The first violent storm tore through South Georgia just after New Year’s Day, leaving one person dead and $30 million in damage in its wake. Then another monster struck last Sunday, killing at least 16 people across the region and causing even more destruction costing at least $100 million.
That Mother Nature would pummel the same region twice in the span of less than a month is cruel. But it is particularly so in South Georgia, a region that has long struggled with economic hardship.
“The damage that we’ve suffered in our community is immeasurable,” Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said as he pleaded with federal officials for help. “Our people are suffering. They have no food, no home, no warmth, no hope.”
At least a fifth or more of the population is living in poverty in nearly all of the counties across the region, 2015 U.S. Census Bureau figures show. And four of the 16 counties for which Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency last week — Calhoun, Clay, Crisp and Dougherty — rank in the top 100 highest poverty rates in the nation.
The region has also been struggling with joblessness. The unemployment rate in Southwest Georgia was at 5.7 percent in November, while the rate was 5.2 percent in South Georgia, compared to 4.6 percent for the nation. Further, Sunday’s storm killed people in four counties — Berrien, Brooks, Cook and Dougherty — that have been suffering population losses in recent years. For example, Dougherty has lost 3 percent of its population since 2010, when it was home to 94,565.
“It just seems that South Georgia continues to get bombarded with these devastating storms,” said Tom Hochschild, who teaches sociology at Valdosta State University. “It’s devastating for the economic aspects of the region — with houses and businesses and automobiles that are destroyed. But it is also devastating to the fabric of the community.”
Federal officials have now approved emergency requests for disaster aid for the Jan. 2 tornado. They have also cleared the way for federal aid to start flowing to six counties for the recent storms. Additionally, state lawmakers chipped in another $5 million in state money. Even so, there will be need.
Poor people, Hochschild said, are heavily affected by such storms because many cannot afford homeowner and health insurance. When they lose their cars, medication and food in storms, he said, it becomes harder for them to get to work, their health is endangered and they go hungry. On top of that, they have a harder time paying for the funeral expenses for any loved ones lost in the storm.
“People who are working hard to pull themselves out of poverty are devastated when this type of misfortune hits,” he said. “They have been working hard to climb out of a hole only to fall back in because of a natural disaster.”
Aaron Johnson, an economist at Albany State University, attributed South Georgia’s challenges to socioeconomic factors, a graying population and increasing urbanization that is luring people away from rural areas to jobs in the big cities. Johnson saw some bright spots in South Georgia in 2016, citing increasing home prices and retail job growth.
“No, we haven’t had significant industry come into town. But we have had retail,” he said. “And those jobs aren’t coming here if there is no income. Wages went up in 2016. But now the question becomes with this storm: Will that slow the momentum in 2017?”
The Jan. 2 storm that slammed Albany generated 4,000 insurance claims with estimated insured losses as high as $30 million, according to Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens. It struck largely in a historic and pricier area of the city known as Rawson Circle Garden District where mossy ancient oaks line the streets.
The most recent storms, Hudgens said, did at least $100 million in damage,levelling large trailer parks in Cook and Dougherty counties.
Produce Prices Could Rise
The devastation in South Georgia could have ripple effects throughout the state. Some say damage to two major farms here could drive up produce prices as far away as Atlanta.
The Valdosta Plant Company and Bullard Farms are two of the largest producers in Georgia, employing hundreds of workers during peak season. Both were hit hard by the recent storm.
The Valdosta farm, which is in Adel, produces seedlings that are planted and harvested at other farms, meaning the tragedy will impact other farms. The Valdosta farm also raises and harvests some things on its own. Together they deal with tomatoes, peppers, squash, watermelons.
“Prices could go up from Atlanta to Jacksonville,” Chase Doughtrey, a local judge and community leader, said.
Brad Mathis,of Valdosta farm, said 29 of the company’s 50 greenhouses were trashed.
“Valdosta Farms was absolutely demolished and it’s going to take a lot of rebuilding here,” Mathis said
He said the company was trying to figure out how to salvage the plants promised to growers.
It’s one of the largest employers in the county.
“They Are Not Going to Beg for Anything”
Pamela Brown, who teaches sociology at Albany State, hopes the storm will bring renewed attention to South Georgia as it rebuilds.
“What we hope for in the big picture is that the media will focus on the rebuilding — the media will focus on how we come together as a community and take care of each other and really want to work to build our community at a much better and higher standard than we have had,” she said.
“We want our people to stay. We don’t want a brain drain,” she said.
“What we hope — and there is always hope — is that people will come and help,” she continued, “but then they won’t forget us — they will come back.”
Like Brown, Robert McDaniel, executive director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission, is optimistic about South Georgia’s recovery, given the character of the people who live there.
“They are very strong,” he said of them. “They are country folks. They will be OK. They need a place to live. They need people to help them right now so they can get back on their feet. But other than that they are not going to beg for anything.”
“They will get dressed and go to work from the shelter,” he continued. “That is what kind of people they are.”