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One seaside community is fighting against its biggest threat: Water

The assessment that started it all

Satellite Beach is home to about 11,000 people. It’s located in Brevard County along the Space Coast and has just over four miles of beach that attract both tourists and locals.

Back in 2013, after a slate of hurricanes in the early 2000’s, community members started to grow more concerned about flooding and climate change in this largely conservative area.

Jason Evans, the Executive Director for the Institute for Water and Environmental resilience at Stetson University helped create a Sea Level Rise Technical Assessment for the city of Satellite Beach nearly 10 years ago.

“We looked at their assets for stormwater, we looked at all of their critical infrastructure, and so they were really concerned about anything that was owned by the city,” Evans said. “So, like the fire station, for example. So, we got really in depth and looked at each piece of infrastructure and looked at what the threshold would be for flooding, and even looked at timing at which there could be some impacts.”

Evans said that the assessment and the action taken by city leaders after pushed Satellite Beach to the forefront when it comes to dealing with these sorts of issues. They worked with the county on beach restoration, redirected stormwater drainage, and in general updated the stormwater system.

“The first thing that starts to fail is going to be the stormwater infrastructure, and it starts failing, even before people would know,” Evans said. “So yeah, like the general public is going to know when a lot of people will start to notice is like when the water comes out the wrong way.”

Evans said that while Satellite Beach is doing more than lots of other places to lessen the impacts of flooding, the reality remains stark. These short-term solutions are important, but he said long term, the real answer is we’ve got to get on the same page about slowing climate change.

“Right now, like in the near term, what these kinds of interventions can do, like in the near term, that it can buy time,” Evans said.

In the meantime, Evans said municipalities looking to follow in the footsteps of Satellite Beach should first have an assessment done to see what needs updating-- something he says he's seen resistance to. Updating things like stormwater drainage and moving city buildings can be costly and lead to fear and avoidance.

If they don't think they have an issue they do,” Evans said. “And then they should start planning. It's really in their own interest to do so.”

Sand versus the sea

Beach and dune restoration are essential for beachside communities because the shore is the first line of defense against flooding and rising sea levels.

Mike McGarry is the Beaches Boating and Waterways Program Manager for Brevard County. In the Satellite Beach area, the Army Corps of Engineers and Brevard County have been working in partnership on beach and dune restoration.

“The project replaces sand lost from the dune and the upper beach,” McGarry said. "During storm events, we replace that sand on occasion, roughly every three or four years but as needed by storm events. So, when a storm erodes the dune, we build it back as a way to just protect and preserve the ongoing dune line.”

McGarry said another benefit to placing sand and vegetation on beaches like this is that it helps preserve a natural coastal habitat that could be lost if flooding occurs.

Although sand and dune restoration are not permanent solutions to protect the city from flooding, McGarry said it is a good short-term solution.

“Where we've placed sand, the sand provided protection,” McGarry said. “The 2022 storms, the combination of the two, Ian and Nicole, because they were one after another and Nicole hit at a very high tide, nearly the highest tide of the year that year. The erosion was significant, but the sand dunes still protected all the upland properties.

The push from the city

Courtney Barker, the Satellite Beach City Manager, said residents understand that flooding and climate change are real issues.

“We updated our stormwater master plan some years ago, once we did the vulnerability assessment with Dr. Evans,” Barker said. “And we included those calculations into the stormwater modeling, which resulted in us having to replace piping and upsize it. We're looking into backflow preventers.”

Aside from stormwater, the city has moved its fire station to avoid flooding and worked on beach restoration by planting vegetation along the dune line.

Now, the city is working to update some of its codes. Leaders want to allow people to elevate their homes reducing the possibility of flooding and they’re also looking at moving some public buildings to less flood prone areas.

“We got to get on the bandwagon here and start changing our codes and getting better at withstanding the storms,” Barker said.

Satellite Beach is also looking to change its code around landscaping to give more guidance around where to plant trees and even what types of trees to plant to increase water absorption.

