Dealing With The Aftermath

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Last Tuesday we had statewide elections. Republicans held most statewide seats, with two contests, Secretary of State and the Public Service Commission Seat held by Chuck Eaton, headed to runoffs. There was some evidence of party realignment according to geography, with Republicans losing seats across the northern metro Atlanta but holding strong throughout rural Georgia.

The result is that Georgia’s Republican Party is now more rural than it was. While experts and armchair observers alike try to decipher the long term implications of this shift, the legislature begins a special session this week to deal with rural Georgia.

Specifically, Georgia’s government will focus its attention on Southwest Georgia, a month after category 3 hurricane winds took direct aim on the regions homes, farms, and economy. As such, I dedicated a bit of windshield time to driving through the region on the way home from a trip this weekend.

Many of you have probably seen the aftermath of a tornado and the related damage. Now imagine pine trees snapped in half for miles in every direction, randomly mixed with twisted metal from barns and other damaged structures. Blue tarps on roofs are ubiquitous. Irrigation center pivots blown over and bent on most farms.

There wasn’t one picture that was the focal point of my observations, but the fact that it went on. And on. And on.

The statistics are staggering: $1 Billion lost in timber. $800 Million in cotton. $500 Million in other vegetables. $25 Million in poultry. Up to $20 Million lost in peanuts.

In a remote corner of Seminole County, I got a brief reminder of the ongoing human costs. A church had been converted into a FEMA operations center. Across the intersection was a FEMA truck trailer offering a place to shower. And on the other corner, a closed gas station was without gas one month after the storm.

That one caused brief panic as I had ignored my gas gage a bit too long. I, however, was just passing through. For residents of the region, this is now everyday life.

On the way back home, I stopped at the famous Blakely Chicken for a late lunch. I shared a table with two FEMA workers who had traveled over from hard hit Arlington. It was the nearest open restaurant to them – one county removed from their work. They were still going house to house, checking on residents who may be in need of help. While the storm has long since moved on from the news cycle, we’re still near the very beginning of recovery.

Which brings us back to the political side of the story. There’s an immediate plan, and then there are long term, structural issues.

Indications out of the Governor’s and Speaker’s offices last week are that the special session will focus initially on getting money to fund cleanup and infrastructure repair. Much will eventually be reimbursed by the federal government, but state leaders want to move past this stage as quickly as possible.

It appears that the Governor will be able to revise his revenue estimate upward by $270 Million due to the strong economy continuing to increase tax revenues. That means the state won’t have to raise taxes or cut spending elsewhere, but there will also be less “surplus” available for the state’s mid-year supplemental budget.

Speaker Ralston said last week “I view this as a beginning and not an ending” for assistance in Southwest Georgia. He also linked the recovery effort to the House Rural Development Council, which as spent the last two years focused on solutions for rural Georgia. The Council will be extended for two more years.

Hurricane Michael’s winds have laid bare the problems of rural Georgia, in the part that is among those struggling most, and is generally declining in population. Replacing existing infrastructure and providing assistance for crop losses won’t bring high speed broadband, fix the economic model for rural healthcare, nor gloss over the other challenges for economic development in the region.

The opportunity is there, however, for state leaders and the rest of us citizens to get up close and personal to the challenges of rural Georgians in establishing a viable economic model for the 21st century. For a Republican party that has just placed a major bet on Georgia’s rural voters, their very future may well depend on it.

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