Climate Assessment, produced by the federal government's Global Change Research Program, was released in May and caused a national outcry, from people demanding action on climate change and people who denied the findings, or at least denied they are man-made.

The assessment made several observations specific to Florida and the Tampa Bay area, saying Miami and Tampa are some of the areas most at risk for sea level rise in the United States and that Florida will have an increasing amount of days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees. Climate change's effects on hurricanes are less certain, but scientists believe it makes them more intense and more frequent.

Having more days that exceed 95 degrees is harmful to overall health, according to the report. The report predicts energy use will increase as Floridians turn up air conditioning to avoid the heat, which will stress existing infrastructure and generating capacity. Heat also softens asphalt, damages roadways and can cause more frequent and intense wildfires.

Sea level rise brings a multitude of risks in addition to simply cutting into beach property, and poses the highest risk to coastal communities such as Manatee County.

Higher sea levels will impair storm water drainage systems' ability to empty into the ocean, and rising oceans mean saltwater could contaminate freshwater sources. Officials in Hallandale Beach have already abandoned six of eight drinking wells, according to the assessment.

"We're going to see impacts on existing infrastructure, certainly eco-tourism will be impacted because we'll more than likely lose our coastal beaches that attract a lot of tourists to the area," Compton said. "I expect insurance rates would increase as a result of more flooding, and places that are not currently in flood zones will become flood zones."

Compton said Anna Maria Island especially was overdeveloped, and local officials have dug themselves into a hole. The best and cheapest option for the area to deal with climate change would have been to retreat from the coastline, Compton said, but that might not be a solution anymore.

"We've been saying that retreat is the best option, but that's virtually impossible with the way we've developed the coast," Compton said. "So it becomes a question of how much money do you want to put into protecting the coastline and what's the appropriate way to do so."

David Teitelbaum, president of four resorts and a developer on Anna Maria Island, said he understands the risks of sea level rise, but it hasn't slowed sales or activity on Anna Maria, so he's still in business. He said there's a time to move and it's a worry, but not an immediate concern.

"Am I rushing to sell? No." Teitelbaum said.

Recommendations coming

One Bay Resilient Communities Working Group was created May 2 to help understand the consequences of sea level rise in the local area. The Regional Climate Adaptation Technical Advisory Committee, a team of scientists and academics, will make a recommendation sometime later this year about probable levels of sea rise in the Tampa Bay area.

One Bay will then use that information to make recommendations to local governments about measures that need to be taken to prevent sea level rise. However, it's ultimately up to governments how, and if, they will respond.

The group can review the comprehensive plans put forth by governments and make a formal objection if there are "egregious oversights," but Maya Burke, senior environmental planner for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, said that's never happened. The organization is primarily meant as an advising tool not as an enforcement on governments.

"We prefer to lead with carrots, not with sticks," she said.

Libby Carnahan, University of Florida sea grant agent for Pinellas County, said One Bay Resilient Communities Working Group started coming together about a year ago.

"We just started seeing a lot of interest, people were asking about how sea level rise would affect the area," she said.

The group is just starting to make projections about the amount of sea level rise in the coming years. Globally, the average is 3.2 millimeters per year, according to the United Nations Environment Program, and 12 millimeters per year in the Caribbean.

Bradenton officials seemed less concerned with the effects of climate change. Mayor Wayne Poston said he'd rather be left out of the issue, which he said he knows little about.

At the state level, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has typically responded to questions on climate change with: "I'm not a scientist."

Compton said tropical storm and hurricane impacts and evacuations are another non-issue for policymakers but should definitely be more of a concern, even if storms don't get worse.

"I don't want to be on Anna Maria when a hurricane comes because quite frankly I don't know if I could evacuate off it safely and in enough time," he said. "That in and of itself is a scary aspect."

Don Hermey, emergency management chief of the Public Safety Department for Manatee County, said he hasn't noticed tropical storms and hurricanes getting worse but he has noticed an increase in frequency. The No. 1 year in storms was 1933, the second was 2005, and third place is a tie between 2010, 2011 and 2012, he said, with 19 storms each.

Hermey wouldn't say specifically whether he believes in climate change, but said he listens to experts and pays attention to what's being monitored.

After the 2005 hurricane season, Manatee reassessed its hurricane readiness and decided to build the Emergency Management Building, a hardened emergency operations building that can withstand 200-mph winds. It was made to handle large events such as wildfires, hurricanes and pandemics.

Manatee also decided its disaster readiness program should be accredited, which involved having the entire comprehensive plan evaluated. Manatee was the fourth of five accredited counties in Florida.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency produces updated flood evacuation maps every year based on new information such as more exact topography readings. The maps are meant to aid disaster preparation, and not to predict sea level rise. The most recent update for Manatee County was in March.

Besides those actions, most taken to prepare for natural disasters, the county hasn't done a lot to address climate change threats. Compton said it's been obvious to him for a while the issue is not a priority, and while it's good local officials are starting to study the effects of climate change on the area, they should've started 30 years ago.

"Let's hope that it's not too little too late," he said.

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