Hurricane Matthew roils laid-back Tybee

Sonja Edleman lives at the end of the road in a little wooden house with a parrot named Fiji.

She waits tables at the Sunrise Restaurant just around the corner. She knows everybody on this eastern tip of the island and everybody knows her. She has lived here 45 years and worked the last 28 at the restaurant.

This is her life — peaceful, friendly, without much hassle.

At least it was until the early morning hours Saturday when Hurricane Matthew barged ashore with torrential rains, 100-plus mph winds and enough agita to send the foolhardy locals who rode out the storm on Tybee Island to an early grave.

People like Edleman.

“I opened my door and stood and looked at all the rain blowing. I kept watching that pecan tree thinking it was time for it go to,” she said. “I was just stubborn, I guess. I should’ve left just for my daughter’s peace of mind. I was blessed.”

Tybee Mayor Jason Buelterman said Matthew was the worst hurricane in more than 100 years. A tidal gauge at Fort Pulaski, just outside town, hit a record 12.56 feet. Flooding typically starts at 9.8 feet. The mayor praised the vast majority of Tybee residents who heeded his advice to get out of Dodge before Matthew arrived.

Paul Wolff wasn’t one of them.

“I lay awake, safe behind my storm shutters, listening to the howling wind and things going bump in the night, while wrapping myself around a vodka martini,” Wolff said.

Edleman raked her pebbled front yard Saturday afternoon placing the storm’s detritus into tidy piles. That was the extent of her cleanup from one of the worst storms to ever smack Georgia’s coast.

Blessed indeed because much of the rest of Tybee was flooded, covered in downed trees and limbs or awaiting a date with the insurance man.

“I stayed dressed all night on top of my bed ready to jump up and run into the bathroom if I had to,” Edleman said. “At 4 o’clock I heard those (high wind) rumblings come in. I heard those trees go craaaaaack. I did some praying. God loves me.”

It’s too early to predict damage totals, but they will certainly run into the many millions of dollars. Police, fire and utility crews didn’t arrive back on the largely empty island — the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation Wednesday — until early afternoon Saturday.

This is what they found: an obstacle course of shingles, siding and palm fronds along the main drag; whole neighborhoods and roads, particularly on the island’s south side, under water for long stretches of time; a dozen homes or condos without roofs; and industrial-sized coolers, power poles and lines and old railroad ties deposited on the roads in ungainly fashion by the ferocious winds that tore through this town of 3,000 residents.

“It looked like a bomb hit Tybee, you know like one of those bouncing bombs that roll down the street,” said Edleman, who drove the still-quiet streets before any of the evacuees had returned. “I’m hoping this was one of those 100-year storms so we won’t have any more for 30 years.”

Wolff, an ex-Tybee city council member and bed-and-breakfast owner, toured the island by bike Saturday.

“The torrential rain and storm surge flooded streets and ground-level floors, but the water is receding quickly. Overall, we should be counting our blessings,” he said.

They’ve seen their share of storms, but nothing like Matthew. There was David in 1979 and Hugo a decade later. And then some near-hits and mostly misses. Georgia, due to its short (100 miles) and curved (like a bow) coast line, sends most hurricanes along to the Carolinas. Shallow water and a strong Gulf Stream also repel storms.

“I remember David; it was the first one I went through,” said Edleman, 56. “We had a hurricane party at Fort Screven on top of one of the batteries where the Shrine club is now. A couple of local guys just set up a keg there and we had a good time.”

She paused, “We were young and stupid and we were partying. I don’t party anymore.”

Her father tired of the 1970s desegregation battles riling the Charlotte, N.C., schools so he settled upon Tybee Island where U.S. 80 ends. A trucker, he could live anywhere. Sonja, then 12, loved Tybee instantly.

“We left the snow and the next day I’m flying kites on the beach,” she said. “I have been here ever since.”

She married a postman who died a few years ago of cancer. She misses him “terribly.” She has a new boyfriend.

Edleman likes her job at the restaurant, the customers and the money she makes. Tybee, she says, has never been busier. Or richer. Or filled with so many out-of-towners, many who retire to the barrier island 20 miles from downtown Savannah.

Tybee’s character, and its characters, keep changing.

The bungalows and wooden throw-togethers no longer predominate. Condos and the three-story concrete and steel structures that can accommodate two entire families for one beachy week fill ocean- and bay-side lots. The newer homes withstood Saturday’s winds better than the older ones.

Off-season, today, you’re as likely to see a youngish Atlanta retiree as a native Tybee shrimper, house painter or T-shirt merchant.

“In spite of growing tourism and attempted gentrification, Tybee still has a homey, small-town feel,” said Wolff, the former city official and current man about town. “Everyone on the island is a unique character. We pride ourselves on being a welcoming, if quirky community.”

The annual Pirate Festival, Tybee’s weekend bacchanal for visitor and local alike, was scheduled for this weekend. Matthew, though, canceled it. He’s also responsible for the still-closed U.S. 80. Police say residents may leave Tybee, but they won’t be able to return.

Edleman is going nowhere.

The Atlantic Ocean, roiling, yet mellower Saturday evening, is at the end of her block. Her daughter Rebecca lives in nearby Richmond Hill. Easy pleasures come with a book at night, a walk up Butler Avenue, or sitting on her stoop talking with neighbors.

“I’ll be right here for a while, God willing and the creek don’t rise” Edleman said, laughing, rake again in hand.