Exactly eight years ago this week, a beige minivan festooned with stickers and a dashboard of plastic figurines rolled into Savannah carrying a road-draggled family and very few expectations.
It was more of a homecoming for my husband, who spent his formative youth casting a net for mullet on Herb Creek and riding his Huffy 3-speed through a then-shuttered downtown. But for this desert rat-turned-California girl, the Hostess City and her surrounding environs were unchartered waters, an alien planet of marshgrass and mosquitoes and a confounding Southern cultural code that made negotiating cab fare with a Kazakhstani mime seem straightforward in comparison.
However, with a steady diet of Lowcountry living and unintentionally inhaled sand gnats, I become more acclimated with each Savannahversary. Bourbon is now my drink of choice, and I no longer audibly hiss when I see people wearing flipflops in fancy restaurants.
Instead of involuntarily gagging at the thought of boiled peanuts, I now actually crave them. Plus, I believe I’ve mastered the correct usage of the semantically tricky “all y’all.”
I think I’ve also finally become accustomed to a certain syncopated rhythm around here. Certain months are so packed with events and activities you’d think the streets were mainlining energy from Manhattan. Others are so fainéant that the ghosts roam around the cemeteries at night wondering where all the action is.
People come and go as the tides ebb and flow, and July is when the bottom’s so low that most of us can barely keep up with the fiddler crabs waving their torpid one-hand salutes as the turbid creeks recede. It ain’t called “Slowvannah” in the summertime for nothing, dahlin’.
That’s why I’m not too panicked that President Obama signed the Water Resources and Redevelopment Act earlier this month, which effectively granted the federal go-ahead for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.
It’s probably the only penstroke in the history of Georgia politics that has had Republicans and Democrats skipping and whistlin’ Dixie like schoolyard frenemies, and it’s bound to direct all kinds of busy business to Atlanta and various corporate tentacles.
It’s too damn humid for me to muster a recap of why SHEP sucks for you and me, but suffice it to say, it will bring no new local jobs, no increased tax revenue and absolutely no discernible benefit to the citizens of Savannah as we shoulder all its risks and long-term costs. It will also not help the survival of the Savannah River—currently ranked as the third most toxic in the country, according to a new report by the Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center. (If you’re new to this topic, here's the “Top Ten Reasons the Savannah Harbor Deepening is a Bad Idea”.)
To paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, it looks like hell and high water are coming whether we like it or not. But given Savannah’s proclivity for procrastination, perhaps not as soon some might like.
To get an idea of the dredging timeline, I called up U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs Officer Billy Birdwell—who, God bless him, either doesn’t remember that I’m that pesky gal who keeps writing defiantly oppositional articles about SHEP or is just an incredibly polite man. (Southern cultural code 101: Be nice. It confuses people.)
Mr. Birdwell patiently explained to me that while the WRRDA gives authorization for the $706 million project, it doesn’t actually appropriate any funds to the next fiscal budget.
“It gives permission to spend money, but it doesn’t give any money to spend,” he said, adding that the $266 million of state taxes put aside by Gov. Nathan Deal remains untouchable until the Corps and the GA Ports Authority draw up a formal project partnership agreement.
“Without that in place, we can’t use Georgia funds either.”
There’s also the matter of the Speece cones: Under the terms of the lawsuit settled last May with the Southern Environmental Law Center and Savannah Riverkeeper, it must be proven that the dozen iron lungs designed to bubble oxygen into the depleted river are actually going to work. That hasn’t even been scheduled yet, and without a positive outcome the dredging of the inner harbor will not proceed.
Still, he reminds that once the state and the port get their oxygen-starved blue crabs in the same basket, the monies are there to begin other parts of the project, like dredging the outer harbor past Tybee Island.
I must have squawked, because he clarified that this won’t be done with evil Transformers piercing the Floridan Acquifer but by the same maintenance dredges used to clear the channel all year long.
“The cargo ships coming through are much larger,” informed Mr. Birdwell kindly.
All in all, SHEP will take between four and five years to complete and won’t begin until December, “at the earliest.” Given our historic hebetude and the fact that it took SHEP 16 years to be approved in the first place, it might take even longer. That gives plenty of time for science and politics (a friendly reminder that Deal is up for re-election this fall) to prevail, or at least to plan a really epic protest (join the Savannah Yarnbomb Squad on Facebook!)
In the meantime, I’m just sittin’ here bobbing along with the flotsam and jetsam—though as much as life here definitely has its rhythms, it’s important to note that time only moves in one direction.
Taking my cue from the sand gnats that disappear in the hottest part of the summer, I’ll be on sabbatical for the next six weeks to spend time with family and possibly learn to throw a cast net.
I look forward to returning to The (Civil) Society Column in August as life in Slowvannah quickens once again.
Until then, a humble salute and a fiddler crab wave to you and yours—er, I mean, to all y’all.