Opinion: Revisiting Ga.’s storm protocols

SUNDAY ISSUE: HURRICANE IRMA AFTERMATHThis year’s succession of destructive weather events means Georgians are logical to ask if a “new normal” is emerging, and how best to deal with it.

Last week’s deluge of stormy weather seemed to dig two lines of disparate, yet related, thought across Georgia.

One was that, overall, things could have easily been much worse. This, even while damage from Hurricane Irma was substantial in spots – and near-catastrophic in places like Glynn County. Given that tough reality, much of Georgia is thankful that the damage was not more widespread.

While thanksgiving is in order on the above point, common sense should leave us with substantial concern over what will one day come next – and what we can reasonably do about it.

Discerning patterns and trends in weather is tricky, controversial business at best, yet it’s logical for Georgians to wonder about harsh storms that seem to be growing increasingly common around here. What was once seen largely as a problem afflicting neighboring Florida now appears more likely to batter our shores as well.

It’s thus worth asking whether we’re seeing the early stages of a new normal where hurricanes and tropical storms occur more frequently? If that seems even somewhat plausible, other questions logically follow.

What can state and local governments do now and in the future to better prepare for future storms? What can property owners do to better protect their investments – as well as their safety, if not lives?

The potential answers could be dizzyingly broad. Things like enhancing building codes, or hardening infrastructure such as low-lying roads and drainage systems, or improving storm warning systems.

The widespread and varied damage from Hurricane Irma, coming less than a year after Hurricane Matthew makes these and other questions relevant and worthy of substantial, expedited examination by government officials. The safety of Georgia’s people, and the well-being of our state’s economy could both be at unnecessary risk if we do not assess where things stand, and where we might make feasible adjustments to our safety systems and processes.

Georgia’s pragmatic Gov. Nathan Deal seemed to be leaning at least somewhat in this direction, given his remarks Thursday while visiting areas hard-hit by the storm. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein wrote that Deal said state officials had learned to be more prepared – and humble — in the face of nature’s power and unpredictability.

“For the longest time, we were able to say that we had not had a hurricane come on shore in the state of Georgia in over 100 years, which was true,” Deal said. “We probably shouldn’t have bragged that much about it.”

The state has promised some relief is on the way. Even so, Georgia should, as outlined above, think well beyond the now-standard tactic of some state tax relief being offered to those harmed by the storm. Along this vein, the state has offered to pay the local match for expected federal disaster aid.

While there’s more to be done in terms of official preparedness efforts, there is much to be grateful for in Georgia, even as recovery efforts get underway to redress the storm’s destructive aftermath.

As expected, Florida took the brunt of the storm’s wrath. Yet Georgia was far from exempt as winds, rain and storm surges hammered coastal areas and pushed dramatically inclement weather far inland. Floodwaters saw Savannah’s famous River Street become part of the river with that city’s name for a time. Downed trees blocked roads deep within the North Georgia mountains.

And metro Atlanta took its blows as well. Many of us were introduced to the storm’s raw force by hearing – or feeling — the “Thump!” of trees toppling. Or there was the flash-bang of power lines or transformers clattering to the earth, severing electrical service as they fell.

At one point, a reported 1.3 million customers were without power in Georgia. Many metro area school districts canceled classes for much of last week, thanks to loss of power at buildings or blocked roads.

Perhaps the most-welcome sights and sounds statewide were the rumble of power company bucket trucks, including out-of-state rigs, headed to spots where the electric grid had frayed. Georgians are pulling for the linemen from Georgia Power and other utilities who’re working around-the-clock to restore service. May their work proceed quickly and, most importantly, safely.

Asking how Georgia can further hone and enhance its emergency management apparatus and storm-susceptible public infrastructure shouldn’t be seen as a reflexive, broad-brush criticism of the response to last week’s storms.

Rather, thanks in good part to the randomness of a storm’s exact landfall, we avoided a potentially epic calamity. That will lead some to grouse that government overreacted in ordering evacuations, pre-emptively closing businesses and schools, shutting down MARTA for a day, etc.

In short-term hindsight, at least, a better-safe-than-sorry response seems the wiser public course than skimping on effort — and risking coming up catastrophically short. Or, worse yet, putting lives unnecessarily at risk.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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