Hurricane Irma, weakened to a tropical storm by the time it arrived here, swept through the Savannah area Monday, flooding low-lying areas including the River Street plaza and parts of Tybee and Skidaway islands, and cutting off power for more than half of the county.
Power outages rose steadily across Effingham, Bryan and Chatham counties throughout the morning as wind gusted from 48-70 mph. Sustained wind speeds were lower but did reach tropical storm speeds of 44 mph at the airport. By 1 p.m. more than half of Bryan and Effingham were out of power as was 40 percent of Effingham.
The rainfall total of 4.62 inches in Savannah by 5:30 p.m. broke the previous record for the date.
Power crews waited until winds reduced to begin assessing and repairing the damage, said Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft. He expected outages to last “multiple days” because resources were stretched thin by statewide outages from Irma with nearly a million customers affected across Georgia. While fewer trees were downed by Irma than last year’s Hurricane Matthew, tree damage likely accounted for most of the outages in Chatham County, Kraft said.
Along with power outages, Irma brought significant flooding. The tide gauge at Fort Pulaski topped out at its third highest level ever at 4.731 feet above the mean higher high water level at 1:42 p.m. Monday, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston.
The water flooded low-lying roads including U.S. 80 east of the Bull River Bridge. Road closures mounted as the day progressed with 70 roads closed by 4 p.m. (For a list of road closures see www.chathamcounty.org/road-closures).
Emergency managers were conducting damage assessments Monday afternoon and expected to make decisions about curfews and re-entry after 5 p.m.
County officials imposed a curfew from 11 p.m. Monday until 6 a.m. Tuesday. Residents were welcome to return to the county ahead of the curfew and again after it lifted in the morning. Tybee Island, however, remains closed until the Bull River Bridge can be inspected and deemed safe because there was water encroachment to the bottom of the bridge.
“We’ve got DOT bridge inspectors coming in Tuesday to inspect,” said CEMA Director Dennis Jones. “Until that happens Tybee is essentially a restricted area because you just can’t get across the Bull River Bridge.”
Moon River Bridge also had water encroachment. Assessments will continue on other bridges Tuesday, looking for high water marks, Jones said.
By 2:30 p.m., the flooded areas of River Street had become a spectacle. Locals who had seen photos on social media decided to come see it for themselves.
Matt and Taryn Colette decided to bring their dog, Kaya, down to see. The couple had evacuated Savannah for previous storms, but decided to stick this one out.
“You don’t like seeing your city messed up, but this is pretty rare – a sight worth seeing,” Matt Colette said after joining Taryn and Kaya for a few photos in the flooded plaza just west of the Hyatt. “And the dog obviously thinks it’s cool.”
Howard Drexel was in front of his West Chatham Crescent home Monday afternoon, trying to clean tree branches out of the road.
“We came through (the storm) with TV and electricity,” Drexel said. “I wish the trees held up a bit better.”
By daybreak on Monday, officials and residents on several of Chatham County’s islands had taken to social media to report flooded streets.
Although the full extent of the damage is still unknown, the severity of the flooding was apparent as early as Monday morning, when the Tybee Island Police Department posted multiple photos on Facebook of city roadways — including areas of Butler Avenue and ocean-side alleys and streets — flooded and impassable.
Mayor Jason Buelterman said it’s likely the worst of the flooding occurred when storm surge hit during high tide and entered between the gaps in protective dunes. He said that although the city had plans to add more dunes to its system this winter, it wasn’t soon enough to protect Tybee from Irma.
Heading into Monday evening, he said, significant portions of the island remained under water.
“I’ve got reports of one house that had four inches of water in it that didn’t have any water during (Hurricane Matthew last fall),” Buelterman said. “This was way worse than Matthew. It is really bad.”
The mayor added that he’d received reports of downed trees and power outages during the first half of the day Monday. In a morning report on the city’s website, the mayor said wind gusts of up to 60 mph had been recorded at the city’s wind gauge in the North Beach parking lot.
Meanwhile, on Wilmington Island, residents throughout the day Monday reported downed trees and widespread flooding. In the Sheftall community, water had reached garages and front steps.
Social media reports also showed significant flooding at the Merritt at Whitemarsh condominiums, and U.S. 80 between Whitemarsh Island and the town of Thunderbolt had flooded during high tide to the point of being impassable.
On Talahi Island, at least one resident reported no significant damage on the south end Monday.
County Commissioner Pat Farrell said some neighborhoods saw downed trees and higher-than-normal tidal flooding on Skidaway Island. He shared photos his neighbors provided that showed a path of flattened marsh grass the tides had carried well into a backyard in the South Harbor community.
Russ Wigh rode out the storm at his home in the southern part of The Landings on Skidaway Island. Irma brought the community less tree damage but more inundation than Matthew, he said.
“We had very few trees down from what I can tell,” he said. “We have any number of branches and leaf litter all over the yard.”
The area around his home on Peregrine Drive was inundated at high tide, but the homes looked dry.
“The golf course parallel to the marsh was completely inundated by surge,” Wigh said.
Late Monday afternoon the power was out all over The Landings, with Georgia Power indicating it could take up to a week to restore it, he said.
