After seven years, the City of Jacksonville is finally getting a Chief Resiliency Officer (CRO) to coordinate efforts to mitigate climate change and rising sea levels. City Councilmember Matt Carlucci made the announcement at a Feb. 27 meeting of the Special Committee on Resiliency.
The path to getting a CRO was not without its hurdles, but Carlucci says the city is now in the implementation stage. Jacksonville will include $300,000 in next year’s budget for the CRO and one or two staff members. The budget will be presented on Oct. 1, after the end of the fiscal year. Carlucci says he would like to see the position filled by then, but that the position will be posted online at the very least. He wants to attract the right candidate. “We are making haste, slowly,” Carlucci said, quoting Abraham Lincoln.
A CRO is a high-level position in local government. The move marks a sea change in Jacksonville’s approach to the reality of climate change. “You can’t just put them in emergency preparedness and call it a day,” says Shannon Blankenship, advocacy director for the St. Johns Riverkeeper. According to 100 Resilient Cities, a national network to which Jacksonville belonged, “Their task is to establish a compelling resilience vision for his or her city, working across departments and with the local community to maximize innovation and minimize the impact of unforeseen events.”
Blankenship said that for the last six years, there’s been no overall plan for resilience and adaptation from the city. “It’s clear that someone needs to step up and be in charge of all this,” the “all this” being scattered adaptation efforts implemented by different departments without any coordination. She even looks to JEA as a shining example: “Our utilities are further along than our city is.” JEA released a resiliency program in March 2019, focusing on infrastructure development.
Jacksonville is the largest city in the U.S. in terms of land area, and it has a mighty river running through it. This perfect storm of conditions places the city in a precarious situation when it comes to flooding and hurricanes. “We needed it 10 years ago,” says Blankenship about obtaining a CRO.
Indeed, under different leadership, Jacksonville would already have one. On Dec. 3, 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation announced that Jacksonville had been selected to join the 100 Resilient Cities Network. Member cities receive a million-dollar grant for implementing a resilience plan. According to Blankenship, this includes hiring a CRO. Mayor Lenny Curry was elected on July 1, 2015, and dropped Jacksonville out of 100 Resilient Cities by February 2016. “It was clear from the action that they didn’t consider it a priority at the time,” Blankenship said.
Instead, Jacksonville adopted the Adaptation Action Area (AAA) into its Comprehensive Plan in 2017. Originally released in November 2011, the 2030 Comprehensive Plan says, “The City of Jacksonville shall create a working group to review existing programs and policies in relation to the AAA…” The AAA Working Group was born, made up of 11 experts from all walks of life.
In November 2019, City Council President Scott Wilson announced the formation of a Special Committee on Resiliency, which would be led by Carlucci. The Feb. 27 meeting was only its second. During this meeting, AAA Working Group Chair Emily Pierce and Director of Planning and Development Bill Killingsworth presented the group’s findings from 2019. During the presentation, Carlucci interjected to announce that a plan and job description has been drafted for a CRO. “I am pleased to say that the mayor is 100 percent behind the hiring of a chief resiliency officer,” the councilman said.
It’s no secret that coastal cities are prone to flooding. Downtown Jacksonville saw almost six feet of storm surge from Hurricane Irma, according to Weather Underground. A 100-year-flood is an event that areas should only see once a century. Jacksonville was named in a list of cities that will see 100-year-flood levels as frequently as once a year by 2050. The AAA Working Group report shows which areas need to be protected. Now, with the years of work put in by local officials, experts and concerned citizens, there will be a high-level government position designed to stand for even the most vulnerable parts of the River City.