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City Talk: Irma raises long-term questions for economy, development, safety

On Wednesday afternoon, city crews were working hard in Forsyth Park to clear debris. As a result, the park looked great less than 48 hours after Irma moved entirely out of the Savannah area.

Some limbs fell in Forsyth, but I only saw one downed tree — a palm next to the Confederate monument.

Of course, local government wasn’t alone in springing into action. I was especially impressed by the many restaurants and stores that stayed open as long as they could pre-Irma and then reopened as soon as possible afterward.

While many areas of Chatham County lost power for hours or days last week and during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, a broad swath of the downtown area never lost power during either storm.

Businesses as diverse as Parker’s Market, The Sentient Bean, Peking House and McDonough’s Restaurant & Lounge saw little disruption to their schedules and became important community gathering points in Irma’s immediate aftermath.

I’m sure there are many more businesses that I could add to that list, especially if we included those that reopened on Sept. 12.

Kudos especially to newcomers like Bull Street Taco at 1608 Bull St. and The Diplomat Luncheonette at 314 Drayton St., both of which opened their doors for the first time in the days before the storm and then hit the ground running afterward. I’ll have more to say about those establishments in upcoming columns.

So, what was the high tide last Monday?

According to the preliminary data from the official tide gauge at Fort Pulaski, the early afternoon high tide on Sept. 11 peaked at 12.2 feet. If Irma had not pushed such a powerful surge along the East Coast, the high tide would have been right at 8 feet.

The recorded tide was a few inches lower than the highest reading taken during Matthew’s storm surge in 2016, but the actual water level reached far higher — perhaps as much as three feet higher — in many places along the Southeast coast.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has nine official tide gauges in Alabama and four in Mississippi, but the Fort Pulaski station has the only official gauge in Georgia. Given the extreme discrepancy between the official high tide and the destructiveness of the actual tide, it seems clear that we need more data if we want to understand storm surge threats in Georgia.

In a future column, I hope to explore this issue in greater depth. Businesses, government agencies and private individuals need a better understanding of surge threats so that they can make smarter decisions in the coming decades.

Time for strategic long-term planning

As discussed in last Sunday’s column, the Georgia coast was only rarely threatened by hurricanes in the last half of the 20th century.

But history tells us that Georgia had to contend with four or more hurricanes in at least three decades — the 1850s, 1890s and 1940s.

What if we have the same luck over the next few years? How will coastal development and public safety be impacted if we have more storms in the next few years?

Combined with the ongoing rise in sea level, an extended period of storm threats would presumably discourage development at low elevations, probably including some areas fairly far inland. We might also see increased development pressures on higher ground.

Also, we can’t repeat the mistake of ordering massive evacuations for storms that are dangerous but not life-threatening for residents with decent housing on relative high ground. As discussed in the most recent City Talk column, the National Hurricane Center’s forecast on the morning of Sept. 8 did not warrant the mandatory evacuation for all of Chatham County that had been announced the previous day and that wasn’t changed until the afternoon of Sept. 9.

As a community, we need to work together to make plans to protect those in most danger — including those with special medical needs, those who live at very low elevations, and those who live in substandard housing or have no homes at all. For example, during Irma, many residents could have been better served by local emergency shelters than by shelters in counties farther inland.

We could also be facing a long-term issue related to the rhetoric from state officials, whose warnings and mandates did not align with the National Hurricane Center’s forecast for more than 48 hours before Irma brought sustained tropical storm force winds to much of the state.

I’m not suggesting that disaster planning is easy, but it seems clear that we can do better — and have to do better.

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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