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Emotions spill over at city flooding forum

Mark Parker

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From left: Councilmember Brandi Gabbard, Mayor Ken Welch and Councilmember Ed Montanari hear resident's concerns at the Feb. 13 Resilience Community Listening Session. Photo by Mark Parker.

Flooding is an increasing problem on the St. Petersburg peninsula, and residents of low-lying communities implored city officials to “do something” in an emotional and informative public forum Tuesday night.

Over 185 people attended the Resilience Community Listening Session at the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Research and Education Building. They heard an hour of official presentations before airing their concerns and questions for about 75 minutes.

Mayor Ken Welch, several administrators and Councilmembers Brandi Gabbard and Ed Montanari – who represent flood-prone Riviera Bay and Shore Acres, respectively – dutifully took notes during the public forum. Residents from the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods must wait for a thorough discussion of potential solutions.

“We’re seeing flooding impacts like we’ve never seen in our city,” Welch said. “So, along with that elevated impact, we are putting together an elevated response.”

He called listening to residents an important first step. The city will implement short-term solutions before making long-term investments in partnership with the private sector and state and federal governments.

State Rep. Lindsay Cross, Sen. Daryl Rouson and Sen. Nick DiCeglie, participating in the legislative session, sent recorded messages. Aids from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and Sen. Marco Rubio’s office attended the event.

As myriad residents noted, the situation is dire. Many have lost their livelihoods multiple times in recent years. One attendee said she and her daughter, 6, now fear the rain.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) paid $129.31 million in St. Petersburg claims since 1978. Federal agencies have provided $48.76 million to homeowners in the less than six months since Hurricane Idalia passed hundreds of miles offshore.

Gabbard, who also chairs the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, noted that 95% of her district sits in a Coastal High Hazard Area. She called flooding-induced displacement of residents “heartbreaking.”

Gabbard said the city has made critical infrastructure investments that were “quite frankly, neglected when prior elected officials, who took pride in keeping rates low, sacrificed and under-invested in maintenance and operations.”

“Since 2016, our city has been playing catch-up to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” Gabbard added. “However, it’s time to pivot those investments into a focused plan of attack.”

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard, a long-time environmental resiliency advocate, represents the flood-prone Riviera Bay neighborhood.

She said the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council would assist with those efforts. Gabbard has requested municipal funding to help residents who cannot wait for federal reimbursements elevate their homes.

However, she noted that lasting solutions require considerable time and money. Gabbard also said some residents – in unaffected areas – prefer a managed retreat from continuously flooded neighborhoods.

“There may be a select number of properties where this is, unfortunately, the only measure that will make sense,” Gabbard said. “However, as long as I am on the city council, I will never give up on our neighborhoods.

“We will fight together to ensure neighborhoods like Riviera Bay, Shore Acres, Coquina Key … are viable for the next generation of St. Pete residents.”

Here is a sample of attendees’ questions and comments:

“It feels like there’s a lot of optics from the city without a lot of action,” said a Shore Acres resident. “My second question is actually for the gentleman from FEMA – why on God’s green earth is repetitive flood-loss data not available to the public?”

“We repeatedly (report) storm drains and concerns there with backflow and … feel that those are not being addressed, and not being addressed in a timely fashion,” said a Bonita Bayou resident. “We see water come up – not on a king tide, not on a heavy rain – but on a daily basis.”

“It seems like we’re ready to spend an estimated $1.6 billion building a new stadium that will not solve none of these problems,” said a Shore Acres resident to roaring applause. “But this is a solution that deserves attention, resources and long-term spending.”

“Those canals are so full of silt and dirt … and I know there has been no dredging in at least a decade,” said a Riviera Bay resident. “So, that might be an option. We’re not flooding by feet, people; we’re flooding by inches.”

Many attendees from St. Petersburg’s most vulnerable neighborhoods gave impassioned pleas for help at the event.

Kevin Batdorf, president of the Shore Acres Civic Association, noted that residents have waited nearly six years for the city’s Stormwater Master Plan. Officials will release the oft-discussed but much-delayed initiative that recommends $760 million in projects sometime this year.

Batdorf said over 1,200 homes recently flooded, and water overtakes area roads “every other day.” He thanked city officials for their latest efforts but said none of the neighborhood’s 56 backflow preventers work, and crews will only replace 14 this year.

“We need to let you know we’re frustrated,” Batdorf said, his voice breaking with emotion. “We’re heartbroken. Where was this money for the past 10 years – for the past five years?”

Welch concluded the event by telling attendees he would not ask for their trust. However, he did urge them to “work with us” through community task forces.

“I’ve been the mayor for two years,” Welch added. “This is an issue that has built over time. We are all in on this.”

To view the city’s presentation and submit feedback, visit the website here.

 

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Rita Sewell

    February 15, 2024at4:53 pm

    Slab on grade homes built in the 1960-1970 in a low lying area of a peninsula were a recipe for disaster and now we are seeing the issue daily. My daughter works in Shore Acres and I caution her about driving in salt water. Rising sea levels cannot be mitigated. It is a very sad state of affairs for all those impacted. The fact that realtors are failing to disclose flood damaged properties is because they have convinced politicians to block disclosure. I say it is the price of living in Pair-O-Dice. Are you willing to gamble on the next hurricane season?

  2. Avatar

    K G

    February 15, 2024at4:46 pm

    The fact is that waterfront living is a risk. The manufactured “finger” neighborhoods composed of dredge and fill have always and will always be prone to flooding. Waterfront living comes with a price and is a risky purchase. Flood insurance and homeowners insurance premiums should reflect both the value of and the risk for real estate in highly flood prone areas. If these homeowners had done rational due diligence and not succumbed by the pretense and luxury of waterfront living they wouldn’t have suffered.

  3. Avatar

    Adrian Gansen

    February 15, 2024at3:07 pm

    Attending the listening session was heart wrenching as people shared stories of repeated loss and absolute frustration in trying to navigate the morass of FEMA and state regulations. The city’s mea culpa that it hasn’t dealt with the flooding problem in the past but is finally working towards addressing it was little salve on a very large wound. To their credit, they appear to be earnest in moving forward. The proposed $760 million is a start but as Councilmember Gabbard pointed out resolution will take not only money but TIME. With that in mind, does it not make sense to approach the Rays/Hines proposal that has a potential price tag of $1.4 billion with that same scrutiny to get public input after the terms are finalized and a 3rd party analysis of the costs/benefits?

  4. Avatar

    monah

    February 15, 2024at8:43 am

    Mitigation? Yes. But the facts have been out for more than 5 years that these areas, and this county in particular, were among the highest risk in the state for encroaching sea rise and multiple flooding events per year. It’s also been known that Pinellas County is among a handful of Florida counties with the highest home devaluation rates by 2050. Maybe new buyers should be mad at their real estate agents for not fully disclosing the flood risk in these known high-risk neighborhoods. They’ll put more and more money into their homes trying mitigate it while their value goes down and down, and there’s really nothing us humans can do about it at this point.

  5. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    February 14, 2024at6:13 pm

    Welch’s only concern is getting the Rays deal done.

  6. Avatar

    Lyn Wilkinson

    February 14, 2024at4:29 pm

    Listening to the speakers, and knowing they are about to give a billionaire 1.4 billion of our tax dollars while a little girl lost her bedroom and it’s contents twice in 6 months, I wonder how any of this administration can look in the mirror or sleep at night. Slow the vote on the Rays/Hines deal, due the diligence and figure out how to give that money to the tax payers of St. Petersburg!

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