Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.
My father texted me photos he took in his new hometown of Portland, Oregon, a few weeks ago. The scene, pictured above, was a hellscape. The air was muddled with smoke, blocking out the sunlight during peak daylight hours and creating a suffocating gray-green atmosphere. It looked simply apocalyptic.
Portland’s air quality was ranked the worst in the world that week due to uncontrolled wildfires all over the West Coast. My mother, who suffers from asthma, had to sit and lie down at points because breathing became such a chore. I texted her advice I found online, such as to place buckets or pans of water around the house to collect dense particles and help clean the inside air. My parents evacuated two days later to find breathable air.
The same day my dad sent those pictures, five tropical cyclones raged in the Atlantic, only the second time in history so many active storms have existed there at the same time. I spent that weekend shoring up my hurricane supplies and piling a few cases of water in my garage in the Old Southeast. This year could potentially become the most active hurricane season in history, with the most named storms.
While my parents and I live on opposite ends of America, we face the same grave threat to our lives and our homes: climate change. The fires on the West Coast across California, Oregon and Washington this year have added up to the worst fire season on record, intensified by higher temperatures. And St. Petersburg, situated on a peninsula, is an especially vulnerable place to call home as storms worsen and become more frequent due to the effects of climate change.
These threats are true all around the world, but there are ways to mitigate our risks and still grow our cities responsibly. Right now, St. Petersburg’s City Council faces a choice when it comes to that growth.
Our leaders are carefully considering how to meet future demands in a land-constrained city that is expected to need a hell of a lot more housing down the road. To complicate matters, a 2016 update from the National Weather Service roughly doubled the amount of land in St. Petersburg that falls under the elevation of a Category 1 hurricane storm surge, according to the Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model. Just over 40% of St. Pete now lies in this category, known as the Coastal High Hazard Area (CHHA).
This week, the city is proposing to amend its comprehensive plan and relax a prohibition on increasing density and intensity of development within the CHHA boundaries. The CHHA amendment proposal potentially allows developers to build multifamily housing developments with higher density in areas where they never could before because it has been considered too vulnerable.
More people in flood zones is risky and irresponsible as climate change conditions worsen, because, apart from human loss and injury, there are significant costs to recovery from storm damage. It is a bad policy move for our city’s future, and the bigger picture here should focus on what is happening right now in the Atlantic and across the country. Climate change is worsening right before our eyes.
The proposed CHHA amendment also comes with a slew of new building standards that are a step in the right direction but are only minimally mandated on developers. Stronger building materials and higher design standards are the right way to move forward when it comes to coastal living. But in this case, it comes at the cost of putting more people at higher––and unnecessary––risk. It comes at the cost of the long-term safety of St. Petersburg. It misses the bigger the picture.
The CHHA amendment proposal doesn’t even hold up to how the rest of the state is moving forward with hurricane and flood risks, let alone long-term solutions being considered at the national level for flood-prone houses. While St. Petersburg considers adding density to its most vulnerable, water-prone areas, billions of taxpayer dollars are being used to retreat residents from the most exposed, soggy spots elsewhere in Florida.
St. Petersburg’s own Community Planning and Preservation Commission (CPPC), which reviews changes to the city’s comprehensive plan, zoning map and future land use map, does not recommend the CHHA amendment move forward and asks that the City Council not approve it. Yet the majority of City Councilmembers have steamrolled over the issue of climate change and repeatedly pushed forward a policy that disregards evidence-backed risks. Instead of acting like a coastal leader and looking to the long-term future of the Sunshine City, our leaders have turned a blind eye to science to focus only on the short-term economic opportunity of more development.
On Oct. 8, City Council will make a choice that could open up St. Petersburg for higher risks by approving the CHHA amendment proposal. The move could prove unnecessarily calamitous down the line. Our city needs a proactive plan, with a timeline and understanding of the cost and funding means to battle climate change as we grow. Relaxing regulations on flood-prone residential density isn’t worth the risk as sea levels rise and storms become more volatile and frequent.
Fortunately, residents also have choices on climate change in the form of elections. We get to choose who represents us. And we get to vote out leaders who aren’t promoting a safe, resilient future for St. Petersburg.