Projections show that by 2030, just 7 years from now, Savannah could see more than 30 tidal floods a year—a threefold increase compared with today.
There are 4,772 properties in Savannah that have greater than a 25% chance of being severely affected by flooding over the next 10 years. This represents 20% of all properties in Savannah. Flooding of areas in Chatham County dates back to 1811 and has happened as recently as Hurricane Irma in September 2018. Since 1948, Chatham County and the surrounding municipalities have flooded more than 17 times damaging more than 1,700 dwellings. Hurricane season runs June to November, though Savannah is tucked into a crook in the coastline, putting them at less risk than neighboring cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina.
Savannah is a major port city that also boasts one of the nation’s most extensive National Historic Landmark Districts. The waterfront is in many ways the engine behind the city’s past and present prosperity. Founded as a major cotton export town, Savannah’s picturesque cobbled streets and old warehouses draw millions of visitors each year and provide a popular hub for recreational fishing. However, the city is entering a new era as riverfront buildings increasingly flood at high tide.
Neighboring Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River, was once known as Savannah’s beach. The island has a permanent population of around 3,000, which swells to 30,000 during the summer. Georgia’s most densely developed barrier island and a tourist destination, Tybee Island has a colorful past as the haunt of the notorious pirate Blackbeard.
Like Savannah, this vacation town knows that it sits on the front line of sea level rise and is already taking steps to adapt. These efforts include raising the elevation of electronic controls for city wells, placing tide gates on storm-sewer outflows, raising roads, and nourishing eroding beaches.
Floods in the Savannah area, including Tybee Island, now occur about 15 times a year—up from an average of just five or fewer some 40 years ago. The island is served by a single highway, Highway 80, which has become particularly prone to tidal flooding during a full or new moon. When water floods this and other roads, residents often contend with standing water, and downtown parking lots become inaccessible. Conditions are worse during higher spring tides, which occur twice a month when sun, moon, and Earth align. At these times, flooding can affect many sections of downtown, as well as stretches of the railway to the Port of Savannah.
sea level rise of almost half a foot will transform today’s nuisance tidal floods into more dangerous and damaging ones, with conditions that now occur only during the worst tidal floods.
Projections for 2040 are stark: Savannah could see a foot of sea level rise and a 10-fold increase in tidal flood events—to more than 100 annually. Each year, about 10 of those floods would fall into the extensive category, affecting highways, houses, businesses, infrastructure, and parks, across an expanded area of the city and region.
According to Jason Evans of the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia, “With a foot of sea level rise, you’d expect to see tidal flooding on the order of 100 days a year, rather than just five to ten times a year as we do now.” Observes Paul Wolff, Tybee Island’s longest-sitting city council member, “Now is the time to plan and budget for infrastructure that we’ll need 20, 50, and 100 years from now to deal with the impacts of sea level rise.”
The cost of flood insurance for residents of Tybee Island is set to increase again, partly because of the growing flood risk to their homes from sea level rise. Many Insurance companies are denying flood insurance to coastal residents. FEMA plans to redraw flood maps as they did in 2016, putting even more pressure on residents—more than a third of whom own vacation rentals that bring summer income.Flood maps help mortgage lenders determine insurance requirements and help communities develop strategies for reducing their risk. The mapping process helps you and your community understand your flood risk and make more informed decisions about how to reduce or manage your risk.