Georgia’s coastal com­mu­ni­ties pushed to pre­pare for big storms

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Greg Bluestein and Dan Klepal Coastal con­tin­ued on A13

Georgia’s coast had long dodged one epic storm after an­other, but the cat­a­strophic one-two punch de­liv­ered by hur­ri­canes Irma and Matthew in less than a year may be a sign of what’s to come.

Cli­mate sci­en­tists warn that warm­ing oceans will fuel more hur­ri­canes, mean­ing once-in- a-life­time storms are likely to be­come more reg­u­lar oc­cur­rences. Ex­perts and lo­cal of­fi­cials say it’s time for Georgia to take broader steps to pre­pare

for more cat­a­strophic weather.

That could in­clude changes to zon­ing rules in low-ly­ing coastal ar­eas; more ro­bust build­ing reg­u­la­tions; pre­serv­ing green space to re­duce flood­ing and ac­count for storm surges; and more money to re­ha­bil­i­tate

van­ish­ing shore­lines.

It also could in­clude a wider em­brace of a vol­un­tary fed­eral in­cen­tive pro­gram that en­cour­ages coastal com­mu­ni­ties to in­vest in flood man­age­ment pro­tec­tions.

Some of those ef­forts al­ready are un­der­way. Oth­ers will be a tough sell in a state where there is not wide­spread agree­ment on the causes and ef­fects of cli­mate change.

“None of us like cas­tor oil, but my grand­mother would give it to me be­cause it’s good for me. This is the same,” said state Rep. Al Williams, a Demo­crat who lives in the ham­let of Mid­way near Georgia’s coast. “It’s time for us to start hav­ing th­ese con­ver­sa­tions about how to pre­pare for more fre­quent storms. It’s a fine line, but we’ve got to ap­proach it.”

State en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cials have qui­etly be­gun to draft long-term plans to help coastal coun­ties adapt to ris­ing sea lev­els and cli­mate change. Gov. Nathan Deal said last week he’s open to broader beach restora­tion pro­grams, much like the nearly $6 mil­lion ef­fort in 2014 to re­build Ty­bee Is­land’s dunes.

But the Repub­li­can said the state should have a lim­ited role in shap­ing lo­cal re­sponses to ris­ing sea lev­els and fiercer storms, and that it’s up to lo­cal author­i­ties to de­cide whether to im­pose new re­stric­tions on de­vel­op­ment along the coast. There’s only so much the state can do to com­bat the like­li­hood of more vi­o­lent storms, he added.

“We can’t re­lo­cate our­selves ge­o­graph­i­cally,” Deal said. “We are where we are, and we have to just be pre­pared.”

At the same time, Georgia tax­pay­ers are of­ten left pick­ing up the tab. Typ­i­cally, lo­cal gov­ern­ments kick in 12.5 per­cent of dis­as­ter re­cov­ery costs. But with many coastal com­mu­ni­ties still reel­ing from Matthew, Deal said the state would shoul­der the 25 per­cent not cov­ered by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. There is no es­ti­mate yet on what the fi­nal price tag will be.

‘The new nor­mal’

Ty­bee Is­land Mayor Ja­son Buel­ter­man has noth­ing but kind words for state of­fi­cials — and a steady stream of vit­riol for fed­eral author­i­ties he said have con­sis­tently ig­nored his coastal com­mu­nity’s dire needs.

The bar­rier is­land’s only con­nec­tion to the main­land is a span of two bridges linked to a cause­way that’s flooded not just by epic storms like Irma and Hur­ri­cane Matthew but also reg­u­lar ti­dal events. When Irma swamped the coast, the span was im­pass­able for about three days.

He’s fed up with what he calls “stupid idi­otic red tape” from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment that has de­layed re­pairs to the bridge. And he’s so tired of wait­ing for new funds from Wash­ing­ton for an­other round of beach restora­tion that he said his com­mu­nity is de­vel­op­ing a plan to help fi­nance it on its own.

“We’re just giv­ing up on Wash­ing­ton and we’re do­ing things on our own. That means state, county and lo­cal work­ing to­gether,” said Buel­ter­man. “The state can step in where the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has fallen down and help us out.”

Just how his­toric were Irma and Matthew? At Irma’s fiercest, the tide sta­tion at Fort Pu­laski, on the cause­way be­tween Sa­van­nah and its low-ly­ing bar­rier is­land neighbor mea­sured a peak ti­dal level of 12.235 feet. That’s the se­cond high­est level in the gauge’s 82-year his­tory. No. 1? Hur­ri­cane Matthew, which swelled the tide to 12.557 feet the year be­fore.

And the re­gion’s res­i­dents are doggedly brac­ing for more of the same. With 100 miles of shore­line, Georgia’s coastal coun­ties are home to more than half-amil­lion peo­ple, or 5 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion.

Among them are Deb­bie and Tony Pa­gan, who bought their Ty­bee home for $11,500 in 1971. For decades it was a rock-solid in­vest­ment. As they were clean­ing up sev­eral feet of fast-mov­ing wa­ter that flooded their place, they seemed less sure.

