With only 100 miles of the Southeast’s 29,111 miles of coastline, which stretches from Texas to Virginia, you would think Georgia would have experienced as many or more hurricane strikes than some of its Southeast neighbors with half as much coastline, namely Mississippi with 44 miles of coastline and Alabama with 53 miles of coastline, but that is not the case.
With 100 total hurricanes strikes in the Southeast between the 61-year span of 1950–2011, only Hurricane David, which made landfall in Savannah as a “weakening minimal hurricane” in 1979 with its 58 mph sustained winds and a 3- to 5-foot storm surge, has graced the Peach State in recent history. Even then, the event caused no major damage in Savannah, unless you consider being without power for as much as two weeks, “major damage.” During the same 61-year time period, Mississippi had four hurricanes make landfall along its coastline (Ethel ’60, Camille ’69, Eleana, ’85, and Georges in 1998) and Alabama had an equal number of hurricane landfalls with four hurricanes plaguing her shores (Baker ’50, Frederic ’79, Danny ’97 and Ivan in 2004).
In fact, Georgia has only taken a direct hit from Atlantic hurricanes 11 times in the past 200+ years (1800-2011). Three of the worst hurricanes all occurred in the month of August, and all made landfall at or near Savannah in the 1800s: in 1881, 1893 and 1898 (the “Sea Islands Hurricane” and the last “major” — categories 3, 4, and 5 — hurricane to hit Georgia) to be exact. Another four major hurricanes impacted the Georgia coast in the 1800s: in 1824, 1854 and 1884.
This past century’s hurricanes occurred in 1911, 1940, 1947 and Category 2 David in 1979 – again, all of these storms made landfall at or near Savannah. Probably the worst of the 20th century storms was an un-named hurricane (hurricanes did not start being “named” until 1950) that hit in 1940. This storm produced 105 mph winds, causing substantial structural damage and downed trees in downtown Savannah.
Hurricane David makes landfall on the southeastern coast of the United States in 1979. (Photo: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons)
On a good day, most believe that the Georgia coastline is generally safe from potential harm from hurricanes. Georgia’s deeply inset curved coastline makes it harder for a direct hurricane hit, with hurricanes often impacting our southern neighbor in Florida and then veering, often unpredictably, northward toward South Carolina. Both states have endured their fair share of Atlantic-based hurricanes.
Georgia’s coast is currently protected by “a series of relatively short, wide barrier islands separated by relatively deep tidal inlets, or sounds," according to to the New Georgia Encyclopedia:
"Extensive sand shoal systems are present seaward of the inlets and central portions of the island. Eight major islands and island groups comprise the 100 miles of coast between the Savannah and St. Marys rivers. These are Cumberland/Little Cumberland, Jekyll, St. Simons/Sea Island/Little St. Simons, Sapelo/Blackbeard, St. Catherines, Ossabaw, Wassaw, and Tybee/Little Tybee. Tybee, St. Simons/Sea Island, and Jekyll are accessible by roadway and are the only developed barrier islands of the group. The barrier islands protect the mainland from the brunt of major storms and hurricanes. The developed barrier islands have no such outer defense. Georgia tidal marshes are predominant in the two-to five-mile wide areas between the barrier islands and the mainland and then brackish to freshwater wetlands can extend inland for an additional ten miles or so. Scattered throughout the tidal marshlands along the six coastal counties are approximately 1,200 vegetated hammocks, ranging in size from less than one acre to more than 1,000 acres – remnants of Pleistocene and Holocene barrier islands and back barrier deposits.”
Wave energy on the Georgia coast is relatively low, because of the long distance waves must travel over the Continental Shelf before reaching the shoreline.
Of course, urban legend tells a story of Mother Nature taking a “bite” out of the southeast Atlantic coastline, with Savannah being in the center of the “bite.” She so appreciated what she “tasted’ that she vowed to protect her shores for eternity.
In actuality, the Gulf Stream (the strong current of warm water that follows the coastline from the Caribbean northward and affects the path of Atlantic-based hurricanes), is 50 miles offshore at Savannah and some 80 miles offshore at Jacksonville, Florida. Hurricanes moving up the East Coast of the United States along a subtropical ridge known as the “Bermuda High” generally follow the path of the Gulf Stream, and the fact that the Gulf Stream is so far off the coast along Georgia has often been considered a major factor in its “protection” from Atlantic-based hurricane events. Additionally, the Gulf Stream usually keeps a hurricane far enough out to sea that the coast of Georgia is only experiencing the western or “weaker” side of any hurricane that passes the state by.