Flooding was also reported on the streets of Burnside Island and on Isle of Hope, where flooding appeared to block vehicle traffic at the Laroche Causeway. Other flooding on Isle of Hope has been reported on Peridot Lane, Cardinal Road and the intersection of Central Avenue and Paxton Street. Skidaway Causeway near the Wormsloe State Historic Site was flooded Monday morning.
West Chatham residents woke up to downed trees, pooling water and power outages Monday morning as Hurricane Irma arrived on the Georgia coast.
By 10 a.m., residents of the Forest Lakes community in Pooler reported the entrance to their subdivision was flooded, blocking vehicles from entering or exiting.
Resident Karen Williams said that her street was holding water, but recent efforts on the part of the community’s developer to lower the Forest Lakes’ detention ponds had appeared to keep the flooding down. The community still had power Monday morning.
Along Tappan Zee Drive in Pooler’s Bridgewater subdivision, where flooding damaged many homes during Hurricane Matthew last year, resident Arnold Poundstone reported that stormwater had begun to pool in the street’s cul-de-sac.
“The wind’s blowing, but we haven’t had any trees or anything come down,” Poundstone said. “I wasn’t worried about the wind. You can’t stop the wind, but the rain was our concern. … If we can get a break in the rain so the canal can catch up, I don’t think we’ll have anything in the house from this one.”
Mayor Mike Lamb said Monday afternoon it appeared that while streets had flooded, it appeared the interior of homes were spared.
Meanwhile, in Port Wentworth, Mayor Glenn “Pig” Jones said that just before 1 p.m. Monday, it was clear the city had dodged a bullet. Areas most prone to flooding remained clear, he said, and while the city was out moving downed trees, it did not appear many roadways needed to be cleared by public works officials.
Later in the day, Jones said he’d gotten word of a possible tornado at a warehouse on Ga. 21.
In Garden City, Mayor Don Bethune reported that by the end of the day Monday, city workers had already removed the bulk of debris from the community’s streets.
Lift stations are running on emergency power, he said, and Garden City water and sewer staff would be working overnight into Tuesday.
With the damage assessment completed, Bethune reported seven or eight homes had been damaged by fallen trees, but none were occupied. A shopping center parking lot had flooded, but no residences had been reported flooded by Monday evening.
Bloomingdale Mayor Ben Rozier said his community experienced some power outages early in the morning Monday, but it came back on for most. By early Monday, he’d gotten at least one report of a downed tree leaving a resident’s driveway impassable.
From the view at his home, Rozier reported water ponding in his pastures. Still, he said, his cows and horses were doing fine.
By 2 p.m., the sun broke through the clouds and about a dozen residents were enjoying a drink downtown at Pinkie Masters, which did not lose power and opened at 1:30 p.m. Monday.
Bartender Burke Stewart said that keeping the bar’s clientele happy was key. The bar had also operated with beer and coolers throughout most of Hurricane Matthew after losing power.
“Pinkie Masters is a staple in the community,” he said. “During chaos, having a norm is probably the most appropriate way to keep people sane.”
A few blocks north the downtown Parker’s Market was doing brisk business, as locals, Florida evacuees and emergency responders purchased fuel and food. The store was opened at about 9 a.m. after closing at about 11 p.m. Sunday night, with some employees staying in the apartments above, said owner Greg Parker.
“The customers have been really appreciative,” Parker said.
At about 3 p.m., residents were walking their dogs and raking up debris downtown and in neighborhoods further south.
Savannah Alderman Julian Miller walked up to a large tree that had toppled over onto the roof of a house on East 51st St. The house was an exception to what he saw so far throughout the neighborhood, which was mostly just littered with small limbs and branches, Miller said.
“We dodged a bullet,” he said.
Savannah Alderman John Hall said there were some downed trees in Gordonston, but his district also looked relatively unscathed, Power was restored to his neighborhood, Sunset Park, around 6 p.m. after going out at about 1 p.m., Hall said.
“We look much better than we looked the day after Matthew,” he said.
Savannah Alderman Tony Thomas said before noon he was able to drive around through much of his Sixth District with little trouble. Aside from a big limb blocking the entrance to the Coffee Bluff Marina and a tree across Rose Dhu Road, most of the fallen limbs were small and there was no flooded roads. Power was down at his office on White Bluff Road, but still on at his house at Vernonburg Road.
The tides were starting to come in at the time and Thomas said he expected Rose Dhu Road to be under water at some point.
“The river is higher than we’ve ever seen it before,” he said.
Thomas Square resident Jason Combs said that at 11 a.m. his house at Price and 37th streets and the surrounding area still had power. There was no flooding and much less debris on the streets at that time, compared to what he saw during Hurricane Matthew, Combs said.
Ardsley Park neighborhood president Nick Palumbo said at about 10:20 a.m. his home on the 200 block of East 51st St. lost power at about 4:30 a.m. after hearing a big bang he assumed was a transformer blowing, and the neighbors have since been doing the “generator shuffle” to get some back-up power to their homes. There were some strong wind gusts this morning, but no rain accumulation or large trees down as far as he could tell. Prior to the storm, residents had made sure to clear out the storm drains, which might have helped, Palumbo said.
“You could have used a shovel to get some of the stuff out,” he said.
West Savannah Community Organization President Ronald Williams said that as of 9:40 a.m. his power was on and the neighborhood was “looking pretty good.”
The rain was not as heavy as it was during Hurricane Matthew last year and the wind has not been strong, aside from some occasional gusts, Williams said.