Local News

11/16/2013

New legislation reflects flood risk

By GORDON JACKSON The Brunswick News

ST. MARYS -- City officials met with experts from the state and nation Thursday to begin the process of preparing for rising sea levels.

The research, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will help St. Marys identify problem areas and develop local ordinances and codes that could minimize the impact of the rising ocean and the rise in flood insurance rates that many property owners in the nation will face in coming years.

At the first formal meeting Thursday at St. Marys City Hall, Jason Evans, a public service assistant with the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government, described the Biggert Waters Act - which revises the federal Flood Insurance Program - as the "elephant in the room."

The federal legislation will require flood insurance rates to be raised high enough to reflect true flood risk, make the program more financially stable and change how Flood Insurance Rate Map updates impact policyholders.

"It's a very complicated piece of legislation," Evans said.

The study will identify vulnerable areas for flooding and drainage issues, as well as review local ordinances and codes and suggest possible solutions.

Cost will also be a consideration in some of the recommendations, he said. On Tybee Island, where a similar study has been done, one suggestion was to build a sea wall until Evans said residents realized it would be too expensive.

"We want to have something that's really objective," he said. "If it's not cost effective, we'll show that too."

Evans said the research will include potential legal issues.

"There is a lot of research interest looking at these areas," he said. "There's so many pieces to this."

Evans said one of the challenges will be to determine who has data and what data doesn't exist.

Once the study gets started, those involved with the project will talk to people throughout the city. They will also be looking for old photographs showing flooding.

"The most powerful stuff is pictures," he said. "They show what's happening."

Charles Hopkinson, director of the Georgia Sea Grant program for the University of Georgia, said the scope of the project will be comprehensive.

"This is a people helping people project," Hopkinson said.

Jack Thigpen, a representative for a parallel project in Hyde County, N.C., in the central coastal region near the Outer Banks, said Hyde County is facing a chronic situation. A dyke has been built around one town because some homes are less than 2 feet above sea level.

"It doesn't take a hurricane to cause problems there," he said. "They don't have a lot of resources to do things with."

Jessica Whitehead, coastal communities hazards adaptation specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant, said there is no substitute for local knowledge.

"We need to know what the city is willing or not willing to do," she said. "It's creating an environment where everyone is learning from one another."

* Reporter Gordon Jackson writes about Camden County and other local topics. Contact him at gjackson@thebrunswicknews.com, on Facebook or at 464-7655.