USFSP Conference Focuses on Social Vulnerability and Enhancing Community Resilience to Extreme Coastal Hazards

(Oct. 9, 2017) – This year, a highly active hurricane season has upended coastal communities from Florida to Texas. Hurricane Irma came uncomfortably close to devastating the Tampa Bay region with predicted Category 4 winds and unprecedented storm surge. These recent weather events and the vulnerability of the region to extreme storms – due to a growing population and extensive coastal development – brought urgency to the issues and discussions at this year’s Initiative on Coastal Adaptation and Resilience (iCAR) workshop. The conference took place at USF St. Petersburg’s University Student Center on October 4 and 5.

“We are worried about issues like hurricanes, climate change and sea-level rise because they affect all of us in this region,” said Dr. Barnali Dixon, Executive Director of iCAR and Professor of GIS and Remote Sensing at USFSP. “This annual workshop seeks to keep us ahead of such crises and make our community better able to withstand large-scale impacts.”

Tampa Bay is physically vulnerable to extreme weather events. A World Bank Report ranked the area in the top 10 of coastal cities worldwide at greatest flood risks due to sea level rise. The area is also socially susceptible. Many people in the region work in the service and tourism industry. According to Dixon, those businesses and their employees are most affected by loss of income from such disasters.

iCAR focused on the social aspects of coastal vulnerability and resilience, or the ability for communities to withstand and bounce back better from disasters and extreme weather events. The workshop brought together a diverse audience around this theme – from coastal scientists to elected officials, and from neighborhood associations to those working in transportation, urban planning and insurance.

A distinguished list of nationally-recognized speakers, elected officials and coastal experts gave talks or sat on panels at the event, including

  • Representative Charlie Crist provided a video welcome and introduction to the workshop;
  • Acclaimed investigative journalist and contributing editor for Rolling Stone Jeff Goodell discussed key themes and conclusions from his new book “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Reshaping of the Civilized World”;
  • Jacqueline Patterson, the National Director for Environmental and Climate Justice Programs at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), spoke on the effects of climate change on society; and
  • Representatives from national to local organizations and agencies including Physicians for Social Responsibility, Florida Council of Churches, the Sierra Club and the City of St. Petersburg to name a few.

“Those that live and influence our coastal environment and community are many,” said Dr. Rebecca Johns, Director of Education and Outreach for iCAR and Frank. E. Duckwall Professor of Florida Studies at USFSP. “This workshop is a wonderful venue to bring all these people together for critical conversations among various stakeholders and discuss what sort of path we can chart forward that will make our coastal communities more resilient to future changes and challenges.”

The overall goal coming out of the gathering is to develop a series of recommendations – along with outreach within communities – to inform decisions and help adopt policies and practices that improve resilience to both extreme storms and longer-term changes.

“The issues around coastal resilience and adaptation are not just a scientific endeavor or a matter of governance and policy. It is a grassroots, local issue that needs to involve neighborhood associations, churches and others living in these communities to come together and come up with solutions,” said Dixon.

“iCAR is a great place to share information on what is taking place with all aspects of the coastal environment in the Tampa Bay region,” said Heidi Stiller, a Coastal Resiliency Specialist with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It was great to hear new perspectives and get into topics we haven’t delved into before like public health.”

Over the last two years, the iCAR workshop has brought together over 200 participants representing diverse sectors. The free event was open to the public. More  information about the workshop can be found at: http://www.usfsp.edu/icar/icar-2017/.