OPINION: Choosing between crises on the coast of Georgia

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga.-- The biggest challenge of governing in a crisis-- choosing between the urgent and the important-- was on vivid display this week when I went to Glynn County for the next stop on my Georgia Politics Road trip.

I’d decided to go back to the South Georgia coast during an earlier visit to Savannah when local leaders pointed to Glynn County as having among the most immediate problems in the state with climate change and a rising sea level.

On the day I drove to St. Simons Island, news reports were coming over the radio about the devastation from Hurricane Ida in New York City, where torrents of rainwater gushed into the subway system and people horrifically drowned in their own basements in Queens.

What if the same kind of storm came to Georgia? Would the state be ready? Could any state be ready?

Climate scientists say the chances of impact are increasing every year, as the climate warms and severe weather events become more frequent and more severe.

Even without a major hurricane in the last few years, residents in coastal Georgia now live with higher tides, eroding beaches and chronic flooding from a rising sea.

Streets and homes in low-lying areas of Brunswick flood routinely. Residents on St. Simons Island, the barrier island just across the Torres Causeway, say they used to think their location as the western-most nook on the Atlantic coast largely protected the island from serious threats.

But near major impacts from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma just a year later convinced them that’s not the case anymore.

“People used to say, ‘We haven’t had these storms for years, but within two years we had two major storms and I think that opened a lot of people’s eyes,” said Emily Ellison, the executive director of the St. Simon’s Land Trust.

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The Trust works to acquire undeveloped property on the fast-developing island and preserve the land through conservation. They also conduct research on living shorelines and maritime forest restoration, both strategies to help strengthen coastlines against severe weather.

It’s also one of several local nonprofits working to help the area to defend itself from what could come next.

Megan Desrosiers, the President and CEO of One Hundred Miles, described the cascading effects that sea level increases are having on residents everywhere in Glynn County.

“A lot of people think about sea level in terms of oceanfront homes, but it also impacts groundwater. It impacts the marshes. It impacts the way that stormwater moves underneath your city,” she said. “And it’s getting worse as sea levels rise.”

The effects are also worse in communities that don’t have the resources to deal with them. An EPA report released Thursday showed that minority communities will bear a disproportionate impact of climate change, a dynamic that Glynn County epitomizes.

While some areas, like the privately-owned Sea Island, are among the wealthiest communities anywhere in the country, neighboring Brunswick has a 34% poverty rate.

“It’s an economic issue and a socio-economic issue,” Desrosiers said. ”And in cities like Brunswick that don’t have a lot of money, they’re not getting on top of it because they can’t afford to do it.”

The political dynamics on the coast are as unusual as the weather people are trying to predict.

The entire 100-mile coastline is represented in Congress by U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican from Pooler, and, as of January, its senators are Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Another politically divided delegation represents the area in the state House and Senate, overseen by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Thankfully, the question of whether climate change exists no longer seems to be the prevailing debate among political leaders here. But what to do about climate change and how to pay for it certainly is.

“Climate change is real,” Rep. Carter told me on a visit to Savannah earlier this summer.

Unlike some Republicans, Carter not only acknowledges the warming trends in the atmosphere, he talks up Georgia’s leadership as a state in renewable energy even in casual conversation.

He has worked to help flooded-out residents get grants to build higher and got Donald Trump to take Georgia off the list of states that would allow offshore oil drilling. But he also opposes government regulations to push people or businesses to make major changes.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Jon Ossoff has visited low-lying coastal communities like St. Mary’s and requested billions in the Senate-passed infrastructure bill to help the entire coast defend itself.

Ossoff told a group in St. Mary’s last week that the bill has $12 billion for everything from weatherizing houses and businesses to upgrading local drainage systems and improving evacuation routes. But it still has to pass the House.

“As sea levels continue to rise, as tropical storms become more intense, we have to prepare our coastal communities in Georgia for flooding,” he said.

But in talking to residents in the area, it seems like one of the biggest challenges related to climate change may not be climate change at all.

The highest hurdle may be the patchwork of city, county, state and federal governments that all have to push for progress in the same direction at the same time — even as governments’ bandwidths are stretched to capacity by the crisis in front of them.

Bill Brunson is a Republican on the non-partisan county commission.

After living for 30 years in the same house, his home flooded for the first time after 16 inches of rain inundated the area during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“Once you have had that issue, it is at the forefront of your brain,” he said.

But along with practically willing the county to get through hurricane season unscathed, Brunson said he thinks the county has largely done what it on climate change for now. The emergency now, he said, is COVID.

“Our hospital is absolutely overrun,” he said. “You see the numbers and they’re just scary.”

The tone in Brunson’s voice made it clear which crisis is most urgent in Glynn County at the moment.

“If we don’t get our arms around this COVID thing,” he said. “We’re not going to have to worry about climate change, because nobody’s going to be here.”

This article is the sixth installment of the AJC’s Georgia Politics Road Trip series, reporting from the road on the politics throughout the state.