Opinion: Wariness arrives with hurricane season

Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Saturday morning, I renewed the ritual.

I opened the weather app on my phone and shifted the map to just off the African coast.

During Hurricane Season – which opened June 1 – coastal folks watch the waters off the African coast. Hot, dry air from the Sahara Dessert mingles with the moist, cooler air from southern Africa to make mischief. This union of competing currents spawns hurricanes.

In August 2017, the waters off Sierra Leone began churning. By Aug. 31, the monster Hurricane Irma was born and began creeping westward from its cradle, fueled by the warming Atlantic water.

On Sept. 11, the water from a storm born across the world flowed into our home in the middle of St. Simons Island. It caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage and put us out of our home for seven months.

A year earlier, Hurricane Matthew forced us to evacuate to Atlanta. We lost some trees but nothing else. Last year, Hurricane Michael invaded Southwest Georgia, churning farmland deep into the state.

Michael caused at least $3 billion in damage in Georgia alone. Help came 236 days later, when Congress finally passed a $19.1 billion relief bill.

This calamity is on the scale of warfare, and global warming is making these attacks more frequent and violent.

Jimmy Junkins, former head of the Brunswick/Glynn County water and sewer utility, frames it on the order of gathering the armies and dragons against the Night King’s army.

“It seems like planning for a major disaster like an atomic bomb by way of magnitude and impact,” he said in an email.

If a human invasion force were indeed gathering to bring so much death and destruction, I suspect folks in Atlanta and Washington would be on red alert.

Thankfully, our new governor, Brian Kemp, is paying attention. “This is definitely on my radar,” he said in a recent public radio interview.

“We have vulnerabilities now that we haven’t seen in the past,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a cycle we’re in, or whatever the case may be - a lot of people can argue it in different ways - but I know this: We’ve got to be prepared.”

His No. 1 tactic to combat this menace? Check your insurance policy.

“Our folks along the coast need to make sure they’re fully insured,” he said. “I think that’s a lot of the problem.”

Not having sufficient insurance “literally can bankrupt families,” he observed keenly.

“As the storm season approaches again we’ll be a lot more proactive to tell people that,” he said. “And people are going to have to start taking precautions if they’re on the coast about how they’re dealing with rising sea levels, flooding and the rash of storms we’ve had lately.”

And our state government, how does it fit into defending against the onslaught?

“Government cannot do everything for everybody,” he said. “People are going to have to be responsible, especially when they’re property owners.”

Why is this not like asking civilians to take personal responsibility for preparing for a full-scale invasion?

To be fair, the state has worked with counties to prepare. By the end of next year, all 11 coastal counties will have disaster plans, said Jennifer Kline, who works with the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Following the governor’s counsel, I checked our insurance — again. Homeowners insurance? Check, even though it was utterly useless for flooding. Flood insurance? Check. We pay several thousand a year for a policy backed by the alarmingly insolvent National Flood Insurance Program.

Happily, we are healthy, have cars and tolerant friends in Atlanta who will house us and our two dogs if and when we become evacuees again. Oh, and we have a nice supply of gel-filled flood bags ready to be stacked at our doors.

But a lot of people on Georgia’s coast can’t afford gel-filled bags, let alone insurance. Or cars. They have nowhere to go. What then?

This is a tough question, acknowledges Mason Waters, a local banker. He was on a panel here a few months ago – along with Junkins and Kline - that focused on the depressing phenomenon of sea level rise.

Originally, the national flood insurance program was intended to discourage people from living in flood-prone areas. Maybe, Mason wondered, the problem now is that the program has allowed so many to rebuild and remain. “However, I realize that these areas are already occupied and, in some cases, have been folks’ family home going back generations.

“Perhaps it is wisest to spend money to make homes and communities more safe and have lower insurance premiums be a byproduct,” he said.

In the absence of a big and expensive response, Junkins takes a dark view. “I think there is little to be done without spending funds that are probably well in excess of current property values for those properties which will be affected.”

He has come to terms with something that sounds to me like hospice – as climate change makes homes too vulnerable, just disconnect them from public services.

“Property owners would be left with difficult decisions and many would only be able to abandon their properties at some point.”

Kim Cobb, a Georgia Tech professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, was also on the sea rise panel. She isn’t exactly sunny about the future but seems unwilling to give up.

She argues the state should form a task force and appoint what amounts to a Hurricane Czar, similar to Florida’s first Chief Resilience Officer.

Cobb’s task force would include climate scientists and other experts. “The lessons from Irma and Michael are still fresh, and should inform near-term priorities,” she said. “But the real risks far exceed recent events.”

The task force “should also include representation from under-served, low-income communities who bear disproportionate costs during hurricanes, sometimes paying with their lives.”

Cobb respects existing planning efforts but suggests they are insufficient. She suspects few coastal communities can afford substantial infrastructure projects.

“The task force might consider how to direct targeted funding to these communities, borrowing from successful strategies in other states as well as strengthening the case for federal spending on such projects. “

Cobb also would join Southeastern leaders to fix the National Flood Insurance Program so that it “balances the near-term need of coastal communities for affordable flood insurance with the need to quickly transition away from building on flood-prone areas.

“Thus far, Congress has turned a blind eye to massive budget shortfalls in the NFIP, but it’s unclear how long the status quo can continue, especially as coastal flood risks increase.”

Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on Africa and recheck my insurance.

Bert Roughton Jr. is the retired senior managing editor and editorial director for the AJC. He can be reached at ajcbroughton@gmail.com.