Uncertain Future

A few weeks ago, I sat down to send you an optimistic note about how our coast dodged a few bullets this summer. I soon realized I wasn’t feeling positive after all, and couldn’t finish.

Even though Hurricane Dorian only skirted by us, it was hard to celebrate with more than 600 people still missing, hundreds dead, and the Bahamas decimated. Shortly thereafter, the Coast Guard began reporting “massive discharges” of oil into St. Simons Sound from the overturned Golden Ray cargo ship. And at the beginning of October, another pod of pilot whales beached on Georgia’s coast, this time on St. Catherines. But instead of only a few casualties (like the earlier stranding this summer on SSI), this pod lost at least 10 whales.

The angst that stopped me from finishing that earlier email to you is this: At this point, officials, community members, and decision makers on Georgia’s coast are only responding – and sometimes not all that well – to each individual crisis as it comes. That’s because it’s easier for us to assume that these incidents are isolated and unrelated. But we must realize that they are not.

Neither Dorian nor the Golden Ray caused the pilot whales to strand, but it is possible that human behavior stressed the whales to the extent that most of the pod was lost. This incident serves as a cruel reminder that the population of approximately 400 North Atlantic right whales lost six individuals in June alone. Ship strikes, entanglements, ocean noise, and plastic pollution are all results of human behavior that are pushing these gentle giants towards extinction within our lifetimes. Of those individuals that are left, many can be identified by visible scars from previous ship strikes. Unfortunately, instead of taking coordinated, active steps to improve mortality rates, those responsible fight regulations and cross their fingers when they are in right whale territory. Click here for more information.

Similarly, warmer oceans are causing hurricanes to become stronger. When it hit the Bahamas, Dorian was a Category 5 storm with winds of more than 180 mph. Compounding the damage, the people of the Bahamas were not prepared. While we don’t live on an isolated island in the Caribbean, it is clear to me that coastal Georgia’s built environment would have been equally decimated had we been the direct hit. Yet we live in denial, and our communities are not taking steps to prepare any better. In September, a planning firm hired by Glynn County released a diagnostic report, the preceding document to a revised zoning ordinance. Instead of overhauling the 60-year old ordinance, which was written before we knew about climate change, sea level rise, and the effects of poor planning on coastal communities, the county is only pursuing a few revisions. The report contains no mention of updating building codes, better storm preparation, or sea level rise. Click here for more information about storms and building codes in hurricane-prone areas.

As for the Golden Ray… the Port of Brunswick has been in operation since 1789 – that’s  230 years. President George Washington established our port to be one of the five main ports of entry to the United States. Today it is the second-busiest roll on/roll off port in the nation, bringing in more than 600,000 cars annually (2017). Yet, it appears that both the shipping company (Hyundai Glovis) and the Port of Brunswick inspector may have failed to ensure that the Golden Ray was trimmed properly before it left for Baltimore. When the ship tipped, there was no emergency response plan to deal with the removal of the ship or leaking oil. This left officials in the position of having to rely – during an active investigation – on a potentially negligent party (Hyundai Glovis), whose best interest is to protect itself and its shareholders instead of the well-being of the people, wildlife, and economy of the Golden Isles. No one knows how much oil contaminates our sound, but at least 10 miles of oiled shoreline have been documented. Fishing charters, kayak rentals, vacations to St. Simons, and other economic opportunities for Golden Isles businesses to capture tourism dollars eliminated while the weather is still warm have been canceled and otherwise unavailable to businesses and individuals who rely on them.

These events are often classified in the public eye as unintended consequences of human behavior. But we have to realize that, while we didn’t intend our behavior to cause catastrophic damage to habitat, wildlife, and communities, it has done so.

We must be better prepared to deal with the consequences of our actions. The first step is to acknowledge that we live in a new world – one that was not even imagined in 1789 when George Washington created the Port of Brunswick or in 1959 when Glynn County adopted its first and current zoning ordinance. It is easy to assume that OHM takes positions on projects because we don’t want anything to change. The reality is that we want everything to change.

At One Hundred Miles, we work every day to help people understand that the choice between economic development and environmental conservation is false. In fact, the two are intricately connected. Employers and employees will not relocate to a place that is struggling with its identity, has an uncertain vision for the future, and is in denial about the threats it currently faces. That’s because we all want to know that our water and air will be clean, the places we love will exist for our children and grandchildren, and that our local government has our best interests in mind when approving development plans.

It is time for our society to stop conquering and/or living apart from our environment and realize that we are part of a complicated system that we both influence and by which we are influenced.

Once we accept these realities, we can effect change quickly, because the most important decisions are made locally. The elected officials you see in the grocery store, at church, and when you drop the kids off at school are the people who seal our fate. They approve development plans, assign dollars for infrastructure improvements, and otherwise have the power to either prepare us or ignore the problems. One Hundred Miles is effective because we know these people and we help you know them. We communicate with them, but more importantly, we give you the opportunity to connect with them. And you do.

So, despite my earlier trepidation, I do have hope for the future. We can absolutely change our course by participating in the decisions that are being made. As we prepare for a future with sea level rise and increased threats to our wildlife and landscapes, we’re counting on you to pay attention to the decisions being made, communicate with decision-makers, and vote for people who will ensure a stable future.

Now is the time for change. And it starts with people who have a stake in the future – in other words, all of us. Thank you for your efforts and your commitment to saving our coast. We need you.