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Could Rethinking Development Mitigate Flood Damage?

When it comes to shaping cities and neighborhoods, since the late 1940s, urban developers have catered developments to the invention and expansion of the automobile. Cars allowed people to spread out more and paved the way for urban sprawl. This concept of spreading everything out, in turn can result in “pressure that pushes us into more marginal areas for development than we would otherwise.” That’s according to Christian Wagley, a local environmental advocate and green building consultant. What happens when development occurs in those “more marginal areas”?

In June of 2012, Pensacola received up to 23 inches of rain over the course of a three day period, resulting in flash floods and washed out roads in some areas of the city. In April of 2014, Pensacola received an estimated total of 20 inches of rain; only this time in a 24-hour period and leaving a larger, considerably more destructive, footprint.

Much like the proverbial skinning of the cat, there is no shortage of potential blames for this apparent shift in weather patterns. One thing is for certain though, the rain will fall and there will be risks of flood in the future.  Rather than accepting these storms as rare events, some agree that it is time to look into more responsible means of both preparation and adaptation

Wagley has a few ecologically sound ideas on how to move forward. He suggests that one solution to this pressure to build in these marginal areas is to revert to a more traditional take on development, one that entertains the concept of more centralized urbanization efforts.

“There is a great trend nationwide now in going back toward building communities that traditional way again that are more compact … so we don’t have to drive as much,” Wagley said. “And when we do that we literally take up less physical space, less land.”

While Escambia County does have its hands on a few community redevelopment areas (CRAs) where there could be new, more ecologically sound development, there has been little incentive to really press forward with their revitalization. Two of those CRAs are in the Brownsville and Warrington neighborhoods.

Wagley thinks by revitalizing smarter the community will thrive.

“We need to reform our land development codes to encourage more of that compact type of development that allows for higher densities and allows for us to have more retail and commercial spaces close to where we live.”

He isn’t alone in his thinking.

Barbara Albrecht, president of the Bream Fishermen Association and volunteer watershed coordinator for the University of West Florida, says it is time to start paying attention to the natural lay of the land and the way the planet functions when looking into future developments.

“Everybody feels the need to live right next to the water, right on top of the creek, without thinking about the consequences of the geographic landscape that we live in,” Albrecht said.

“What happens is when the ground gets saturated the way it did, the ground water rises and it goes to the nearest tributary, creek, bayou, or river and starts to come up in the center of it causing that area to flood.”

Dr. David Tomasko, an environmental scientist in Tampa, Fla., says he feels that perhaps these “rare rain events” are becoming less rare than they are being made out to be.

“It’s important to keep in mind we are seeing a changing frequency of supposedly rare occurrences,” Tomasko said. “In my house in Tampa, we’ve had two rain events that classify as ‘hundred year events’ and I’ve only lived there since 2000.”

Clearly, homeowners in these flood prone areas are not fond of the recurring threat of flood damage, but the waterfront view and serene settings overshadow the slight risk that residents face when moving into these areas. What’s more, is these unfortunate events, while invoking undeniably inconvenient costs and damage, also provide jobs.

Combine the bittersweet creation of jobs with the knowledge that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State are going to foot the majority of the bill, and your result is minimal motivation to search for more conducive resolutions for how to endure such serious instances of rainfall.

“If local governments had to absorb more of the costs of these flood events then I think you would see them plan differently, look more into the future, look more long term,” Wagley said.

“I would like to see a comprehensive study that looks at why these areas flooded and takes into account the idea that this could very well happen again, or something similar, in the not-too-distant future. Do we need to build farther away? Do we need to build higher?”

Another trend that Wagley feels is worth looking into is that of ‘green infrastructure.’ The basic concept behind this is capturing storm water runoff in a more natural and aesthetically pleasing manner. He pointed out that one successful example of its implementation here in Pensacola is Admiral Mason park, located at the intersection of 9th Avenue and Bayfront Parkway.

“It’s very hard in an urban environment to treat all the storm water on an individual building site,” Wagley said. “So you can take it from a particular little area and put it into a very attractive pond feature like we have down there now with beautiful landscaping around it and you turn it into a park space. I think we’re going to hopefully see more of that in the future for both flood control and environmental reasons as well and create more amenities around neighborhoods instead of that classic storm water pond full of weeds behind a chain link fence.”

Be it suggestions of improved drainage systems on bridges and roadways, moving away from wetland areas and bodies of water towards more centralized communities, or taking steps towards more examples of this green infrastructure, there is no denying that the opportunity to devise more effective means of surviving these storms has presented itself.

“It’s unfortunate because it really is death by a thousand paper cuts,” Albrecht said. “You know, it’s hard to pinpoint just one issue.”