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Building Resilience to Face Coming Storms


By: Johanna McCrehan, Georgia Conservancy Urban Design Lead & Nick Johnson, Georgia Conservancy Senior Planner

If you have recently found yourself thinking that it couldn’t have been this hot this early last year, there’s a reason for that: a heat wave is currently sweeping across the Southeast. Sustained temperatures over 90oF (and sometimes over 100o) have been baking our state and show only a moderate chance of cooling off.

But so what? It’s hot in the South. People get used to it. Right?

Wrong. As esteemed meteorologist, Dr. Marshall Shepherd, notes, “People are often surprised to learn that extreme temperature, particularly heat, is the deadliest form of weather.” Compared to disasters like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes—which are catastrophic but sporadic—heat waves do not receive as much attention for the danger they bring. Many Georgians, including farmers, construction workers, mail carriers, and other professions, make their living by being outside.

Moreover, heat waves have larger environmental implications, like droughts. For a state where over 25% of our land is dedicated to agriculture, heat waves, floods, and intense storms have grave implications for the health of our citizens, the growth of our economy, and the vibrancy of our communities. And signs point to extreme weather events becoming more common over time as the result of a changing climate.

Facing an uncertain meteorological future, The Georgia Conservancy—along with many conservation organizations, regional planning agencies, and city governments (including the City of Atlanta)—has adopted a framework of resilience to better prepare for disruptive events. Resilience refers to a person’s or place’s ability to both withstand acute shocks and also cope with day-to-day stresses. These shocks and stresses can be both physical and psychological, both environmental and economic, or of a different nature entirely.

For an individual, this could mean recovering from an illness, dealing with car trouble, or pushing through a tense living situation. For a place, this could mean recovering from a natural disaster, bouncing back after an economic downturn, or managing Day 100 of a drought.

Each place in our state faces its own resilience, preparation, and planning challenges. Coastal areas face storm surge during hurricanes, large influxes of tourists during peak season, and loss of wildlife habitat. Cities face transportation and water availability issues, as well as the loss of important tree canopy.

Rural areas, and especially lands used for agriculture, are particularly affected by extreme weather, and their time to recover is often prolonged. Recently, a federal bill that would fund relief efforts for Georgia farmers impacted by Hurricane Michael finally passed on Monday evening after several delays—worrisome given that the planting season for some Georgia crops started in March.

Adopting a strategy of resilience helps individuals, communities, and cities persist and thrive amidst threats to their economic, environmental, and physical well-being. Building resilient places and preserving natural systems minimizes consequences from acute shocks, lessens impacts of daily stressors, and enhances quality of life.

Ft. Valley Farm by US Dept. of Agriculture

Resilience forms a core part of the Georgia Conservancy’s vision for our state. We work with urban communities, counties, and small towns alike to build more resilient places that can grow and thrive in the wake of environmental and economic shifts. Our Sustainable Growth program works in close partnership with local governments and decision-makers to identify what makes that community home, how to preserve those points of pride, and how to address community challenges to ensure it grows steadily, sustainably, and equitably. We have conducted Master Plans for neighborhoods in Atlanta and in small towns like Hogansville and Moreland, offering strategies to conserve and care for natural resources—which, when cared for, provide the strongest tools to promote resilient communities—alongside ideas to spur economic growth.

Challenges to growth vary between communities but could include a lack of housing diversity and availability, few greenspace amenities, or a homogenous economic sector. All of these, in one way or another, are dangers to long-term resilience. It is easier to bounce back from events that threaten a system if its component parts are diverse and distinct.

These plans to build resilience are supplemented by our Advocacy program’s work with state and local representatives and policymakers. At the Capitol, we interact with these elected and appointed officials to advocate for key legislation that will promote resilience. In recent years, we have successfully promoted the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, which will dedicate a percentage of state tax dollars from the sale of outdoor sporting goods to protect our waters and lands. We have taken official stances on various pieces of environmental legislation, including opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration and surface mining exemptions. We have also advocated for bills that help to build more resilient spaces, including SB 2, which facilitates expanding broadband services to rural areas of Georgia.

In a way, the effort to build resilient places in Georgia is all about balance.

At the Georgia Conservancy, we balance the need to protect our natural ecosystem with the need to protect the well-being of Georgians. We balance the needs of rural and urban residents and make connections between public and private entities. Even our approach to achieving all of this is a balance between top-down advocacy and bottom-up community engagement—or “grasstops and grassroots.”

We are helping bring together professionals from different sectors to discuss resilience challenges across the state. This August, we are convening a plenary of professionals at the Georgia Environmental Conference to think through what resilience in South Georgia looks like following environmental catastrophes like Hurricane Michael.

As we face uncertain and existential threats from more frequent extreme weather and a changing climate, it is imperative that we work together to build places, systems, and communities that can withstand the coming storms. Resilience is particularly crucial for rural areas of Georgia, a state where 92% of our land is located outside of metropolitan areas and where 406 out of 537 incorporated areas in our state are under 5,000 people. And though Georgia’s economy is strong and diverse, agriculture is the top industry, and 1 in 7 Georgians work in agriculture, forestry, or related fields that rely on natural resources and ecological system services. Working together to make local neighborhoods, economies, and towns across Georgia strong and desirable places to live is a mission we must all strive to achieve.

For more information on the Georgia Conservancy, please visit: www.georgiaconservancy.org

For more information on the Georgia Environmental Conference and the plenary that the Georgia Conservancy helped to organize, please visit the conference’s web page.
Photo top: Harvesting by US Dept. of Agriculture. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

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