We media types are busybodies. We like to be in the know, and not just because we are information hoarders who swear we will one day find a use for all those random facts. (Did you know that sloths can turn their heads almost 360 degrees? Fascinating.)
When interesting things happen and important people visit, we want to be there so we can help others know more about the world around them.
And, because some of us are kind of fame whores.
So when we at Connect did not receive a media invitation to the appearance of Vice President Joe Biden at the Port of Savannah last week, there was a small amount of pouting. Well, I pouted. Editor-in-chief Jim Morekis, who is used to corporate PR people overlooking (or perhaps purposefully slighting) this city's only independent weekly newspaper, counseled me that crashing the Vice Presidential Port Party would likely get me tazed and possibly fired.
As other local media brigades were poised near the stacks of Maersk containers when Vice President Biden took the podium last Monday, I was left to comb through video clips and selfies of lucky Facebook friends for details about my second favorite political crush (next to Elizabeth Warren, duh.)
The twinkling eyes! The Honey Badger swagger! Those teeth!
"His smile IS very dazzling in person," confirmed Georgia Tech communications officer and Army veteran Brandy Mai, whose own grin sparkled quite nicely in her photo op with the VP.
Mai generously shared her take on the VP's charm and accessibility, relaying that he singled out a few local longshoremen for a private conversation. She added that she was "most impressed with how he genuinely took the time to thank our troops for their service."
*Jealous sniff*. Maybe the port PR folks considered this paper too little or too liberal or both to include in the VP's audience. There is the small matter of our occasional antithetical editorials about the proposed river dredging, but we're only considering the perspective of locals who prefer their drinking water without salt.
Surely, the Port Authority is not some mean second grade teacher who locks the slightly unruly kids in the coat closet during storytime.
Besides, it would take a lot more than a couple of Nosy Parkers asking questions about Speece cones to tip that sacred cow.
Speaking of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, that's the whole reason Vice President Biden touched down here in the first place. The Veep heralded the deepening as vital for the American economy, a keystone in a country-wide shore up of transportation infrastructure and the fastest way to create decent, well-paying employment for middle class Americans.
He urged a political collaboration to "get this done, come hell or high water," a sentiment that elicited tremendous cheering from the crowd of 500, or from what I could tell from the screenshots.
(In his speech, VP Biden also bafflingly alluded to 600,000 manufacturing jobs left unfilled because American workers have not been "trained in photosynthesis" and other technologies, but Joe sometimes says weird stuff.)
Basically, the only way the VP could have made the Georgia Port Authority and its political supporters happier would have been to jump out of a cake with a giant Ed McMahon Publisher's Clearinghouse check for $650 million made out to SHEP.
Thing is, he gave almost exactly the same speech earlier that morning in South Carolina, which has its own harbor deepening enterprise brewing at the Port of Charleston.
As you probably know, Savannah and Charleston are like those hyper kids vying for their teachers' attention, which lately translates into the billions of federal dollars currently being divvied up in Congress as part of the Water Resources Reform Development Act (WRRDA).
As ever-more goods are manufactured and shipped around the globe, part of the national economic development strategy is to encourage every port on the East Coast to dig a little deeper to accommodate the Godzilla post-Panamax ships taking over the world's commerce.
The overall projected economic windfall is substantial, no denying it. The argument goes that both Georgia and South Carolina must deepen their ports to remain competitive, but the competition for business will be fiercer than ever. Larger ships carrying stuff in and out could mean those ships will call on fewer ports, so how those grandiose returns will be split remains a mystery.
It was sweet of the VP not to play favorites between us squabbling siblings, and I certainly can't chide him for recycling material, because coming up with new shit all the time is HARD.
If I'd had the chance, however, I would have risked a taze by the Secret Service to press him on the differences in the two projects, because they're figuratively much further apart than the 100 miles of coastline between them: The Charleston port still hasn't figured out whether it's feasible to dig to 48, 50 or 52 feet in its already existing harbor while SHEP can only safely excavate from 42 feet to its absolute limit of 47 feet for 37 miles out to the middle of the ocean.
Our project is going to cost $650 million; Charleston is asking for $300 million. South Carolina already has most of that earmarked anyway, so it's likely that expansion will happen with or without federal cash. Our own Gov. Deal is pushing GA legislators to shunt aside more money if the feds don't come through, a heavy brunt for taxpayers already watching their public education system and other state services crumble before their eyes.
While I am all for expanded employment opportunities for Savannah, many questions remain about how many and what kind of local jobs SHEP is going to generate. With more toys and clothes and appliances moving through the Port of Savannah, I also wonder if the private companies sure to benefit will pass on their increased revenues to the thousands of port truckers who currently spend hours idling and waiting for their rigs to be packed and unpacked.
These "sharecroppers on wheels" net less than minimum wage, and Teamsters organizer Ben Speight believes the deepening will only make things worse if trucking companies don't evolve with the harbor expansion.
"With federal funds, there should be federal labor standards," advocates Speight, who is helping the truckers organize a union that will classify them as employees rather than independent contractors.
Also, I'd have picked a bone with the VP about those pesky environmental concerns, including the possible permanent salination of Savannah's drinking water and the need to oxygenate the Savannah River with technology never before implemented on such a grand scale.
Environmentalists continue to point out that over half of SHEP's $650 million price tag accounts for projected environmental damage — a sure indicator that this river is "ill-suited for expansion."
I know the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has sussed all this out, working into SHEP's plan the purchase of more land for the Savannah Wildlife Refuge to replace the freshwater marsh that will be destroyed and the construction of a freshwater reservoir just in case the saltwater intake at the Abercorn section of the river turns our sweet tea salty. (Whether it's used or not, the reservoir will cost a half million dollars a year to maintain, paid by City of Savannah taxpayers.)
"We believe that the mitigation we have planned will be more than adequate for the impact it will have on the river," assured Corps spokesperson Billy Birdwell.
So it should all be fine. Still, given the chance, I might have shared with the Vice President the nagging uneasiness that once in a while, estimated risks can be greater than they appear (see: Levees, New Orleans.)
The suit brought against the project by the Southern Environmental Law Center may have been settled earlier this year, but a South Carolina court ruled that the project can't go ahead until the Corps provides proof that the dozen 18-foot Speece cones coming to the river are really going to work. My breath, it is bated.
Would I have suggested to the VP that Charleston's port should get the federal money and Savannah's should not? No way, José! I love my city and good jobs and a big busty economy as much as anyone.
But I will keep reminding my fellow Savannahians that the environmental and economic effects of the dredging may be good for some, but bad and ugly for you and me if it doesn't work exactly as promised.
With all due respect to the Atlanta-based Port Authority, we're the ones who are going to have to live here, not Gov. Deal and his cronies. Not the mid-state folks to whom most of those new, middle-class-paying jobs will go to. And as much as I would have liked to shake his hand, not my main dude Biden.
So if I'd had the chance, I would have asked him to clarify a few things for us.
After I'd snapped my own selfie, of course.
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