ST. MARYS – On the waterfront here, where tourists typically board boats to Cumberland Island, docks were destroyed and vessels sank Monday morning during Irma’s assault on Georgia.
The streets in the waterfront district, which held several inches of water after lunch, were littered with Styrofoam, in giant chunks and tiny specks, from the docks. Life jackets, equipment and supplies from the ships were strewn on the shore. The smell of diesel fuel filled the air. The fuel, possibly from the sunk ships, lingered in the water on the roads.
Residents and business owners walked through the wreck, their shoes squeaking from moisture. The flood began to recede rapidly after hightide at 1 p.m., and the noses of ships peaked from the sloshing St. Marys River, which cuts the Georgia-Florida border.
"I'm third generation from here and we've never seen anything like this," said Bill Gross, who develops real estate and couldn’t help himself from thinking about what the damage will do to businesses on the waterfront. “This is the only destination St. Marys has got. It’s what keeps these shops going.”
At the Riverview Hotel, owner Jerry Brandon said he had watched helplessly in the dark as ships broke loose from their docks.
“They just banged against each other until they sank,” he said.
He figures there were about six.
He pointed to the spot where the docks for the Cumberland trips used to be. As far as he knows, the boats themselves were taken away to safety, but he said, without the docks, he fears it could be some time before the trips to Cumberland start running again from here.
That could hurt the businesses here.
“We’ve had a captive audience with the people going to the island,” he said. “If they can’t get to the island, they’re not gonna come to St. Marys.”
At the shoreline, where one boat slid up onto the grass near a gazebo, Kay Westberry, a local historian, snapped photos of the scene and wondered aloud how it happened.
“It’s unbelievable to me,” she said.
She felt for the workers who’ll have to come clear the debris. Once the shore is taken care of, there will also need to be a clean-up at the 230-year-old Oak Grove Cemetery, which Westberry manages. The cemetery’s namesake oaks dropped huge limbs all over the grounds.
So far, she said, it didn’t appear that there’d been any serious damage at Oak Grove.
But the full range of the city’s trouble wasn’t yet clear in the first hours after Irma moved away.
The hurt wasn’t isolated to the shoreline. Flood waters went several blocks into the city.
In one home, a man in a wheelchair had to be rescued and taken to the hospital Monday morning, said St. Marys police officer Ian Dent.
“It was really life and death,” he said. “We got a call that water was inundating the house. We had to wade through about two feet of water to get to him.”
Afterward, Dent came out on the street in his rain boots and marveled.