Before Hurricane Matthew, Katie Conway didn’t anticipate the flooding that drove her family from their home in the Davis Shores neighborhood of St. Augustine. “But with Irma, I knew,” she said.
After her home was laced with salt and partially treated sewage water, her family bounced around in rentals for six months until they re-assembled their home. Five months later, Irma drove them out—again.
In two years, they moved seven times.
The previous owners of their home put down roots in 1954. The Conways were the second family to live there, and until 2011, the place remained dry.
“I was over it the second time,” Conway told me of the mess the flooding wreaked. Piles of soggy drywall, salt-laden appliances, and an inventory of everything they lost for insurance claims—another mess unto itself—edged toward insurmountable.
And while some were hopeful that this was simply a fluke, an unfortunate set of circumstances, Conway believed that some residents were “still figuring that out.”
The two storms were only 11 months apart.
While the luxury of island living was ripe with reason to hedge your bets, the reality of the threat that detrimental flooding would happen more frequently and with more veracity than previous years sunk in for the Conway family. When I spoke to her in July, they’d sold their home in Davis Shores and nestled into a place in town, 35 feet above sea-level.
Like she said, she was over it the second time.
For St. Augustine’s mayor, Nancy Shaver, the reality of flooding is far from foreign. Shaver lives in Lincolnville, another neighborhood in the city susceptible to flooding. And for Shaver, as a two-term mayor seeking re-election this year, sea-level rise is her top-priority.
In May, Shaver traveled to the Netherlands to speak on a panel about vulnerability to rising sea-levels. On her last day there, she visited Oosterscheldekering, the largest of the 13 dams and storm surge barriers, designed to protect the Netherlands from flooding from the North Sea. There she stood with Gert-Jan Schotmeijer, a senior advisor at Deltares—one of the world’s leading research institutions on water management. When she showed him St. Augustine’s sea-level rise map for 2050, Schotmeijer said, “That looks like Jakarta.” The deep well of knowledge on tap struck her standing listening to him.
Her takeaway was that there were solutions to mitigate an inevitable threat. She was standing atop of one.
Unfortunately, “We don’t have the money to understand this,” Shaver told Schotmeijer. In turn, he offered to study St. Augustine’s data, to validate their flood maps and provide a roadmap for prevention. He agreed to work within their budget, which was rather thin and at times like squeezing blood from a sugar cube.
See: By 2035, St. Augustine’s wastewater treatment plant’s outfall is predicted to be under water, and so the cost of building a new plant has crimped down on the city’s ability to devote resources elsewhere. If the plant’s outfall was rendered null, the residents of St. Augustine wouldn’t be able to flush their toilets no matter how far above sea-level they live.
And across the state in varied, complex iterations, the threat remains omnipresent and further complicated by a current gubernatorial administration that has a moratorium on uttering the words “climate” and “change” in succession. And by proxy, many cities like St. Augustine are left to go it alone.
But when I spoke to Shaver, a bit of optimism crept into her voice. “Things have changed a bit,” she told me. Governor Rick Scott—who is challenging democratic Senator Bill Nelson for his seat this year—requested $3 million from the State Legislature this session for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop means to mitigate the effects of the very thing he mandated unspeakable—the thing that cannot be named.
The State legislature appropriated half of the requested amount, and Shaver vouched that Noah Valenstein, the FDEP’s Secretary charged with the task, was committed to results.
“That’s a big step for Florida,” she said.
When I spoke to her nearly a year before, revenue and funding to find a solution weighed heavy on her mind. Now, the concern seemed to dissipate as she explained funding was starting to emerge, piece by piece.
“I think what you’re seeing is movement,” she noted at all levels of government. A crack had opened up, and some light was starting to seep in. And from her purview, she believed that as a small city, St. Augustine remained ahead of the curve and hoped to make good on ensuring that it remained so.
Mid-sentence, Shaver paused, and confessed that while she might be seen as a naïve politician she was focused on what she’d leave behind, and she didn’t intend to have her legacy become a band aid or a faulty life-vest. She’s taken to a rather straightforward, low-key approach to addressing the issue, meeting directly with residents and business owners to better ask, “What does resilience mean to you?”
And while she might be an outsider in this town, her approach seemed to betray her roots north of the Mason Dixon. She’d made St. Augustine her home, but, the “oldest” city in America would only lay claim to the title if it remained above water.