Southern Boomerangs Needed to Fight Savannah Flooding

Nichelle Stephens
4 min readJun 21, 2019


One of my favorite short stories is Flannery O’ Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” It is the story of two generations facing a changing South. I was born in Alabama and grew up in suburban Atlanta. After living in Ohio and New York for about 15 years before moving to Savannah, I now call myself a Southern Boomerang. I’m still waiting for that term to catch on!

Boomerangs like me tend to bounce back when faced with changing situations or unexpected events. But to tackle Coastal Georgia’s most pressing environmental issues in the short and long term — from increased flooding during high tides, to surging sea-levels, to the increase in severe weather events such as Hurricanes Irma and Matthew — we’re going to need an entire community of boomerangs. We’re going to need resilience, which refers to the collective capacity for communities to recover quickly from natural disasters.

One community organization that is helping to make Savannah resilient is OpenSavannah. It blends community organizing, technology, and service design to help make local government work better in the digital age. As a member of OpenSavannah since it started in 2017, I and other volunteers have worked on a number of civic tech projects to help make Savannah become more resilient in the face of rising sea levels.

But to make our efforts at creating a more resilient Savannah actually matter on the scale they need to be effective, we need to ramp up our efforts beyond the current ad hoc volunteer level. Last week, we got just the boost we needed. Three OpenSavannah members — myself, Rob Lingle and Carl V. Lewis — were honored to be selected as fellows in one of just seven teams from across Code for America’s 78-city national network to participate in the 2019 Code for America Community Fellowship program.

As community fellows, we now transition into paid full-time and part-time roles focused solely on tackling a specific issue unique to our city. For us, the decision to select coastal resilience and emergency response was obvious. Our fellowship project joins the existing Smart Sea Level Sensors consortium from Georgia Tech, city of Savannah, Chatham County, and Chatham Emergency Management Agency. We plan to augment the project by getting more residents involved in the process, especially residents from underserved communities at the greatest risk to rising sea-levels.

Last week at our on-boarding in San Francisco, the Savannah team attended training on human-centered design — in other words, how to design products with the end user in mind by conducting user research with actual residents and putting those needs at the center of the process.

The first step in our project is to get out and talk to residents. In this case, we will be working alongside neighborhood association presidents in West Savannah where the effects of sea-level-rise will be most immediate and damaging — along with local nonprofit The Harambee House/Citizens for Environmental Justice and the city of Savannah’s Office of Sustainability — to hold a series of workshops to gather local knowledge about flooding events from the people who know it best: Those who live there.

By layering that ground-truth data from residents on top of the existing data collected from the sea-level sensors, we hope to get a holistic view of where localized flooding happens most, what might be done to mitigate its effects, and also provide valuable local insight to first responders to help prioritize relief and response efforts in the aftermath of a storm surge event.

Overall, our goal for this six-month fellowship is to combine quantitative data from sea-level-sensors with ground-truth data collected from Savannahians living in impacted communities to build tools and techniques that help create a more resilient, responsive, and equitable coastal Georgia. We want to inform the most vulnerable citizens about rising sea levels, listen to their stories, and empower them with knowledge and resources.

Nichelle Stephens is a Savannah-based blogger and community organizer who uses data and storytelling to empower underserved communities. In addition to her volunteer work with OpenSavannah and her new Code for America Fellowship, she also serves on the board of the Thomas Square Neighborhood Association. She can be reached at The Creative Coast is a nonprofit organization supporting local innovators which is made possible by the city of Savannah and the SEDA.



Nichelle Stephens

Bookkeeper, Social Media Strategist and Writer. Writes about #popculture #politics and life.