Still recovering from Hurricane Matthew, Tybee Island awaits Irma

1:20 a.m. Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 AJC Homepage
Adam Demico hurried to fill sandbags ahead of Hurricane Irma's approach.

TYBEE ISLAND - Repairing the mess Hurricane Matthew left at Dottie Klutz’ house last year took until June. Three months later, she’s warily awaiting the destruction Hurricane Irma could bring.

“We never had a direct impact until last year,” said Klutz, who has lived on this low-lying barrier island with her husband full-time since 1985. “We’re having a direct impact again this year.”

Matthew came calling in October 2016, pounding Tybee with sheets of rain and winds reaching 100 mph. The Klutzes’ 119-year-old home wasn’t damaged as extensively as many of their neighbors’ were, but contractors still had to rip out and replace three stories’ worth of drywall, take up water-damaged flooring and make other repairs.

“Tybee was just run over by Matthew,” she sighed as she walked out of a screening of “The Graduate” at the historic Tybee Post Theater, where she and her husband James are key supporters. Before she made her way home, within easy walking distance on the balmy evening, she commiserated with Melissa Turner, the theater’s executive director.

“I rebuilt my house a year ago,” said Turner, who moved to Tybee with her husband Thomas Oliver after their careers as editors at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t want to rebuild it again.”

Severe Weather Team 2's Brad Nitz breaks down what metro Atlanta can expect.

Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brad Nitz projects that Irma could arrive in Georgia with an even greater force than Matthew did.

Because forecasts show Irma taking a hard right turn toward the east, Irma could hit Georgia’s coast as a Category 3 storm whereas Matthew was a Category 2 that weakened to a Category 1 as it made landfall. The impacts of wind gusts and storm surge are going to be much more significant with Irma, Nitz said.

MORE: Atlanta Air BnB availability shrinks ahead of Irma

Irma evacuees heading west on Interstate 16 on Thursday hit a solid wall of traffic around exit 98, a few miles west of Metter. But it wasn't due to evacuation volume. Several emergency vehicles and a logging truck could be seen from the eastbound lanes ahead of the logjam (it wasn’t immediately clear exactly what was going on; a DOT spokeswoman said she’d try to get details).

Another arboreal obstruction greeted travelers right as I-16 met I-75 - a tree trimming operation slowed traffic near that intersection, backing up traffic a good bit. Otherwise, traffic on Interstate 16 was about like normal on Thursday, two days ahead of a mandatory coastal evacuation.

In downtown Savannah, both pedestrian and vehicle traffic was light on a warm, sunny day that otherwise would have streets much busier. The historic Girl Scout First Headquarters, usually a popular tourist destination, was boarded up good and tight - in accordance with the Girl Scouts' motto, "Be prepared," naturally.

Out on Tybee, the mood was decidedly deliberate ahead of Irma. Most buildings, including City Hall, the town’s library, restaurants and even a convenience store where gas was still available, were boarded up. Picnic tables had been purposefully upended under the pavilion behind the City Hall/library complex.

Jennifer Brett
Many businesses on Tybee Island are boarded up ahead of Hurricane Irma's arrival.

Brian Hussey was among a steady stream of folks who pulled up to Memorial Park to dig sand from the city park’s volleyball court for stuff sandbags (an officially sanctioned activity, by the way). After Hurricane Matthew turned his family’s island home into a swamp, he took a far more proactive approach ahead of Irma.

“Absolutely, no question about it, we’re preparing more this time,” he said as he hefted shovels full of sand.

Priscilla Bishop brought her daughters, Grace, 5, Sara, 4 and Anna, 1, to “help.” Before long the girls were playing while she loaded sandbags onto a golf cart.

“Gosh, we’re right on the beach,” said Bishop, who recalled the flooding Matthew brought. “If (Irma) hits like they say, I don’t know how much help it’s going to be. “You just have to feel like you’re doing something.”

Although Gov. Nathan Deal’s coastal Georgia evacuation order kicks in on Saturday, Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman wants his folks out first thing Friday. Illuminated signs on Tybee’s main drag announced the order, which Buelterman explained on his Facebook page.

“The size and strength of Hurricane Irma are of historic proportions,” he posted. “We have the potential of experiencing 15 to 20 foot storm surge which does not include wave action. Large waves associated with Irma will be on top of the expected storm surge.”

Adam Demico will be only to happy to abide, after his coastal vacation at his mom’s Tybee home became a sweaty race against time.  

“She lost some shingles and screens in Matthew,” Demico said as he stuffed sandbags. “She was very fortunate.”

Given Irma’s even greater potential for damage, he said, he’s ready to pack up and head home to Raleigh, N.C. Not that he’s unfamiliar with hurricanes, he noted, having grown up in Florida.

“I have young children,” he said. “The impending loss of electricity - and television - scares me more than the storm.”

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