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Georgia Coast: Calm before the storm?

Battered by Matthew and Irma, Tybee Island braces for Florence

Atiya Lilly-Gassaway sat on a swing on the Tybee Island beach seemingly without a care in the world. 

She had driven down from her home in Atlanta to celebrate her birthday — Florence be damned. 

“I don’t believe in fear, so I booked my trip and came,” said Lilly-Gassaway. “If I get swept away, I’ll just get swept away.” 

Atyiya Lilly-Gassaway came to Tybee Island beach to celebrate her birthday.

That seemed to be the general attitude Thursday as people on the Georgia barrier island prepared for the hurricane by just doing what they normally do. Tourists walked the strip and shopped at T-shirt stores, passing people on their way to the beach loaded down with beach chairs, coolers and umbrellas. 

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While residents in North Carolina and South Carolina are bracing for catastrophic flash flooding and a life-threatening storm surge, Georgia is likely to feel less of an impact, with heavy rain expected to be the biggest problem. 

Georgia is under a state of emergency, however, as officials still preach caution. Florence is churning toward the coast of the Carolinas, but what remains unclear is where it will head once it makes landfall.

Tybee has had a recent run of bad luck with hurricanes; it was swamped by Matthew in 2016 and walloped by Irma in 2017. Irma set a new high tide record for the low-lying barrier island: 12.235 feet.

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Mayor Jason Buelterman said that tides are currently a foot above normal and the beaches have been closed to swimmers because of a rip current warning.

But early fears of rising tides and beach erosion on Tybee Island had lessened by Thursday afternoon.

"At the last weather report, it did not look like, other than rip currents, there was going to be any affects for this area,” Catherine Glasby, spokeswoman for Chatham County, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Of course that can all change with the next statement from the National Hurricane Center.”

Paul Wolff, a former city councilman, said residents have a “wait-and-see attitude.”

“Primarily, people are stocking up. And being where Tybee is, that means stocking up on beer and wine.”


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David Attia isn’t taking any chances. 

Still stinging from Hurricane Irma, which dumped water into his home, he was filling 18 sandbags to take home to fortify his house, which is less than a mile from North Beach on Tybee. 

“I don’t think it is going to be as bad as Irma, but I just wanted to get the sandbags and take all of the precautions necessary,” Attia said. “You never know.”

In the Rock House Lounge on the main Tybee strip, Robby Blanks, the restaurant’s manager, tended bar to what would otherwise be considered a light crowd. He said the business expectations from Florence were actually huge, as the island expected evacuees from South Carolina to flock there.

“But that is not looking like the case anymore. Earlier this week, a lot of hotels were booked, but we are getting more and more cancellations,” Blanks said. “We are going to lose a lot of business.” 

Several business owners, including Blanks, said business is up a bit, but less than they’d hoped.

Marie Berube, Genevieve Landry and Caroline Loignon relax on Tybee Island waiting for Florence.

Genevieve Landry, Caroline Loignon and Marie Berube, a trio of French-Canadians, sat on the beach, laughing and telling stories in French. They all jump up and run when a wave gets too close. 

The trio are in their usual spot on the beach. Usually that means they stay dry. But the waves brought on by Florence are higher. 

“The waves,” said Berube. “We’ve never seen so big.” 


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Further down the beach, near the Tybee Island Pier, that was a good thing for Kevin Winegard, a 50-year-old surfer. 

“The hurricane is going to hit north of us,” he said, pointing north. “Here, it is just gonna kick up some waves. Which is actually good. I have been having a good time this morning.” 

Kevin Winegard said the waves were good.

Winegard said the action in the surf was busier than a typical September day. 

“Everybody read the same surf report,” Winegard said. 

“All of the Georgia surfers come down for the hurricane swells,” said Brian Cail, who was surfing with his buddy Tyler Bragg. Both are from Tybee. 

“It’s been OK. But we actually thought it would be a little bigger.”

Wolff, the former councilman who has lived in Tybee for a quarter-century, said he is optimistic about the potential impact of Florence on Georgia.

“Hopefully, when we look back at this next week, we will say this was a nonevent,” Wolff said.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Joshua Sharpe contributed to this article.

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