FLORIDA — Resilient Florida is a historic, bipartisan program that will significantly enhance state-wide efforts to protect our coastlines, inland waterways, shores, and coral reefs. Infrastructure, including roads and bridges, will also be assessed and upgraded to withstand intense storm surges and flooding – severe threats to low-lying coastal areas.
A primary focus for Governor DeSantis and the legislature has been to protect our natural environment while allocating significant funding to prevent flooding and storm surge damage statewide.
The Florida Standard spoke with Dr. Wes Brooks, Florida’s new Chief Resilience Officer, about what it looks like to have a “Resilient Florida.”
A CLEAR FOCUS FOR LONG-TERM RESULTS
A tremendous amount of focus nationally has been on academic research into “climate change” and its effects globally. But Dr. Brooks notes that while research is being done on extreme scenarios, “it's important that Florida puts a separate focus on what might happen in the short term and focus on timescales that will impact Floridians today.”
“The decisions that state and local governments make today will affect us all in shorter time frames, for example, 10 years for a road or 50 years for a bridge,” he said. Because of that, the focus of Resilient Florida is to prepare our communities for the next 30–50 years and to raise the standards of living in Florida while “keeping the American Dream alive,” according to Dr. Brooks.
Over 845 people move to Florida each day. With tourism surpassing pre-pandemic levels, the state’s infrastructure is more critical than ever. “We all want our kids to end up in a better place than we are, and that’s what Resilient Florida at its root is about for us,” said Dr. Brooks.
In 2021, Florida lawmakers passed historic legislation to invest over $640 million to support efforts in local communities to prepare for the impact of intensified storms and flooding.
Dr. Brooks coordinates the state’s flood mitigation and resilience activities. He also aims to support local resilience initiatives demonstrating real benefits for communities across the state. “We're looking for opportunities to improve state and local agencies’ responsiveness before and after flood and storm events,” he said.
“But I also want to ensure that we are being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars when considering projects and solutions,” he added. Restoration efforts are essential – especially in Florida’s coral reef, which has been degrading for several decades.
“We have a governor who is really focused on delivering results. So I approach each day with a mandate to foster better government, reduce flooding impacts, and help communities recover faster. Of course, we are never going to eliminate flooding and storm surge risk, but our real focus is to enhance Floridians’ quality of life,” he said.
STATEWIDE RESILIENCE PLAN
Under the Statewide Resilience Plan, the Department of Environmental Protection manages grant opportunities for local communities. “Funding to help implement projects is granted based on the effectiveness of the project. Factors include addressing the risks and vulnerabilities of flooding and additional co-benefits of the project, such as a living shoreline that may have habitat value for endangered species,” said Brooks.
Florida’s new building codes now require flood-resistant construction in some instances, and many projects now include innovative technologies and provide benefits to financially disadvantaged communities.
In the plan’s first phase, the state granted over $270 million in matching funds for 76 projects. An additional 113 projects in the second phase were granted 404 million in state-directed funding.
SECURING OUR LIFESTYLE FOR THE FUTURE
Dr. Brooks gains inspiration through positive feedback from local leaders around the state. “I cannot say enough that our Governor and the legislature have been incredibly important in getting this initiative off the ground. Resilient Florida is a tremendous state program that has received a large investment in its first year and will impact Floridians for decades to come,” he said.
As a low-lying state, resilience efforts are critical to our diverse landscape, from coastal cities to the everglades and the farmlands to the forests. As the state’s Chief Resilience Officer, Dr. Brooks aims to ensure that we maintain the lifestyle that Floridians have come to love.
“I've worked to travel to every corner of the state, making sure that I understand the flooding trends of different coastal communities. I’ve also observed inland communities to be sure that these counties are taking advantage of the program as well,” said Dr. Brooks.
“As I’m educating communities about what the state envisions for the program, I’m also learning a lot myself about these unique communities. I’m learning about how they are looking to protect themselves going forward and how, as a state, we can assist them.”
“Everywhere I go, people are very interested in the new program. They are very excited about the possibility of receiving planning grants. As a state, we are doing more than ever to facilitate good preparation for changing conditions. We’re improving infrastructure to the point that it is resilient and can resist future flooding and storms.”
FLORIDA COASTAL MAPPING PROGRAM
The Florida Coastal Mapping Program aims to develop comprehensive, high-resolution data on Florida's coastal waters and seafloor by 2028. The massive initiative will map more than 66,000 square miles (slightly larger than all of Florida's land surface).
“Offshore detailed maps will help us understand coastal vulnerability and the impact of storm surge. Water gets funneled differently based on the underwater surface that it encounters. For example, when Hurricane Irma came up in Tampa Bay, the water did some weird things in terms of flooding — due to the sea floor,” said Brooks.
“The underwater topography makes a difference in where water comes up during a storm surge. We are also still learning the location of natural resources, minerals, etc., that may have value to us now or in the future. And the health of our coastal fishery is a big deal as well.”
“Florida has gotten to the point where we have become a leader in coral reef restoration efforts. Detailed maps are necessary as we work to limit the impact of storm surges and flooding,” he said.
NOAA valued the benefit of Florida’s coral reef, in its current degraded state, as several hundred million dollars in flood protection each year. “Imagine the benefit if we are able to successfully restore that resource and do so in ways that we know will work well, based on the data from the mapping project,” said Dr. Brooks.
NEW FLORIDA FLOOD HUB
The Florida Flood Hub is a new project. Based at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, the Flood Hub is bridging a gap between scientists, policymakers, and the public, to mitigate and adapt to flood risks in our communities.
“A world-class repository of data and modeling, the Flood Hub data is available to local governments to support their own resilience planning. Further, the state is providing significant technical assistance and financial resources to Resilient Florida. Our goal is to make it easier than ever before as local governments and communities make the right decisions to protect their communities’ unique character and economic vitality,” said Dr. Brooks.
IMPACT ON TOURISM
The Statewide Office of Resilience supports the DEP in protecting Florida’s natural resources for residents’ and tourists’ enjoyment. “We are a coastal state, and nearly 80% of our population lives near the coast. In addition, about 79% of the state's annual GDP comes from coastal activities,” said Dr. Brooks.
For example, the 100 million one-time investment for advanced coastal mapping is projected to deliver around $28 million in annual economic benefits for decades to come. “So, it will pay for itself in less than four years,” said Dr. Brooks.
Tourists come to Florida for our beaches. But after a major storm, one of the most significant impacts is the loss of sand from the beaches. Dr. Brooks said the state is now planning better ways to bounce back after weather catastrophes.
Florida has adapted to the elements for centuries. Flooding, especially in South Florida, has been an important topic for state agencies for years. “Our state agencies have always been attuned to that. A good example is FDOT, which, when developing major roadways, has to plan for a high risk of potential flooding. The evacuation route doesn’t do anyone any good if it’s not there after a storm,” said Dr. Brooks.
Dr. Brooks said that we’ve been practicing resilience planning for decades as a matter of course. “We've begun more recently to begin thinking about resilience and calling it that, but the fact that we are a low-lying state provides us with more experience,” he said. “However, the experience, and established procedures and programs, have been siloed into various departments that do not always interface.”
The Statewide Office of Resilience intends to coordinate across those agencies to help break down institutional barriers. Focused on the same mission, Dr. Brooks hopes to reduce flood risk statewide and prepare communities to bounce back from any storm damage quickly.
You can follow Dr. Brooks’ travel around the state and learn about some of the varied local communities on his Twitter feed.