In Sarasota, Businesses Take Small Steps to Confront Climate Risks

To the casual observer, some of Sarasota, Florida’s small business owners must seem rather irrational. Even though the city’s downtown lies in prime hurricane territory along Florida's west coast, and may only become more vulnerable to damaging storms as sea level rises, a new study shows that only a few restaurants and shops in the area have taken significant steps to prepare for future storms.

A 2008 aerial photograph of Sarasota Bay along Florida's west coast. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, according to the study, the closer a Sarasota business is to the waterfront — usually the riskiest place to be during a hurricane — the less likely it is that the owner is preparing for the worst, even though they probably know the risks.

“Amongst the business owners, there is pretty broad acknowledgment that climate change is real and that sea level rise will have an impact on the city of Sarasota,” says Peter Howe, a researcher from Pennsylvania State University who has been digging deeper into the unexpected behavior of Sarasota business owners. In a recent survey of over 250 Sarasota businesses, Howe investigated how the Florida locals perceive hurricane and climate change risks, and what motivates them to prepare for the impacts. The results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Global Environmental Change.

A traditional hurdle to climate adaptation and natural disaster preparedness efforts is that people often don’t recognize they are at risk, or that a threat may be increasing. That isn’t the case in Sarasota, says Steve Queior, the president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.

The city has been lucky enough to avoid a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1944, when the Category 3 Pinar del Rio Hurricane swept through, causing at least nine deaths and extensive damage to local citrus crops. Hurricane Charley came close in 2004, but the brunt of the storm remained south of Sarasota. For a city that hasn’t seen a major storm in over 60 years, you might expect people in Sarasota to be blind to the threat of hurricanes. But instead, Queior says people living and working there still recognize the risk.

“Many of the folks that live here today have seen bad storms somewhere else. They remember Hurricane Andrew, for example. And that visceral image just sticks with them, so they want to be prepared themselves,” Queior explains. Moreover, he says that a lot of people in Sarasota also realize that sea level rise can cause hurricane storm surges to increase, and therefore hurricanes in the future may be more damaging than they are today. 

But one insight from the study is that that even if the community does know they are threatened by climate change and they want to be prepared for it, Howe found that business owners may only take small precautionary steps while avoiding actions that would do more to minimize storm damage.

Howe is careful to point out that, like business owners in other parts of the country, Sarasota’s small business owners aren’t making bad decisions; they’re simply trying to balance short-term business needs with long-term risks. And how they juggle the two says a lot about the challenges individual businesses face as they try to adapt to increasing climate change-related risks.

For example, over 90 percent of the companies Howe interviewed are now in the habit of regularly backing up their business’ computer data. “Backing up computer data is about the easiest and cheapest measure to take,” he explains. Simple though it may be, Howe says the computer back-ups are important. The trick, of course, is to make sure the back-up system isn’t stored right next to your actual computer, or else a flood that damages one is bound to ruin the other, too.

The majority of businesses surveyed have also set up disaster plans to contact employees in the event of an emergency, or have stockpiled some food or water. Queior says that several local businesses also take part in local emergency drills, set up each year to help people go through the motions of their disaster plans.

On the other hand, Howe discovered that far fewer small businesses have purchased flood insurance and only 30 percent have made arrangements to move the business if a hurricane causes significant damage. 

And there were almost no businesses that had taken the most obvious — albeit expensive — step to alleviate risks of flooding from a hurricane storm surge or future sea level rise.

“Fewer than ten percent of businesses have moved to a different location,” says Howe. For the businesses that are centered right downtown, in the areas most vulnerable to a major hurricane-induced storm surge, some might think that moving the business would be a good adaptation step.

But downtown is also where the action is, where the cultural heart of the city is located and where most of the tourists gravitate, which is why business owners prefer to set up shop there. Howe points out that relocating might put a business at risk of losing customers in the short-term, so owners might be resigned to remaining in the more vulnerable location.

And if they’re going to stay in the more flood-prone part of town, Howe says the business owners realized there might be little use for doing any kind of adaptation.

“There are probably aspects of fatalism coming into it,” he says. “An owner might think, whatever I do to prepare probably isn’t going to be enough anyways, so why bother?” It’s a risk the business owners are willing to take considering the profit they can turn in the meantime, he explains.

In particular, he recalls interviewing the owner of a restaurant located on one of the barrier islands adjacent to Sarasota’s downtown. The seaside location is an important draw for customers, but Howe says the owner knew that if a big hurricane hit, he would probably lose everything. “There’s not a whole lot he could do to prepare other than buy insurance,” admits Howe.

This struggle between keeping a business afloat today and securing it against future floods is a key challenge for many of Sarasota’s small companies.

According to Queior, the recession over the past few years hit Sarasota earlier and harder than many other parts of the country, so even if companies originally had adaption plans in mind, they’ve had to forgo a lot of them just to keep their shops open. 

“Generally speaking, there is a lot of awareness of the risks in Sarasota,” said Quieor. “We could do a lot better, but the recession hit so hard here that there is an aspect of economic survival for these businesses that competes with physical survival.”

Even as the economy picks back up in Sarasota, the day-to-day challenges for small business owners could still keep them from making all the best adaptation decisions.

“For now, the urgent — the economy — has elbowed out the important — the sea level rise,” says Queior. “But the topic of adaptation to sea level rise is going to keep coming up.”