Irma swamped Tybee Island. Here's Miller Avenue during the height of the flooding.

Coastal residents prepare for massive cleanup effort

TYBEE ISLAND — It wasn’t bad enough that June Saunders’ home flooded. It caught fire, too.

The 57-year resident of this low-lying barrier island was outside, waiting for power to be restored after Tropical Storm Irma swamped this coastal community, when she heard a zap.

“I walked back in the house and it was like, ‘whoosh!’ The wall was on fire,” said Saunders, who had to be rescued a day earlier when a wall of fast-moving water filled her house and wedged the door shut. “The fireman was so cute. He said, ‘Ma’am, I’m sorry. I’m going to have to bust this wall down.’”

“Look around,” Saunders said she told him, “do you think busting a wall is going to hurt me any more than I already have been?’”

Such was the scene here on Wednesday, a day after access to the island was restored following emergency bridge inspections. More than 300 properties on Tybee — population about 3,000 — still were without power Wednesday afternoon, but city officials were hustling to help their folks clean up.

“We are working on getting our community qualified for federal Individual (Disaster) Assistance so that individuals are able to obtain financial assistance for storm damage,” Mayor Jason Buelterman said in a lengthy social media post that provided details about debris pickup and other updates.

The Salvation Army manned a mobile headquarters offering meals and cleaning supplies.

“That really helps us out a lot,” a grateful Gene Miles said as Henry Riley handed him a bucket of essentials.

“The water came in so fast. In 30 minutes it went from being ankle deep on the road to here,” Miles said, indicating a nearly waist-high level. Irma brought easily twice as much flooding as Hurricane Matthew did last year, he estimated.

The heavy rainfall that accompanied Irma worsened the flooding along Georgia’s coast.

Miles has lived on Tybee for more than 30 years and, like so many residents, had barely recovered from Matthew when Irma came marching in. He rode out Irma at home, unlike in October 2016 with Matthew, and was glad to be able to start an immediate cleanup.

“A lot more people stayed this time because last time it took so long to get back on the island,” he said. “Their houses just sat there moldering.”

That’s no doubt what storm evacuees from Glynn County have been fearing. Residents may return to the county at 8 a.m. today; the causeway to St. Simons Island had already reopened.

But the county warned in a statement that critical infrastructure is still fragile.

“Due to the limitations of sanitary sewer, traffic control and power, there are hazards to public health that remain,” the statement said. “Glynn County will be rebuilding from this disaster for months to come.”

The county had been closed for Irma cleanup this week, with police patrolling highways preventing people from reentering. Officials said the lockdown was necessary to allow crews to work undaunted by traffic on littered highways and streets, but it added a layer of uncertainty to already disrupted lives.

Jill Jernigan lives in also-battered Camden County and runs a real estate company in Glynn. She was eager to check on her properties and, as a breast cancer patient, she was anxious about being able to keep a radiation treatment appointment. She’s also had to deal with about a foot and a half of water that Irma left in her home along the Glynn-Camden border.

“So much is affected,” she said. “It humbles you, takes you back to what’s important, food, water.”

Buster Clark, who lives in Brantley County and works as a site manager on the Brunswick port, was trying to get to work on Wednesday when the police stopped him. He later found out there wasn’t any power at the port anyway.

“We’ll have ships piling up on us,” Clark said.

Authorities allowed Juan Lopez past a a guarded checkpoint, though, after he said three magic words: “We do roofing.”

His family evacuated to Tennessee before returning, hauling a trailer full of supplies.

“We’ll wait till they let us in,” he said. He didn’t wait long. A deputy checked his ID and welcomed him back to Glynn County: “Y’all can go.”

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