COMMENTARY | It's clear the city of Jacksonville knows how to prepare for major hurricanes. Now, it's time to figure out what to do in between them.
It's time, in other words, to get serious about climate change.
It's madness that a coastal city with more shoreline than almost any other place in the United States — a city that has been under threat from powerful hurricanes three times in the past four years — can simply carry on like it's business as usual. This would be a major betrayal: Future generations need the current one to get this right.
The St. Johns River, the city's liquid backbone, sometimes floods just because. It doesn't take a hurricane — as evidenced by the near-flood stage water levels in the river days before Hurricane Dorian passed North Florida. For years, the city's response to this has been perilously close to nothing. Bulkheads need to be built higher. Municipal drainage systems in poor neighborhoods need major upgrades. Even the pumping system in San Marco — far from a poor neighborhood — is inadequate to relieve the area's persistent flooding problems.
Design standards need to change.
Seriously, how many residents out there have been waiting on the city to do something about persistent flooding problems in their neighborhoods for years — for decades, even? City officials act like rebuilding sand dunes is a major triumph. This is a responsibility primarily handled by the federal government and the bare minimum, besides — especially for a town that prides itself on being a beach destination. This cycle of wash, rinse, repeat won't do.
Yes, there are good people working on these issues on city task forces — a place where plenty of intractable local issues, like violent crime, get relegated. The groups can be a net positive — they've made some smart recommendations to city leaders — or a net negative, if they're simply used by city officials as cover for actually taking no action.
Jacksonville is too concerned with chasing flashy, big-ticket items. City Hall is poised to spend $200 million propping up a concrete jungle adjacent to TIAA Bank Field — right along the river. How about a Marshall Plan for drainage and flooding problems instead?
The city has actually regressed on this front. In 2008, former Mayor John Peyton issued an executive order that required, among many other smart ideas, that "all new facilities and new improvements to existing facilities, that will be constructed with city funds" must use green building standards. What happened to this?
Were the amphitheater and Jaguars practice facility — constructed with at least half taxpayer money — constructed to green building standards? Is that why the amphitheater is so hot? No carbon-emitting air conditioning?
Will the city require Jaguars owner Shad Khan and his business partner, The Cordish Companies, to comply with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design? Since more than $200 million in cash will be financing that project — more than half of the total cost — why shouldn't they comply? The area around the stadium is flood prone, and since the only elevated road there is being moved down to grade, fortifying that area will be increasingly important.
It's well known the Navy — Jacksonville's heart and soul — is light years ahead of local officials in planning and designing for sea-level rise.
JEA — the city's electric, water and sewer utility — is also well ahead of City Hall in this area, even if this doesn't get advertised. JEA simply has crucial infrastructure that could be vulnerable to rising water and can't ignore reality. It has contracted an engineering firm to complete a resiliency study, which is not yet complete.
This is more than City Hall has done. It's just not an issue local leaders talk about much.
They know the problems. They just need to be as eager to address them as they are passing economic-development legislation. Because that's what this is: Economic development. No one wants to come to a town in constant danger of flooding.
Instead of fighting with the Duval County School Board, or scheming to privatize the city utility — which has proven as adept, if not more, in handling storms as its private counterparts — climate change is an issue City Hall can actually have some positive impact on. Our local leaders just need to pull their heads out of the sand. Or, rather, the water.
Nate Monroe’s City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.
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