Some Coastal Cities Take Proactive Approach to Climate Change

May 21, 2018

Gale Horton Gay

This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.

Debate over climate change continues worldwide in scientific, political and public circles. However, many Georgia coastal residents as well as political and business leaders hold that the effects of climate change and rising sea levels are real and not up for debate.

Tybee Island, Garden City and St. Marys—all along the Georgia coast—are on the forefront of taking measures to prevent and respond to the effects of flooding and storm damage due to storm surge, extreme rainfall and sea levels rising, according to environmental protection officials.

“We recognize we need to be proactive to deal with this issue,” said Mayor of Tybee Island Jason Buelterman.

Two years ago, the city completed the Tybee Island Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan and the Tybee Island City Council adopted it unanimously.

Sea level rise could inundate a third of the land in the state’s Atlantic counties within a century, according to a Georgia Conservancy report “Sea Level Rise and the Future of Georgia’s Coast.”Among the impacts of rising sea levels and flooding on Tybee Island:
  • Frequent closure of U.S. Highway 80 (due to flooding) is the only road connecting the island to the mainland
  • Backup of storm water drainage in low-lying areas of Tybee Island resulting in saltwater flooding of neighborhoods and roads
  • Increased coastal erosion, especially on the island’s beaches
A repaving program is currently underway on Tybee Island that will add up to eight inches of asphalt on streets in the island’s lowest lying points, Buelterman explained.

“We’re working on building up our dune system and re-nourishing our beach,” he added.

Buelterman said storms and hurricanes are having an increasingly negative impact on the coast and Tybee Island in particular.

“Many are coming more frequently and are more powerful,” he said. “We’ve been hit by two in the last two years.”

Hurricane Irma, which was downgraded to Tropical Storm Irma, brought powerful winds, rains and flooding to the coast in September 2017. A year earlier—October 2016—Hurricane Matthew devastated the coast.

Tybee is just one of several communities along Georgia’s coast grappling with flooding, the erosions of beachfront and “slow, gradual sea level rise,” according to the mayor.

Garden City was awarded a two-year Coastal Incentive Grant through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to improve disaster resiliency. The city also completed a Safe Growth Audit developed in connection with anticipated risks related to climate change and future sea level rise. Among the measures outlined in the audit are:
  • Exploring adoption of a wetland buffer ordinance
  • Completion of storm water master plan and flood analysis
  • Creation of a post-disaster redevelopment plan
  • Incorporating the results of greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the comprehensive plan
Garen City City Manager Ron Feldner said that since 2012 the city has undertaken steps to manage growth and improve planning, zoning as well as watershed management and storm response. Having a stable staff that’s worked on the city’s risk and vulnerability assessment, audit, stormwater and comprehensive master plans has led to success.

Feldner added Chatham County, in which Garden City is located, is pursuing a sea level rise study and the city hopes to benefit by being a stakeholder. St. Marys was one of five national communities selected in 2013 for a sea level study through a nationwide grant competition funded by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s sea grant program. The final report from the study was adopted unanimously in May 2017 by the St. Marys City Council. The study concluded that city officials were wise to build fire departments and other public safety facilities at some of the highest elevations in St. Marys. Back-flow preventers and other technologies to improve drainage and reduce flooding in the city are also under consideration.

The city apparently was rewarded by FEMA for its proactive efforts to reduce flood risk and received a rating that resulted in a 15 percent reduction in flood insurance premiums in specific flood hazard areas. Collectively residents have reportedly saved more than $87,000.

“I am seeing increasing awareness and attention by county and city officials,” said Katherine Moore, Georgia Conservancy’s Sustainable Growth Program director.

However, she added that overall the state needs to do more.

“We are still not exactly where we need to be,” she said.

Moore noted that less wealthy communities face greater challenges coming up with the resources to fund mitigation and prevention efforts.

“There is an important part of this story in that courage of individuals, government agencies and groups in the past—including Georgia Conservancy—in acting to protect Georgia’s barrier islands, shoreline and marshes has positioned the state to be less vulnerable today and more climate ready on the coast than we otherwise would have been,” said Moore.

Charles McMillan, the Georgia Conservancy’s coastal director, said progress is being made in some cities and communities but a major hurricane would be too much for many areas.
While McMillian believes advance planning is limited for a Category 3 hurricane, there are still ways to prepare.

“Communities should still prepare by improving storm water systems, moving people from low-lying areas and planning for more thorough emergency evacuations,” he said. “But, there’s only so much you’re going to be able to do.”

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