Farmland and Forestland in an Era of Climate Change: Hurricane Michael and Opportunities to Advance Rural Resilience

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Georgia Law Review

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Catastrophic disasters fundamentally destabilize and reshape communities. They often cause loss of life and invariably inflict extensive property damage. Disabled individuals, the elderly, chronically ill persons, and families struggling to make ends meet are almost always left more vulnerable.1 Affected communities frequently experience population loss, a declining property tax base, and economic contraction.2 *1722 Over the last three decades, a string of major disasters has focused scholarly attention on their far-reaching impacts on large cities. Storms and earthquakes have reshaped urban landscapes and forced communities to reckon with their futures from San Francisco to Northridge, Houston to New Orleans, and Miami to the New York metro area.3 These catastrophes will be studied for years to come. As compelling and iconic as the stories of urban wreckage and recovery have become, they have limitations when applied to the nation's smaller-sized communities. Urban disaster narratives elide a range of vulnerabilities that expose small cities and towns--and the agricultural industry those communities often support--to the far-reaching costs and harms of natural disasters. Further, commentators and scholars who have focused broadly on the problems facing smaller cities and rural areas have sometimes overlooked the impact of storms, wildfires, or floods on those communities. In short, a significant gap exists in our thinking about rural resilience. The problem is profound, as 97% of the nation's land mass is considered rural.4 Drawing on stories and data gathered from northwest Florida and southwest Georgia's ongoing recovery from Hurricane Michael (2018), this Article examines significant shortcomings in state planning and disaster recovery policies that left smaller rural communities, farmers, and forestland owners fundamentally unprepared for a major disaster. The challenges encountered by rural communities in carrying out long-term disaster recovery highlight critical questions about perils associated with rural futures in an era of climate change and sea level rise. The post-disaster solutions devised by state governments suggest opportunities and obstacles to realizing *1723 more sustainable and equitable paths for the 20% of Americans living in rural municipalities and counties.5 This Article proceeds as follows. Part I provides a general overview of the damage caused by Hurricane Michael's destructive push through the small towns and less densely populated counties of northwest Florida and southwest Georgia. Part II briefly explores commentary and scholarship covering the challenges associated with responses to major disasters affecting rural communities. Part III examines the heightened vulnerability that rural regions face when disasters threaten the continuing viability of historic land uses and the economies they support. Part IV assesses the role that institutions can play in sustaining rural land uses and does so by considering the institutional obstacles and opportunities that one state navigated to deliver recovery resources to agriculture and silviculture businesses. Part V highlights Hurricane Michael's anemic housing recovery and suggests ways that states could expand solutions to disaster-related housing loss and thus move more to jumpstart long-term transformative housing recovery.

Recommended Citation

John Travis Marshall, Farmland and Forestland in an Era of Climate Change: Hurricane Michael and Opportunities to Advance Rural Resilience, 58 Ga. L. Rev. 1721 (2024)



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