Studying climate change, sea level rise in Clearwater could prevent catastrophic damage, officials hope

The city of Clearwater has set out to understand how it will be impacted by climate change, sea level rise, and the devastation of tropical storms and hurricanes.

The so-called vulnerability assessment is timely. Two hurricanes in less than two months devastated communities on both coasts and inland

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Coastal erosion wiped seaside homes and structures into the ocean. Clearwater doesn’t want to see its beaches meet the same fate.

A $200,000 grant from the state of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection is making the study possible. 

Clearwater's sustainability officials are ready to take an in-depth look at the city’s vulnerabilities and find ways to remedy them. 

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The city’s sustainability coordinator, Sheridan Gemuendt, said the study will look at everything from roads to public health and determine risk factors for flooding, sea level rise, extreme heat, erosion, and more.

"What's going to be expected and what we're projecting is that there'll be a third of the year that will feel hotter than 105 degrees," Gemuendt said. "We just saw what Hurricane Ian did just south of us. So [we are] really wanting to understand, if you came to Clearwater, what would that look like? What data do we have to go off of?"

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What sets this vulnerability assessment apart from others is that Gemuendt and her team are working with a consulting firm to test their theories on a digital replica of Clearwater. 

Digital imaging of Clearwater

"Say we wanted to see the effects of living shorelines, mangroves, on sea level rise or storm surge flooding. The model of the city would allow us to see what that would look like," she explained. 

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The city will share data with Pinellas County officials who are in the second phase of their own countywide vulnerability assessment. 

Crime scene technicians work to preserve human remains unearthed when Hurricane Nicole made landfall in Martin County, Florida.

Crime scene technicians work to preserve human remains unearthed when Hurricane Nicole made landfall in Martin County, Florida. (Courtesy: Martin County Sheriff's Office)

Sustainability coordinator for Pinellas County, Hank Hodde, says their last assessment allowed them to plan for the future by accumulating critical data about local infrastructure like the Dunedin Causeway.

"We could see inundation of over 10 feet or even a 25-year storm event," Hodde said. "We know that those events could cause major harm and destruction to this causeway."

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Hodde says collaboration between the county, and cities like Clearwater, is key when to planning and building for the future.

"We really need to be on the same page when we start building or refurbishing infrastructure, especially roadways that span jurisdictions, or storm water infrastructure, wastewater infrastructure. We need to be consistent," Hodde said.

The study will take up to 2 years. Once completed, the results will be presented during public sessions.