That’s not to say that Georgians should develop a false sense of security. Just the opposite. The Georgia coast expects a coastal population growth of 50 percent by 2030. That’s on top of the already 500,000 or so people already living there. As thousands of Georgians flock to the coast and development continues to rise drastically along the Georgia coastline, despite the looming hurricane threat, the potential for catastrophic capital and financial loss grows in direct proportion to the “wave” of structural improvements. Additionally, the political pressure to develop Georgia’s intricate web of barrier islands brings with it an increased threat of untold proportion.
"It's a serious problem in this country," The Weather Channel’s Stu Ostro reported as far back as the 2006 Governor’s Emergency Management Conference in Savannah. "People and hurricanes are both headed to the coast."
Downtown Savannah as seen from the river. (Photo: Scott Oves/flickr)
The National Weather Service has termed Georgia hurricanes a “sleeping giant” — describing Georgia as “very hurricane vulnerable despite what has not occurred it the most recent decades” and ranking Brunswick as one of the most overdue cities for hurricanes, according to The Weather Channel.
It's better to be prepared
Although the southern tier of the East Coast has had a relatively quiet few years, openly defying the normal long-term probability of an intense hurricane model of about one hurricane every three years. If, and when, hurricane frequency returns to normal activity levels (and many believe that inevitability will occur much sooner than later) residents of Georgia need to be prepared for the devastation that will take place along the coast. That caution, coupled with the most recent climate models predicting higher average temperatures of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, along with an anticipated 5 percent increase in annual precipitation during the next century, and add to that higher sea levels, with as much as a 20-inch rise for the Georgia coast in coming decades, and you truly have a recipe for impending disaster along the populated areas of the Georgia coastline.
Not to mention that the Georgia coastline lies directly between “two of the most climatologically favored locations for hurricane impacts — those being Florida and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.” Eventually, we will suffer from the devastation of a major hurricane; no state can be that “charmed” for that long. When that major hurricane does hit, most of the Georgia coastline’s low lying communities will be underwater — especially if phenomena like strong storm surge (predicted to be as high as 25 feet in a Category 3 hurricane event, according to researcher, Chuck Watson, for Kinetic Analysis Corp) or high tides are factored into the equation.
Guarding against overbuilding the coast, protecting the natural habitat of Georgia’s 14 barrier islands, coastal ecosystems, fresh and saltwater mix estuaries, and 4,000 acres of tidal marshlands, and implementing adaptation strategies that include policies on how to best mitigate sea level rise and the impacts of an ever-changing climate, should be a high priority on every Georgian’s agenda. The other important element to ensuring safety and reducing long term vulnerability to hurricanes for Georgians is promoting risk awareness and preparedness. “Being prepared before a hurricane hits is the only way to ensure that you will be ready,” said Dan Stowers, planning director for GEMA. “By knowing your vulnerability and what actions you should take, you can reduce the effects of a hurricane disaster.”
Yet, according to recent research conducted by Ready Georgia, 72 percent of Georgians do not know designated evacuation routes from their community, while 87 percent are not fully prepared with a Ready kit of emergency supplies or a communications plan in place. Another 74 percent do not have a NOAA Weather Radio to warn of advancing threats. There's still a lot of work to be done in terms of preparedness.
A risk-educated Georgian is an empowered Georgian and one who is better prepared for, and can respond to, natural disasters such as hurricanes. Preparedness reduces loss of life and property, and minimizes suffering and disruption caused by hurricanes or any other disaster, for that matter. Preparedness promotes sustainability and resiliency – the ability to withstand a disaster event, rebound from it, and adapt to it, so that the impacts are not as devastating the next time around (and there will be a next time!). At the end of the day, there is no chance of a sustainability community without safe (disaster resilient) homes to live in and safe places to go to work each day.
Perhaps Georgia will continue to go unscathed when it comes to future hurricane impacts. Perhaps, it won’t. But gambling with lives and property should not be an option that is readily accepted or actively promoted.
“There’s no harm in hoping for the best,” Stephen King tells us, “as long as you are prepared for the worst.”
Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM, is the development administrator/floodplain manager/hazard mitigation specialist for the city of Augusta Planning and Development Department. Terri is currently also the Region 4 director and the No Adverse Impact (NAI) Committee Co-Chair of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). Terri spends much of her free time writing for national publications and touring the nation speaking on sound floodplain management, hazard mitigation, climate change adaptation, and sustainability and resiliency initiatives for local governments.