USF's Patel Center For Global Solutions, Dutch Experts Share "Water Story''

They call it Hurricane Phoenix, and it hits like a multimegaton nuclear bomb. A category 5 storm raging through the Gulf of Mexico, it makes landfall at Pinellas County and pushes so much water into Tampa Bay that all cross-bay bridges are damaged and downtown Tampa is inundated by a 26-foot storm surge. The storm leaves behind a landscape both ravaged and surreal.

Fortunately, Phoenix is a fictitious monster, a computer model devised by scientists who study how weather patterns leave their mark on sea-side populations. But the Phoenix scenario is real enough to be a focus this week when an international group of experts meets in Tampa to share ideas about our vulnerability to storms and how to better manage the water we need, enjoy -- and sometimes fear.

Hurricanes, storm surges, inland flooding, rising sea levels and water management are on tap during Resilient Tampa Bay 2011, a three-day, multidisciplinary forum that includes scientists, planners and engineers from as far away as the Netherlands.

Organized by the University of South Florida's Patel Center for Global Solutions, the workshop includes officials from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who will share the area's "water story'' with the Dutch scientists.

Why the Dutch? More than 50 percent of Holland is either below sea level or vulnerable to river flooding, and for centuries the Dutch have operated an extensive system of locks, channels and dams to control the encroaching sea. They know water, says Daniel Yeh, a USF assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and research fellow with the Patel Center, and a co-organizer of the event.

"Here in Florida, we have an attitude about keeping the water away," Yeh says. "There, they don't have that luxury, so they have learned to live with the water."

Reducing Tampa Bay's Vulnerability

Millions of Floridians live and work only a few feet above sea level. In Tampa, a large bay and system of rivers and wetlands marry gulf waters with the land. This makes the area rich in wildlife and recreational activity. It also makes our lifestyle somewhat precarious.

"A category 5 hurricane would be devastating," Yeh says. "You would quickly see that we are extremely vulnerable here. We aren't equipped to handle a 20-foot storm surge, other than evacuation.''

Certainly, a hurricane of such magnitude isn't manageable. But even lesser storms pose threats to the area because the Tampa Bay region is so prone to flooding. A goal of this week's conference is to develop more resilient plans for coping with storm surge and flooding in the near term -- and sea level rise in the long term.

"We'd like to turn storm water into a resource, into an opportunity,'' Yeh explains. "We need to change our perspective (about water), instead of always treating it as a threat.''

This is precisely what the Dutch have been doing for a long time, and in doing so they blend practicality with aesthetics. They have developed original solutions for flood management, balancing protection with environmental stewardship, economic prosperity and livable communities.

The Dutch use a combination of "hard" proactive approaches such as dikes and movable storm surge barriers, and "soft" passive approaches such as incorporating water into their urban design. Rotterdam is building a city park and playground areas that serve dual functions of recreation and storm water storage, and some residents actually live in floating houses designed by aquatects.

Trading Information Across The Oceans

Dutch professionals will share tools appropriate for the Tampa Bay region, and will take home what they learn from water officials here. Discussions will center on innovative approaches in protecting infrastructure and neighborhoods, protecting the local economy, and deriving economic benefits from proactive planning.

"We have maintained the philosophy that Florida is, in many ways, a laboratory for what goes on in the rest of the world," Rebecca Lee Harris, assistant academic director of the Patel Center, says in describing part of the organization's mission.

The Resilient Tampa Bay 2011 workshop is focusing on a three-point program:
    •    Promote greater understanding of the vulnerability of Tampa Bay to three water threats (urban flooding, storm surges and sea level rise).
    •    Recommend flood control practices within a framework of integral water and land management including the Dutch concept of living with water.
    •    Develop concrete recommendations for improving water resiliency for the Tampa Bay region using input from local and Dutch experts.

Workshop participants also will develop recommendations for: protecting vital infrastructure and transportation; preparing for storm surge and sea level rise;  improving economic development; reducing inland flooding; preserving natural habitats and Gulf beaches; avoiding and planning for accidents or spill recovery; and minimizing impacts from hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Sponsored by the Dutch Consulate in Miami, the Dutch experts come from private and public organizations such as DHV, Dura Vermeer, Royal Haskoning, Imares (Wageningen University), Iv-Infra, and UNESCO-IHE. They will share lessons they have learned from a country that leads the world in harnessing waterways and in preparing for slowly rising sea levels.

Although sea level rise might seem like a distant concern, more and more scientists are running computer models based on long-term global warming. Any rise in sea level would have consequences for the Netherlands as well as Florida. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences issued the report, America's Climate Choices, which predicts a global sea level rise of three to four feet by the end of the century. Scientists in the report say such a rise would magnify the level of destruction from storm surges moving inland.

 "We want to ask the question, 'are there things we can do to lessen the impact from disasters?' " Yeh says. "What can we do to mitigate storm surge? It's simple to say to people, 'don't live in harm's way.' But a lot of the most vulnerable areas are highly attractive places to live. That's why people come here.''

Global Exchange Starts At USF

The Patel Center for Global Solutions was launched in 2005 with the support of Drs. Kiran C. and Pallavi Patel. USF is leveraging the Patel's gift, the single largest in USF history, to fund a new building and to create an endowment to sustain the center.

The Patel Center built upon the strengths of the USF Globalization Research Center (GRC). The GRC was part of the Globalization Research Network funded by the US Congress, which also included the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the University of California-Los Angeles and George Washington University. Together, the four centers developed a Global Studies Network with more than 70 comparable centers and institutes worldwide.
 
In the summer of 2007, the Patel Center signed a Memorandum of Understanding by and between the Patel Center for Global Solutions and the prestigious Institute for Water Education located in Delft, The Netherlands. The relationship has already led to faculty exchange, an annual visit by IHE students to the Tampa Bay area and close collaboration on the Coastal Cities Summit.

Kurt Loft is a Tampa-based freelance writer and former science reporter for The Tampa Tribune. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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