Tybee Island begins recovery after Hurricane Irma, flooding

Residents return to find water higher than levels reached during Matthew last year

Betty Jo Smeltzer lives in the house she grew up in on Tybee Island.

 

Last week, she and her husband, Wayne, had just finished replacing the floor of their home on Lewis Avenue after the house was struck by a tree during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Then, on Monday, Hurricane Irma hit Georgia, and Lewis Avenue flooded at high tide.

Now, the Smeltzers are repairing their home again. On Wednesday, they joined dozens of other residents along the street in putting their flood-damaged belongings in their yards to dry out or be picked up by work crews.

“This is 10 times worse,” Smeltzer said of the damage wrought by the water. “This time, we’re really going to have to gut the walls and start over.”

Smeltzer’s sister down the street, Gail Wittington, said she’s thinking about tearing her house down and building a new one: Two times in less than one year is too much.

“I just can’t do it again,” Wittington said of repair work.

Neither one of the sisters plans to move away, and both say they feel like their street is one of the better neighborhoods on the island. Most of the residents have lived there for years, and in some cases family members live right across from one another.

Still, losing so many things hurts. In Wittington’s home, the water filled her living room and came nearly to the top of her mattress. On Wednesday, various items in her house were still in disarray as she worked her way through the damage. On her back porch, she measured the water line at 3 feet.

“It’s only stuff,” Wittington said of her belongings. “Everybody always says that. It’s stuff you want to keep, though.”

The two sisters were hardly the only homeowners there to have also experienced damage two years in a row. Both sides of the street, which is known for hosting annual trick-or-treating on Halloween, are bordered by water — and water from both sides inundated the street during high tide Monday.

One resident, Frannie Galloway, said her back yard “was a lake” during high tide, and she hopes government aid comes soon for people on the island.

On Tuesday afternoon, just after the island was reopened to the public, June Saunders sat in her yard, petting one of her dogs and watching her clothes dry on her chain-link fence.

Nearly everything inside her home had been hit with water. In 57 years living on Tybee, she said, she’s never seen anything like Monday’s flooding, and she stayed on the island for Matthew. At one point, Saunders escaped her home to go across the street to her son’s house, but that, too, began flooding.

Saunders says she doesn’t plan to ride out any other storms on the island, but she has insurance and, like everyone on the street who spoke with the Savannah Morning News, has no plans to move.

“I’ve got one dry couch that I’m going to sleep on until I get another bed,” she said. “First, I’ve got to do some cleaning up.”

On Wednesday, Danny and Susan Hill were airing out their home, too.

They’ve lived on Lewis for 17 years, and they thought they would be OK during Irma. The Hills put sandbags up before they evacuated, but water came right in. The water had such force that it swept items from many people’s yards into neighboring properties. In the Hills’ case, they came home to a large potted plant next to their front door.

“That’s the power of the water,” Danny Hill said. “That sucker weighs more than 100 pounds.”

Inside their home, the water had caused their wooden floor to deteriorate.

“I don’t think this is salvageable,” Susan Hill said.

Their immediate concern Wednesday was clearing out the home before it got too moldy and became a health hazard.

Help is already on the way. Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman, who was on the beach Wednesday for an assessment with the National Weather Service, said FEMA personnel were on the island, and that Chatham County had six crews out assessing damage.

“We’ve been in touch with Congressman (Buddy) Carter’s office, and he’s been very helpful,” Buelterman said. “We’re trying to get up to the threshold of what’s called individual assistance. That will enable people whose homes have been flooded to be able to get federal support and help.”

Near the beach on the island’s south end, water from the Atlantic Ocean pushed through gaps in the dunes, flooding the popular Strand Avenue parking area and damaging at least one restaurant. Elsewhere on the island, rising water on the Back River and in marshes made it inland. Wind damage was not as severe as during Matthew, when many of the island’s trees fell. Still, some wind damage was apparent on Wednesday, especially on Strand, where sections of roofs on vacation rentals were visibly damaged.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Buelterman said, there were more than 300 properties on the island without power. Some businesses were beginning to open, and some restaurants were already serving food. Atlantic Waste, which contracts for trash collection with Tybee, will be doing an island-wide pickup Thursday to help residents clear debris.

On Lewis, that effort had already begun. Local company Carroll & Carroll, which is working on a currently stalled U.S. 80 repaving project, had about 10 employees and heavy equipment going door to door Wednesday to help flood-stricken residents clear their yards.

“We’re shut down until Monday, and our guys needed some hours, so we decided to come help,” said company President Jason Holley, who was also pulling debris from people’s yards.

Members of U.S. Coast Guard Station Tybee could also be seen helping residents on Lewis, and Salvation Army volunteers came to feed people lunch and dinner.

“It’s been amazing to see everybody come together,” Buelterman said.

HOW TO HELP

Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman says people who want to offer assistance in terms of services or goods to those recovering from this week’s flooding should email Sharon Shaver at sshaver@cityoftybee.org to coordinate.

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