At the end of April, strong storms hit the city of Gulfport causing the mayor to declare a state of emergency. Over 140 homes flooded, and first responders, including two five-ton trucks and three swift water rescue teams, stayed busy rescuing people from homes and businesses. This was a strong storm, but the kind of storm we expect regularly in the Gulf.
Much of the flooding was predictable and avoidable. Unfortunately, the City of Gulfport has a history of dangerous developmental practices, including filling in wetlands. This practice allows the cheapest path for development, providing profits for developers at a huge cost to residents and first responders. Gulfport relies on gravity drainage, but April’s rains showed the vulnerability of the city’s drainage and stormwater handling system. Existing wetlands need to be left in place in areas of the city where foreseeable flood risks are high.
There is no way around it, flooding predictably increases when wetlands are filled. Flooding is then further exasperated by the roofs, roads, driveways and other impermeable surfaces that development requires.
Many of the 140 homes that flooded this April were in areas once protected by wetlands. Healthy wetlands absorb water and release it slowly. Parking lots, driveways and other non-permeable surfaces do not absorb or slow flood waters. In fact, as a result of wetland fill, the dirty flood waters are able to move quickly to damage homes and threaten residents.
Presently the City of Gulfport is partnering with land developer Jerard Ward to fill in over four hundred acres of wetlands. This project will be extremely profitable for the developer, but will open residents to a severe flood risk.
The temptation for developers and their allies in City Hall to continue destroying wetlands and the flood protection they provide in order to profit from the cheapest development threatens every coast resident and first responder.
The US Army Corps of Engineers will decide whether or not to allow the Mayor to fill in these wetlands. The flooding that will increase as a result of this project will specifically harm African American communities in Gulfport. Developers have not addressed the environmental justice impact of this project. How can our communities stay protected, when the city is allowing irresponsible development practices?
We just marked the beginning of hurricane season in the Gulf. The best thing that the City of Gulfport can do to begin to prepare for the 2016 hurricane season is to immediately withdraw the permit to fill in over 400 acres of wetlands. The city must work to protect and improve wetlands as a foundation for a sustainable strategy going forward.