“Hur­ri­canes used to not be like this,” said Deb­bie Pa­gan.

From her home over­look­ing a wrecked dock down the street, life­long Ty­bee res­i­dent Beth Jarvis has a sim­i­lar view. The dev­as­tat­ing storms, the com­mon­place cause­way flood­ing — they never seemed to af­fect the com­mu­nity when she was grow­ing up there.

“I per­son­ally think it’s be­cause of global warm­ing,” she said. “I think this is go­ing to be the new nor­mal.”

Though cli­mate sci­en­tists have long cau­tioned that ris­ing sea lev­els and warmer wa­ters could fuel more mon­strous storms, they push back against the per­cep­tion that the Georgia coast — with its shel­ter­ing con­cave shape and bar­rier is­lands — is pro­tected from the storms. David Stooks­bury, a for­mer state cli­ma­tol­o­gist, said six ma­jor hur­ri­canes swiped Georgia in the 19th and 20th cen­turies.

“It doesn’t have to be a di­rect hit. We need to get over this idea,” said Stooks­bury, a Univer­sity of Georgia pro­fes­sor. “It doesn’t give us a sense of ur­gency for plan­ning, and zon­ing and the other things as­so­ci­ated with be­ing more re­silient against th­ese storms.”

Ex­actly what to do about it is a ques­tion Daniel Rochberg, chief strat­egy of­fi­cer for the Cli­mate@Emory ini­tia­tive, has been work­ing on.

Rochberg re­cently led an ini­tia­tive called the Georgia Cli­mate Pro­ject, dur­ing which peo­ple from gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor drew up a list of ques­tions that need to be an­swered to help the state be­come more re­silient in the face of a grow­ing threat.

All of those ques­tions, he said, deal with how cli­mate change is im­pact­ing the state, and what should Georgia do about them?

“Th­ese are ques­tions we need to an­swer to move for­ward in Georgia,” Rochberg said. “I think Irma has cer­tainly fur­ther in­creased ev­ery­one’s aware­ness of what changes in weather can do to our state. It’s very clear that Georgia is highly sus­cep­ti­ble.”

‘Over the top’

The fury of re­cent storms hints at a com­pli­cated para­dox. Even as Georgia faces the like­li­hood of fiercer storms, the state gov­ern­ment has steadily im­proved at re­spond­ing to them.

Deal has de­clared 23 states of emer­gency since he took of­fice in 2011, and state of­fi­cials have learned much since his first: an ice storm that nearly de­railed his in­au­gu­ra­tion.

Since then, the “snow jam” dust­ing of ice that em­bar­rassed Georgia three years ago led to bet­ter gov­ern­men­tal co­or­di­na­tion and more pre-emp­tive ac­tion from state and lo­cal lead­ers.

And Matthew, which prompted one of the largest evac­u­a­tions in state his­tory, helped re­fine the state’s pro­ce­dure. After Irma, Deal said, the state may per­ma­nently stage more tents and tem­po­rary hous­ing along the coast to pre­pare for fu­ture mass de­par­tures.

“It’s over the top,” said state Rep. Ron Stephens, a Sa­van­nah law­maker, of the state’s bet­ter-safe-than-sorry strat­egy for dan­ger­ous storms. “But that’s fine by me.”

Georgia of­fi­cials say they’re brac­ing for more se­vere threats.

The state Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources has al­ready com­pleted longterm dis­as­ter plan­ning for three coastal coun­ties that ac­counts for ris­ing sea lev­els and more fu­ri­ous storms. In Oc­to­ber, the depart­ment’s staffers will start pre­par­ing plans for the rest of the coast.

“We are try­ing to get the coun­ties to look at sea level rise as a po­ten­tial haz­ard,” said Jen­nifer Kline, a state coastal haz­ard spe­cial­ist. “It’s un­for­tu­nate that we have to have events like Irma, but it helps com­mu­ni­ties know where their gaps might be.”

And sev­eral coastal towns have em­braced the fed­eral Com­mu­nity Rat­ing Sys­tem, which doles out in­cen­tives to cities that take steps to brace for ris­ing sea lev­els. Do­ing so helps them earn points that lead to cheaper flood in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums for res­i­dents.

John Hol­man, the city man­ager for the coastal com­mu­nity of St. Marys, said the city has earned a 7 rat­ing and its res­i­dents now get 15 per­cent off the rates. It’s work­ing on a sea-rise study and has spent $1.4 mil­lion to de­velop more green space and more per­me­able paving — steps that could earn lo­cals a 20 per­cent dis­count.

“Will it stop the kind of wa­ter we had this week? No,” said Hol­man. “But it will mit­i­gate that and help. It will make us more re­silient.”


A boat sits in the marsh after Hur­ri­cane Irma on Tues­day at St. Marys. Ex­perts and lo­cal of­fi­cials say it’s time for Georgia to pre­pare for more cat­a­strophic weather.

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