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New study show rising sea level's impact on historic places in St. Augustine

Historic tourism is worth $2.9 billion in St. Augustine, according to a new study.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla — History is worth billions in St. Augustine, according to a new study presented Monday night to the city commission.

The daunting issue of sea level rise and more frequent flooding threatens the economics and survival of the city. This may just be the first major study that focuses solely on flood impacts on St. Augustine’s historic resources.

"I’m obsessed with this building," Ray Eme said. He is the Associate Director of the Lightner Museum. His team is incorporating preventative flooding measures into a new project for the museum.

"There’s going to be a perimeter wall," he said, pointing to the back garden area, "that’s going to be a measure to help with flooding back here."

That building from the 1880s also holds St. Augustine’s city hall. When it rains, the streets around it flood.

"Oh yes. It floods all the time," Eme nodded.

The building is one of many historic sites which saturate St. Augustine’s scenery. It’s places like these that a new study called Resilient Heritage in the Nation’s Oldest City addresses.

"We want to try to learn what the city can do," Jenny  Wolfe. She is the city's Historic Preservation Officer and was instrumental in the study. 

It identifies the most vulnerable historic resources as well as presents policies to tackle new construction, home preservation and even government buyouts of chronically flooded properties. It also proposes concepts that could protect historic places such as the Lightner Museum’s building. 

For that particular building, ideas include adding flood gates and flood wrapping materials that can be installed as a temporary measure.  

The report even recognizes the idea to use the historic, indoor, empty swimming pool there – which is now a café – and "let the water come in, protecting the poured coquina walls from that long term water exposure," and then let the floodwaters eventually flow back outside.

Protecting historic sites is more than just about saving pretty, old buildings. It’s really about economics as well.

Wolfe said, "It’s this heritage tourism draw we have."

The report calculated that heritage is valued at $2.9 billion in St Augustine. More than half of the people who visit come for its history.

"That’s really our economic engine," Wolfe added. 

So finding a way to keep it running and protected from rising sea levels and flood water is "imperative to preserving the history of the town and the people who live here," Eme said.