After Irma, Georgia faces a ‘new normal’ of devastating storms

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.

GALLERY: Aerial photos show damage from Irma

IN DEPTH: Irma victims now may face insurance hurdles

“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 this 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-a-million 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 long-term 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.”

Staff writer Jennifer Brett contributed to this report from Tybee Island. Data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed from Atlanta.

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