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City Talk: Coastal development has not been tested by major hurricane

As I write this column, I have no idea where Hurricane Irma will be when you read it.

Perhaps we will be on the cusp of widespread damage. The assumption through much of last week was that we were poised for a direct hit from a major hurricane (defined as categories 3, 4 and 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale).

More than a century has passed since a major hurricane made landfall on the Georgia coast, according to historical data available on the National Oceanic &Atmospheric Administration website (http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/hurdat/All_U.S._Hurricanes.html). There have only been three major hurricanes to make landfall in Georgia since record-keeping began in 1851.

The so-called “Great Carolina” hurricane hit Georgia as a category 3 in 1854, which was one of four hurricanes that impacted Georgia between 1851 and 1856.

Five hurricanes hit Georgia in the 1890s, including two major ones — the category 3 “Sea Islands” hurricane of 1893 and the category 4 1898 hurricane.

In 1894, Joel Chandler Harris wrote a lengthy, dramatic piece about the Sea Islands hurricane.

“The bellowing waters of the sea leapt up and mingled with the shrieking spirits of the air,” wrote Harris. “Out of the seething depths disaster sprung, and out of the roaring heavens calamity fell.”

“No just and reasonable estimate of the loss of life on these islands has been made. The adjacent coast was prompt to tell of its losses over the long tongue of the telegraph. Its dead were known and identified. Its searching-parties found them out. Its tugs and launches brought them ashore.”

“But the Sea Islands were dumb, and they are dumb to this day,” Harris wrote, emphasizing both the untold stories of loss and the difficulties faced by a white writer trying to cover a tragedy with largely black victims.

After the 1890s, things got quiet. According to NOAA, Georgia experienced category 1 hurricane force winds in 1911, 1928, 1935, 1940 and 1941.

In 1947, a category 2 storm impacted Georgia, and there was a category 1 hurricane in 1949, but then three decades passed before Hurricane David hit the state as a category 2 in 1979. There were near misses in subsequent decades, plus Hurricane Kate, which was an inland storm by the time it brought category 1 winds to Georgia in 1985.

And then came Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Somewhere in those lean decades, the myth took hold that Georgia is immune to major storms — a myth clearly countered by those three storms in the 1890s.

In those same decades, coastal development exploded. Major residential and commercial construction has taken place immediately along the coast, and we have also seen ambitious growth farther inland at very low elevations.

The durability of much of that development has not been tested. Yes, Hurricane Matthew brought strong winds and a significant storm surge, but the impacts were far, far short of the damage we would see from a direct hit by a major hurricane.

Many folks around Savannah focus on the dangers of wind and rain, but the potential storm surge would likely be even more dangerous. Places that have never flooded, or that have only seen occasional street flooding, could be inundated.

Beyond the possibility of human tragedy, Hurricane Irma is also a threat to the area economy.

The local economy seemed to bounce back strongly after Matthew, but a number of businesses never reopened after the 2016 storm, and there are many people still dealing with damage to their homes. A lovely old duplex near my house is still being renovated after a massive live oak fell on it during Matthew.

Even if we avoid significant property damage from Irma, we know that many restaurants, bars, shops and other businesses will get hit hard. They will have no sales on what is normally a busy weekend when SCAD students return en masse.

Again, even if we are spared significant damage, many low-wage workers and families will face a week or more without any earnings, plus the expenses of evacuation. If we want a strong recovery, we will need to hit the ground running later this week, no matter what hand we’ve been dealt.

Take care, all.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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