Jacksonville: A Century of Resilience

On February 10, 2014, Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown and Michael Berkowitz, CEO of 100 Resilient Cities, convened the first 100 Resilient Cities introductory workshop in the United States.

The workshop was a day-long event involving city and community leaders, area mayors, and city council members. Participants eagerly contributed to the dialogue on what resilience might look like for the communities that make up Jacksonville.

Jacksonville is a rapidly-growing city in Northeast Florida, with approximately 850,000 residents. Encompassing more than 840 square miles, it is the largest city by surface area in the continental United States — the result of the historic consolidation of the City of Jacksonville with Duval County in 1968.

Known as “the River City,” Jacksonville is defined by an abundance of water – including the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal Waterway and St. Johns River (Florida’s longest), which flows through the heart of downtown before emptying into the Atlantic. Bridges spanning the St. Johns River and Intracoastal Waterway connect the River City’s beach communities, historical neighborhoods, suburban developments, and its rural farms and ranches.

Because of its access to multiple waterways, Jacksonville is home to a major international port as well as two large U.S. naval facilities.  The military presence, along with numerous defense-related contractors, is a foundation of the local economy.  With ready access to road, rail, air and sea, the city also thrives as a major transportation and logistics hub for the southeastern United States.  In addition, the Jacksonville economy has vibrant financial services, information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing sectors.

Jacksonville has suffered multiple catastrophic disasters in its history—the most destructive  being the Great Fire of 1901, the third largest urban fire in American history.  At the time, Jacksonville was a thriving resort destination and port city.  The blaze left one-third of the population homeless and destroyed 140 city blocks. Today, few homes or buildings in Jacksonville remain from before the Great Fire.  However, what arose from the ashes were part of an architectural boom, including Prairie School buildings and some of Florida’s first skyscrapers.

In September 1964, Jacksonville suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Dora – the only time in the 20th century that the city experienced a major hurricane, despite its water-front location in hurricane-prone Florida. (In 2013 the Weather Channel ranked Jacksonville third among the “10 Most Vulnerable and Overdue Hurricane Cities” in the U.S.)  As Dora came ashore, it swept beachfront homes and businesses into the sea, pushed the St. Johns River over its banks and caused extensive inland flooding.  For days, there was no power, water, sewer or phone service.  In many places, it took weeks to restore these essential services, months to clean up and haul away the debris, and it took years to rebuild.  Jacksonville recovered from the hurricane and the city has enjoyed dramatic population and economic growth in the 50 years since Dora.

Jacksonville is now a larger and more developed city than it was at the time of either the Great Fire or Hurricane Dora.  As a result, the potential for disruption and loss is much greater. But Jacksonville has taken a number of proactive steps to build resilience:

  • The City has officially adopted the Florida State Building Code, one of the most rigorous in the nation.
  • Jacksonville is a nationally-recognized leader in emergency management and preparedness.  It was the first local jurisdiction in the nation to be accredited (2005) and reaccredited (2010) by the Emergency Management Accredited Program (EMAP) in 2005
  • “Green” construction populates the University of North Florida campus, with energy-efficient buildings that offset the carbon footprint of the university with its 16,000-plus student body.
  • Jacksonville has embraced the Severe Repetitive Loss Program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This program uses National Flood Insurance Program funds either to elevate flood-prone homes or to acquire these properties so they can be converted to open space and mitigate the impact of future flooding.

These efforts will support livelihoods, protect natural assets, and build community cohesion in Jacksonville. Moving forward, this perspective will also inform Jacksonvillle’s resilience building efforts that are focused on reducing urban blight, improving data synthesis, diversifying its economy, empowering vulnerable populations, and fortifying its flood plains.

With the assistance of 100 Resilient Cities and The Rockefeller Foundation, Jacksonville looks forward to sharing its knowledge with and learning from other cities in the network. This will help the city as it develops a unified resilience strategy that builds off of its current efforts and continues to contribute to the growing community of practice around resilience.