St. Augustine Leaders And Residents Discuss Sea Level Rise, Resiliency

Jan 31, 2019

The City of St. Augustine and Flagler College hosted a workshop Thursday focused on resilience, sea level rise and the future impact of flooding on historic places where the results of a recently conducted survey on the same topics were presented.

Residents gathered with city leaders and elected officials at the Willie Galimore Center.

“This is really a way for them to say what places really matter and where they want to see investment from either public funds or from personal investment,” said Lisa M. Craig, a consultant from The Craig Group, who facilitated Thursday’s workshop.

She said in historic coastal cities like St. Augustine, the community’s “sense of place” is what’s at risk with rising seas and increased flooding. According to Craig, a city’s sense of identity or place is largely informed by buildings, streetscapes and viewsheds.

“So protecting that sense of place, those particular resources, is critical to tourism. It's critical to the local economy, it's critical to small business, to having a quality of life, to having a strong, sustainable environment. Those things all matter,” she said. “It's not just a building or a streetscape or a bridge, it's the context in which they all developed.”

According to Leslee Keys, Assistant Professor and Director of Historic Preservation and Special Initiatives at Flagler College, tourism is one of St. Augustine’s most significant economic drivers.

“We are a little town of fifteen thousand,” she said. “But we have more than six million visitors a year.”

“That tells me that St. Augustine relies strongly on the heritage tourism dollar to support its local economy,” Craig said. “And I think that is something that we don't want to see at risk.”

She said events like Wednesday’s are important because solutions need to be locally sourced.

“What we have found is we can't wait for the federal government,” she said. “They are our partners, they are a stakeholder when disaster strikes, but they're also the first ones to provide increased funding.”

“FEMA has put an additional 9% of funding into its budget specifically to address preparedness,” she went on to say. “They want local communities to start planning for disaster and to be more resilient, to be more flood aware, to be more flood resistant.”

And Thursday’s workshop gave residents of St. Augustine the chance to do just that.

While much of the day was spent discussing community wide resiliency strategies such as seawalls and floodproofing, Craig stressed that individual property owners have the power to protect their own homes and businesses.

“You can buy flood insurance, you can become more informed about what your immediate flood risks are and you can determine the options that you have for both your residential building or your business to make sure that after a major event, or in the case of nuisance flooding, you’re back online, your family's life hasn't been disrupted and you're not experiencing financial adversity,” she said.

One theme that kept coming up over and over again was education.

“Education, communication and outreach,” Craig emphasized. “You can't expect people to understand or have a sense of urgency if you're not expending the time and energy and creating the sense of urgency on various levels.”

Craig also took time Wednesday to share the results of a community wide survey on resiliency and flooding taken prior to the workshop.

Related: St. Augustine Surveys Public Before Workshop On Resiliency & Flooding at Historic Sites

Of those who participated in the survey, 69 percent said their primary residence was in St. Augustine and 42 percent said they work in the city.

When asked if nuisance flooding was a serious problem that needs to be addressed now, 81 percent said yes. When asked the same thing regarding sea level rise, 79 percent agreed.

Three-quarters of respondents said they had experienced nuisance flooding, or minor monthly flooding.

Nearly a third said they had experienced property damage associated with flooding. That number jumped to 58 percent when the property damage was associated with a storm event.

Nearly 20 percent of respondents said they have suffered financial adversity as a result of nuisance flooding and 37 percent said they had due to a major storm event.

Forty percent of survey participants said they owned property in the 100 year flood zone.

Thirty-three percent said they do not have flood insurance, but 58 percent said they have already taken actions to increase flood resistance.

When asked if the City of St. Augustine should offer financial incentives to make flood improvements to historic properties, 40 percent said yes, another 40 percent said yes, but with an annual cap, and 13 percent said no, non-financial incentives should be explored instead.

Residents ranked the vulnerability of national register listed sites, buildings and districts as follows:

  1. Castillo de San Marco
  2. Hotel Ponce DeLeon/Flagler College
  3. St. Augustine National Landmark District
  4. Hotel Alcazar/The Lightner Museum
  5. Lincolnville Historic District
  6. St. Augustine Lighthouse and Keepers Quarters
  7. Government House
  8. The Bridge of Lions
  9. Cathedral Basilica
  10. Plaza de la Constitucion and Obelisk
  11. Gonzalez/Alvarez House (oldest house)
  12. Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park

The survey also asked participants if St. Augustine was damaged by flooding, what would they want to see operational soonest after the recovery, other than emergency services. The top three, in order, were: bridges, government offices and schools/educational institutions.

Results of the survey and workshop will be compiled and presented at the Keeping History Above Water: St. Augustine 2019, Envision 2050 Conference, scheduled for May 5-8.

“The Keeping History Above Water workshop will focus on the issue of the community values, how those are being used to shape future planning efforts based on what the community is saying they want to see,” said Craig.

Thursday’s event was made possible by a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.