Watching Irma

By Nell Ziehl, Chief, Office of Planning, Education and Outreach

As Hurricane Irma bears down, threatening southern Florida, I keep returning to what is precious about that place for me. My family and many of my childhood friends live in Tampa and St. Petersburg, well within the vulnerable area recently highlighted by the Washington Post. I was born there, not too far from where my mother and my grandmother were born. The connection is live, and I’m worried about my people.

But what else persists? From my great-grandparents’ time, some buildings still stand. My grandmother’s house still stands, I think. Emotionally, I can’t separate the historic bungalow cottages from the live oaks or from the pelicans standing on the bay’s stone wall. The pink bricks that pave my sister’s street warm and glow in the sun — the fabric and the light are equally important. Every year, our family gathers at the beach in one of the few small-scale, family-run motels left, a few doors down from the Don CeSar, a towering remnant of Florida’s early resort industry. Although the Gulf itself draws us, still full of life and beauty, these places also matter – the human record of their construction, their imprint of time and place, the memories and attachments formed there.

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The author’s family in St. Petersburg

At the same time, our cultural heritage includes a heritage of loss. We understand that hurricanes come and go and that buildings, piers and even roads are ephemeral. Left alone, the landscape will reconquer. And behaviors also persist. After generations of weathering storms, many locals do not evacuate, despite news that the storms are not the same. Even armed with better knowledge about water management and the importance of ecosystem restoration to protect inland areas (not to mention the biological habitat and tourism dollars), Florida continues to permit development in ways and in places that are unsustainable, potentially exacerbating disasters and jeopardizing recovery.

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The Don CeSar after a thunderstorm

As we move forward into an uncertain future, with climate change fueling rising tides and more dangerous storms, we must adapt in ways that take all of these elements into account. What is the spirit of the place? What should we protect? What *can* we protect? And what do we need to change?

Too often, our regulatory and philosophical frameworks force divisions between the “built environment” and the surrounding ecosystems, even though the full character of a place includes the architecture, infrastructure, streetscape, waterways, plants, animals – and the people who live there. Cultural heritage is cultural memory, and that includes traditional and historic ways of adapting to the natural environment, including storms. And when buildings collapse, when the tangible fails, the intangible remains valuable and can inform a more resilient future.

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A saw palmetto preserve

Preservationists sometimes focus on limiting rather than accommodating change. But we, more than many other professions, have the ability to understand the evolution of a community over time and to help manage change in ways that protect quality of life and respect the character of place. I pray that Irma passes by without much damage. But more storms will come, and how we respond and rebuild will determine what we can carry forward.

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