“The more trees we have, the better, you know, protection we have from storms, trees are very good windbreakers,” Barker said. “They're, they're very good at that. And they help provide shade and lower the heat index for the city.”

Barker said she understands that for some people, conversations around climate change are political but she says not in Satellite Beach. She says her community is going against the grain.

“We are without a doubt, primarily a Republican area,” Barker said. “And Satellite Beach is actually considered the super voters because most of the people vote here. And we've really received very little backlash, very little pushback from any of the projects that we're completing.”

One city's project to fight water with a garden

While Satellite Beach’s mitigation efforts were spurred by storms and flooding, torrential storms brought new warnings to other cities along Florida’s coast like Cape Canaveral.

Just about 15 miles from Satellite Beach, the city of Cape Canaveral. Zach Eichholz is the chief resilience manager. He said his city has been battling urban flooding for years, which spurred the idea of a rain garden.

“The whole name of the game is really trying to capture rain on site where it falls and get it back into the ground instead of flowing somewhere else where flooding can occur.”

The new rain garden at Veterans Memorial Park in Cape Canaveral is now being tested to see if it filters stormwater properly and allows it to flow naturally.
Zach Eichholz, Cape Canaveral's Chief Resilience Manager
Cape Canaveral
The new rain garden at Veterans Memorial Park in Cape Canaveral is now being tested to see if it filters stormwater properly and allows it to flow naturally.

The rain garden allows water to flow intentionally to plants and vegetation to be filtered naturally as opposed to regular storm drains that push the water into bodies of water. This system allows for water to be treated before it goes anywhere else.

At Veteran’s Memorial Park, the rain garden finished construction in April, and now Cape Canaveral is monitoring the project to see how well it does with treating stormwater. If successful, the goal is to install rain gardens across the city.

Eichholz said while Cape Canaveral and Satellite Beach may be different cities, they share ideas to combat environmental threats.

“We're all highly interconnected," Eichholz said. "And I think sometimes people do forget about that, that someone else's success is also possibly your success. Because we do need to be all this together, we share the same island we share the same space. People don't stop at the boundaries of Cape Canaveral where it's more Satellite Beach and nor does weather, so we need to all kind of be talking and open about what we're doing."

One local resident is doing his part to protect his home

John Fergus has lived in Satellite Beach for decades. After taking a geology course in college, he became fascinated with the nature and our planet.

Now, in his retirement, he shares his concerns on issues centered around rising waters and climate change. When he was on the city’s Comprehensive Planning Advisory Board almost fifteen years ago, a local professor researched out about how rising waters could impact the city's future.

Fergus believes the community of Satellite Beach and others have to start planning for the worst before it happens.

“Bottom line was we have about 40 years before things really get dicey here,” Fergus said. “And so, we ought to start planning, we have 40 years. It isn't like Miami Beach where they've got clear day flooding with sea level backing up in the sewer and flooding streets and things. We've got some time, let's make use of it.”

Fergus acknowledges that the city has made strides in fixing the problems they can in the short term, but there are still long term issues at hand.

“We move public works. We already did that by moving the fire station,” Fergus said. “They're going to have a problem with a police station. It's elevated, but the street is not. What good's a police station when you have two feet of water in the street in front of you can't get to it?”

Fergus said Satellite Beach is home, and he'll try to do whatever he can to help the city and protect the area he cares about.

“My wife and I are both 80 years old, we have lived more than half our life literally in this one house,” Fergus said. “We raised our children here. This is the community we know.”

While things like flooding can be managed, Fergus said climate change is rapidly progressing, and he is hopeful that people appreciate Satellite Beach and the world before it's too late.

“I wish people understood the folks living in Central Florida, especially here in Satellite Beach, how special and unusual our lifestyle is, as far as the resources that we're consuming and the load that we're putting on the planet,” Fergus said. “If they really understood there's no magic silver bullet. We just are going to have to pull back somehow gracefully and how we do that I do not know

Copyright 2024 Central Florida Public Media

Marian Summerall