Georgia Tech researchers work with coastal communities to monitor flooding

ATLANTA — We’re entering the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. The last two seasons yielded record-breaking numbers of tropical storms.

This is important because research suggests more frequent and stronger tropical storms disproportionally impact our most vulnerable neighbors.

Georgia Tech scientists hope a flood sensor project will give policy and lawmakers critical information about coastal flooding to prepare vulnerable neighborhoods for the impacts of climate change.

Researchers want to put about 100 water level sensors on Georgia’s coast to provide real-time, hyper-local flooding information.

Rev. DeWayne Cope with St. Athanasius Episcopal Church said after a thunderstorm you may get soggy shoes walking through the church parking lot.

Anything stronger and he said church staff uses sandbags to protect the 100-year-old sanctuary.

“The infrastructure can’t handle the amount of rainfall when it’s heavy,” Cope said. “I’ve seen my neighbors after every rainstorm pretty much hanging everything out to dry afterward.”

The church’s small, historically Black congregation is made up of retirees. Some have called Georgia’s low country home for generations.

“However, the home that they’ve called home with the effects of climate change and everything else that what used to be safe is no longer safe,” Cope said.

Georgia Tech researcher Russel Clark said long-time coastal residents’ experience of more frequent flooding motivates his work building water sensors.

The sensors are low-cost and give water levels in real-time. But Clark said the project’s innovation is working with residents, even young students, to prepare the community for the impacts of climate change.

“From the first year they’ve been involved in actually assembling the sensors and testing them, getting them ready to deploy,” Clark said.

Previously there were only a couple of tide gauges on our coast, according to Clark.

Georgia Tech works with Chatham County Emergency Management Agency and the city of Savannah to put sensors in flood-vulnerable areas.

The reason hyper-local flood monitoring is so important is because we’re experiencing more tropical storms. 2020 was a record-breaking hurricane season with 30 named tropical storms. Last year was the third highest with 21 storms.

A 2021 EPA report revealed “harms from climate change fall disproportionately upon underserved communities” and “racial and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable.”

“Very often it is the lower income people who are less able to deal with these multiple events,” Clark said.

That’s why his goal is not just better forecasting but getting this data in the hands of policymakers to help at-risk neighborhoods “to make sure that we’re ready for this reality of more frequent flooding,” he said.

But Cope said he fears policy and infrastructure help may come too late for his congregation.

“Legislation and laws and anything else that can be put into place sometimes takes years to go into effect so in time who knows when the next storm may come,” Cope said. “But all of a sudden, the place they call home is no longer livable.”


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