Like Matthew, Irma set a tidal record at Tybee Island


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Like Matthew, Irma set a tidal record at Tybee Island

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Irma swamped Tybee Island. Here's Miller Avenue during the height of the flooding. Photo: Courtesy of Will Jarvis

TYBEE ISLAND - The tide station at Fort Pulaski, on the causeway between Savannah and its low-lying barrier island neighbor measured a peak tidal level of 12.235 feet at the height of Tropical Storm Irma’s impact.

That’s the highest level recorded since last year, when Hurricane Matthew swelled the tide to 12.557 feet.

“I personally think it’s because of global warming,” said lifelong resident Beth Jarvis, who never remembers getting devastating storms - or even the far more commonplace causeway flooding - growing up. “I think this is going to be the new normal.”

Hurricane Matthew, the monster storm that swamped Tybee in October 2016, was on everyone’s mind as people hustled to stuff sandbags in preparation for Irma. Although Matthew arrived as a head-on hurricane and Irma arrived as a downgraded tropical storm that had shifted far to the west, this week’s deluge created even worse flooding, Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman said.

Longtime residents have noted time and again how Tybee went forever without a crushing blow (the deadly 1898 hurricane isn’t exactly recent history) then suffered two in as many years.

“The whole marsh came down our street,” said Fidget Price. “The currents were off the chains.”

Billy Quinn describes the storm surge that destroyed his family home

A mandatory evacuation went into effect on Friday morning, ahead of the Saturday order affecting mainland Chatham County and other coastal areas. But many residents chose to stay, perhaps thinking because Irma shifted so far to the west that they’d be spared.

The storm’s timing, unfortunately, could not have been worse. 

“This was a king tide, so with that king tide and the storm surge, plus the heavy amount of rain that came in, there is considerable flooding,” explained Dennis Jones, the director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency. A king tide, as it’s known colloquially, is an especially high tide that coincides with a full moon. Unfortunately, it also coincided with Irma, and the storm surge combined with the tide resulted in swells of up to 15 feet.

Will Jarvis, a volunteer fireman, stayed on the island while his wife, Beth, rode out the storm on the mainland. At one point Will had to swim down his street to rescue his cat.

“It got deeper then just as quick went back to the ocean,” he said of the surge.

Brenda and Scott Neese, who live across the street from the Jarvises, had rejoiced soon after the winds died down that Irma came and went without felling any trees. Then water rushed in so quickly they went from standing on dry ground to swimming to safety in a span of 15 minues.

“It was bad,” Brenda said as she and Scott hung their waterlogged belongings on the fence to dry.

Brenda and Scott Neese thought Irma had spared them. Then the water rushed in so quickly they had to swim to safety. Photo: Jennifer Brett

To be sure, the storm brought winds along with water, and Savannah got good and walloped, too. One huge tree came crashing down on a historic home on 51st Street in the Ardsley Park neighborhood. Around the corner, another tree came down in a park between Atlantic and Washington avenues. Parts of a giant magnolia blocked a residential road off Habersham Street, a statuesque palm lay prostrate in the middle of the city’s famed Forsyth Park, and all around town, smaller limbs and clumps of Spanish moss were strewn about.

Downtown, portions of the River Street district popular with tourists was more river than street. A car unfortunately left parked near the Talmadge Memorial Bridge was almost entirely submerged, and water lapped at the cobblestones in front of normally busy restaurants and shops.

Chatham residents are drying out and cleaning up. River Street is now back to being a street instead of a river, and crews are tackling the suddenly horizontal trees. Some areas remain without power, though.

Lysa Dixon made the most of the ongoing power outage, hosting a dinner party on the front lawn of her Ardsley Park home. Her neighbors Robert and Julie Van Pelt, Sonja and Andy Springer, Carolyn Kelly, JoAnn Risher and Judge Michael L. Karpf brought dishes to share while Lysa set out a bouquet of hydrangeas. (This being Savannah, the table was laid with silver julep goblets.)

Unfortunately, post-hurricane parties threaten to become a tradition.

“We did this last year, too,” Dixon said. “We had musicians.”

Ardsley Park neighbors cheer the end of Irma. Photo: Jennifer Brett
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