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In advance of rising sea levels, Savannah area pilots life-saving technology

By David Pendered

A holistic approach to measure and respond to rising sea levels in and around Savannah is so promising that NOAA has provided new funding to expand it to other coastal communities in Georgia that need real-time flood information to help save lives from flood waters.

Streets flooded in a neighborhood west of Skidaway Island, near Savannah, when Shipyard Creek crested its banks during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Credit: Used with permission by Anne Smith, an area resident

The need for success is evident. There’s no stopping sea levels from rising, according to the “code red for humanity” report issued Aug. 9 by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mitigation seems to be the immediate solution to protect coastal communities, while other efforts seek to reduce and slow the rate of sea level rise.

The approach being tested in Savannah and Chatham County holds promise, according to those involved. The 10-year effort started in 2018 and has produced a significant tool.

Chatham’s Emergency Management now has real-time data on water levels from 55 sensors that helps put resources in place before a weather event spurs havoc and confusion. Long term, the streams of information on water level could be assembled and used to inform planning for roads, stormwater runoff systems and public infrastructure that’s vulnerable to flooding.

The effort brings together the resources of Georgia Tech, the governments of Savannah and Chatham County, and people who live in the region.

“It’s a very unique partnership,” said Randall Matthews, Chatham County’s deputy director of Emergency Management.

Randall Matthews

Randall Matthews

“There are times when acadamia produces reports, where they’ve interviewed constituents in a city and county government, but it’s not really a partnership,” Matthews said. “This program has been a partnership all the way. We’re working together and acting as a partnership.”

Kim Cobb, director of Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program, said the collaborative approach does not lend itself to fast results. It does present insights into data collection and management that may be useful in other regions where sea level rise is a concern.

“Everyone working on climate change resilience has realized that ‘no one size fits all,’” Cobb said. “This is about constructing tools to adapt to an ever-changing landscape.”

Cobb said this phase of the project has focused on tools for emergency planners and responders. Future work is to develop more tools that deliver information to civic leaders that can inform planning.

Kim Cobb

Kim Cobb

“Our role is to provide science, and engineering tools, so there is a firm ground foer decisions going forward,” Cobb said.

“We’re looking at more resilient tools that can get into the hands of city, county and eventually, state level, officioals that could really transform the way Savannah and other communities think about the future and use science to inform decisions.”

Matthews gave as an example planning for roadways that are less vulnerable to flooding and the ensuing damage caused by inundation. And there’s the increasing issue of managing stormwater runoff.

“We could look at how the drainage infrastructure responded to heavy rainfall,” Matthews said. “Last month, with Elsa [a tropical storm], we had some areas with 8 inches of rain in 24 hours. We saw street flooding.”

The NOAA grant, of $500,000, is to help expand the system of sensors beyond Chatham County into other coastal communities. Tech is committed to the project, Cobb said.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Cobb said. “I mean that while we’re very excited about the portal and all it can do to keep people safe for now, and understanding flooding risks to help emergency responders prepare, we’re just getting started.”

The need for water level sensors in metro Atlanta became clear during the downpours that dropped up to 20 inches of rain over parts of the region starting Sept. 15, 2009. Credit: QNovaYT via wikimedia.org


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Jeff J August 17, 2021 9:56 am

    Now is the time to prepare. Coastal flooding due to climate-induced rising sea levels is here to stay. That’s according the the well researched findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It will only get worse. We should also look at newly developed and tested ways of slowing storm surges exacerbated by rising sea levels. A New York landscape architect is leading the way on a more natural and innovative approaches to coping with seal level rise. It’s described well in this New Yorker Magazine article, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/09/the-seas-are-rising-could-oysters-protect-us. Ultimately a better approach to tackling climate change, such as putting a price on carbon pollution with the money rebated equally to all Americans, is swiftest and most effective long-term strategy to protect Georgians.Report

  2. Ben Marsh August 24, 2021 1:36 pm

    It is always very sad to read such news. But I’m glad that they started fixing it. By the way, many private companies that are ready to offer their engineering solutions and civil engineering services can be found here: https://engre.co/services/infrastructure-solutions/civil-engineering/. I hope this will contribute at least a little to the speedy solution of such natural problems. I think it is much more effective to prevent such cases than to fight them.Report


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