Julia Nesheiwat is Florida’s Chief Resilience Officer
Update: Julia Nesheiwat assumed the position of Florida’s first-ever Chief Resilience Officer in July 2019. Her appointment was announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis in August 2019. In February 2020, Nesheiwat announced she would be leaving the position of CRO to join the Trump administration as Deputy Assistant to the President working on homeland security and resilience.
Chief Resilience Officer is a new position for Florida. What is it?
This role is a coordinating role, to work with all the departments and agencies.
Some key areas are trying to catalyze private and federal investments, trying to obtain funding for projects, working with local officials, and trying to cut bureaucratic tape and accelerate projects.
How did you get interested in resilience, and how will your experiences help here in Florida?
I started off in the Army. As I was deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was interesting to see that there wasn’t running water, there were power outages, challenges with resources, and how that all tied into national security. I knew that this is something that I wanted to pursue and help make a difference.
I was also a researcher in Japan, with the Japanese government, working with companies, working with our embassy. We had a 9.0 earthquake, and then 30 minutes later this big tsunami came and devastated many villages and towns. That’s what inspired my dissertation to focus on natural disasters and rising sea levels, to understand those impacts and come up with a paradigm of how we can approach this.
I also used to teach at the Naval postgraduate school. Being able to step out of the bubble and think deeply about these issues was profound, in the sense of how I could take that back to Washington and develop policies where climate change, environment, natural resources and national security were all interconnected.
When I did work in the Energy Bureau, we focused on climate change and understanding what energy technologies would help towards climate goals. With the current role, that will certainly be part of our statewide strategy, looking at energy resources.
And it’s also about the interagency experience. You’re working with the Department of Transportation, you’re working with Economic Opportunity, you’re working with Environmental Protection, you’re working with Health and Education, Fish and Wildlife Conservation… I mean, all of those agencies are very important when it comes to the overall resilience and climate strategy. And that’s something I was able to work on at the federal level.
Up to this point, the cost of adapting to climate change in Florida has been falling largely on local governments. What role do you see the state playing?
That is true. We do have a lot of programs out there, especially with our Department of Environmental Protection, where we could help match funding that cities come up with. There’s also quite a bit of federal funding available for resiliency. It’s important that we try to harness as much as possible.
What have you been working on since you were appointed in August of 2019?
I’ve been traveling the state to take an inventory of the vulnerability assessments that local officials have done so we can build our plans and strategies. There are compacts between local governments — I was just in Southeast Florida for their compact’s Climate Summit. The East Central Resiliency Compact just did a signing ceremony — Being able to work with all those compacts has been tremendous.
As you’ve been hearing from communities, what sticks out?
There’s a misconception that it’s just on the coastlines that we have issues. And that’s absolutely not the case. We tend to forget factors like precipitation, inland flooding, and aging infrastructure. The last four hurricanes were all Category 5, so we’re dealing with stronger storms.
I think now more than ever, with the governor’s leadership, you can see it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on. Politically, everyone has come together as Floridians, really understanding we’re beyond that point of what those issues are, but rather how can we come up with solutions. How can we build upon successes?
And at the same time, understanding it’s too expensive to go at it alone. We really need to collaborate. It makes the job more exciting to know that you could be part of this and really help move that needle. There’s so much opportunity. It’s not all gloom and doom for our great state, and it really can drive our economy in a lot of ways.
You’ve said you’re working on a statewide resilience plan. What does that mean?
With the secretaries and directors for each division and department, we’re identifying infrastructure investment opportunities, prioritizing projects and listing the challenges. I want to come up with targets and goals. We’ll also have an Adaptation Master Plan, which could give confidence to the market and lay a clear roadmap for the next 10, 20, 30, or 40 years.
Also, having a communications plan will be critical. You could be doing all this great work, but if you don’t get that messaging out there, you can run in circles.
What are some of the best practices you’ve come across?
Some of the technologies that are out there, whether it’s pump valves or drainage systems. I was just in London with a delegation from the Southeast U.S. We listened to a lot of British companies who are working on their sewer systems. My thought was to bring some of that back to the state of Florida.
Promoting the development of mangroves is key. Stronger sand dunes. Addressing beach erosion. Protecting our sea marshes. These are all part of this “living shoreline” concept, which could be just as effective a climate solution as a traditional sea wall. That’s something I’m trying to push throughout the state when working with developers and planners.
Jacksonville might be the only major city in Florida that doesn’t have a chief resilience officer. Do you think it’s important for local governments to have them?
I think it’s helpful to have a coordinator, whether you call them a chief resilience officer or sustainability director. It certainly helps if there is a point person working on these issues.
But the key is communities working together. That really makes a difference, based on what I’ve seen. We also have to work with the private sector, NGOs and academia. I’m seeing such a tremendous willingness from all 67 counties on understanding the issue and wanting to move forward.
Jacksonville has more shoreline than any other community because of the St. Johns River and its tributaries, plus the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. Would you encourage leaders to create some office or position to focus on sea-level rise?
I think it would be helpful. Jacksonville certainly is vulnerable, whether it’s because of the next hurricane, rising sea levels, or flooding issues. But at the same time I would defer to the local officials on what they think would be best.
Having traveled the state, I will say some cities are more active than others. I like to point to the regional planning councils. I think that, more than anything, has been tremendous.
But the Jacksonville City Council almost pulled out of The Northeast Florida Regional Council this year (a decision it’s expected to reconsider).
It’s just too expensive to go at it alone, and there are a lot of best practices out there. Having that regional collaborative effort is going to certainly be instrumental, especially for Northeast Florida.
Jacksonville doesn’t have a Climate Action Plan. Is that something you’re encouraging cities to develop?
I think it’s important that every city have a Community Action Plan, a resiliency plan, whether it’s to prepare for the next hurricane or to look at rising sea levels — and not just cities but also local businesses.
You’ve said the most vulnerable and underserved people in the state are going to be the most severely impacted by climate change. What is the state doing to help?
It’s such an important issue from a socioeconomic standpoint. We’re working with the Department of Economic Opportunity. The governor was instrumental in getting more mitigation funding to help with affordable housing. We’re working very closely with municipalities on how we can help distribute that.
National Flood Insurance Program premiums are scheduled to rise significantly in 2021 and rates will only continue to rise, along with sea levels. Should the state be doing something to keep flood insurance premiums down?
We could encourage more robust private firms to come in to help with insurance. But I really would rather advocate that if we take more resilient actions, that will lower the risk and lead to generally lower costs. That’s what’s most important.
A lot of communities are updating building codes and where they allow development. Does the state need to change its building codes to account for future sea-level rise?
It’s all still under review.
When we’re talking about building resilience to climate change, how does reducing fossil fuel emissions tie in? Is that part of the conversation?
We need to look towards cleaner solutions, and there’s great technology innovation out there to help with that.
Is the state doing anything to encourage changes in energy consumption?
Oh, yes. As I’ve been traveling, I’ve noticed energy has been part of those local and regional plans. I’m working with our energy office here and with our environmental protection department. It’s certainly part of the strategy.
Do you think local governments also have a responsibility to look into emissions reductions?
I think everyone has a responsibility.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.