For the coastal city of St. Marys, changing sea levels and severe storms are local issues.
With assistance from the University of Georgia, local leaders, property owners and schoolchildren are working together to protect their historic and picturesque community of about 17,500 people. Among the tasks: meeting federal guidelines for floodplain development, raising awareness of behaviors that can contaminate the city’s drinking water and developing an emergency communications plan for severe weather events.
“We needed a better process for getting the information out about flood risks,” said Scott Brazell, Camden County floodplain manager.
In 2015, St. Marys and Camden County developed Georgia’s first joint Program of Public Information, an outreach tool designed to educate local residents about flood risk and encourage them to take actions to make the community more resilient.
Brazell appointed a committee to look into federal programs that reward communities for PPIs. Madeleine Russell, a coastal hazards specialist for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, helped committee members understand the program materials. That included the 700-page manual on the Community Rating System, a Federal Emergency Management Agency incentive for communities to improve their resilience to flooding through floodplain management. By following floodplain management practices outlined in the CRS, property owners can earn credits that make them eligible for a discount of up to 45 percent on their flood insurance.
Russell’s extensive knowledge of the CRS manual and her connections in the resiliency community made her a huge asset to the team.
“We didn’t really know who to look to or how to start, so when Maddy brought in her expertise and provided us with examples, it really brought everything together,” said Jeff Adams, community development director for St. Marys.
Camden County currently is a Class 6 on the CRS, which means property owners get a 20 percent discount on flood insurance. Reaching a Class 5 would earn them a 25 percent discount.
Lowering flood insurance costs is important to the community, but Brazell, a lifelong resident of St. Marys, recognized the need to educate residents about other ways to mitigate flood damage.
Founded in 1787, St. Marys is one of the most vulnerable cities in Georgia to the impacts of coastal flooding, changing sea levels and storm surge. The low-lying community has already experienced approximately 9 more inches of water because of changing sea levels since 1897, and this trend is expected to accelerate in the future, according to the St. Marys Flood Resiliency Project.
Protecting the city’s water source from contamination through stormwater runoff is a big concern.
Jessica Warren, the UGA Cooperative Extension agent for Camden County, leads river cleanups and several Adopt-A-Stream workshops. She worked with local school groups to encourage stenciling “dump no waste, drains to stream” messages next to storm drains, raising awareness about how stormwater runoff goes directly into streams and sounds. The message serves as a reminder to not litter and to pick up after pets so there’s less pollution entering the waterways.
Stormwater stenciling is now incorporated into the PPI, and St. Marys passed a resolution to have all of its drains stenciled.
Brazell partnered with St. Marys Middle School to create programs focused on GIS mapping and flood zones. Brazell previously had worked with the school, teaching students how to use GPS devices and map areas in the city that are prone to flooding. Incorporating messages about flood resilience seemed like a natural next step and fit with the public information campaign.
Brazell and Adams now serve on the STEM program advisory committee for St. Marys public schools and are in the process of launching new outreach campaigns for K-12 students.
The city also worked with Russell to develop a plan for communications and outreach with local residents before and after a major storm. They were in the process of that when Hurricane Matthew hit the Georgia coast in October 2016.
“The hurricane really helped us understand what we needed to communicate based on calls that were coming in,” Russell said. “It brought the whole committee to the same page and helped us realize what we needed to say to our stakeholders.”
The final PPI includes 62 local messages that could be modified and adopted by all of Georgia’s CRS communities.
“So much of how we protect our communities and plan for disasters is happening on the local level,” Adams said. “The resiliency of this country lives in rural America.”