WTOC First Alert Storm Watch 2018: Return to Tybee

TYBEE ISLAND, GA (WTOC) - During Hurricane Irma, we had reporters and photographers embedded all over the Coastal Empire, including a crew out on Tybee Island.

Our Elizabeth Rawlins was part of a crew that headed out to the beach ahead of the storm. They went there knowing they would likely be stuck for several days. They knew Highway 80 and the bridges would be shut down. They were on the island for three days. Now, they're retracing their steps going back to all of the places they showed you during their 36 hours of live coverage on the island.

Life on Tybee Island is alive and thriving. You would never know that just nine months ago. It was deserted. Homes and businesses were boarded up, bracing for Irma. Their 36-hour coverage started along Strand Avenue, where the wind was so strong, Elizabeth had to be tied to a tree. During the storm, they were hunkered down on the north end of the island. At one point, they attempted to venture out but quickly realized how dangerous it was.

When it was finally safe to start assessing the damage, one of our first stops was Lewis Avenue, which was under several feet of water.

"Water in your dresser, in your clothes, just everything. Everything was ruined," said Betty Jo Smeltzer, Lewis Avenue resident.

Homes along Lewis Avenue also flooded during Hurricane Matthew. Berry Joe Smelzer says they had just replaced their floors and walls and were about to finish renovations in their bathroom when Irma hit.

"It's not been a fun year and a half, for sure," she said.

They were forced to gut their whole home and start again after Irma, and while life is returning to normal for Smeltzer, others still have not recovered including her sister who lives down the street. She made the decision to tear down her home and rebuild it on stilts.

The day after Irma, we toured the island with Mayor Jason Buelterman. In comparison to Hurricane Matthew, it was immediately evident that Irma brought more water damage than wind damage. Nine months later, the mayor says the overall recovery cost for the city was only a couple hundred thousand dollars compared to the $3 million from Matthew. He says Irma, however, hit individual pockets much harder.

"It cost less because of the flooding affecting city buildings. We didn't have a lot of wind damage that caused debris to come onto the city property, onto our streets, and onto our right of way like we had with Matthew," Mayor Buelterman said. "Matthew was a significant debris removal issue. Irma was a whole lot sadder - just emotionally from the sense that more people got flooded and you had all of their stuff just stacked up in the park for months."

The wind damage that was caused from Irma was concentrated down near the pier, but getting there meant navigating through Irma's waters.

When the surge finally hit during high tide, it flooded many of the roads around the island, including the main road, Butler Avenue. It wasn't until the next day that we could finally get down to the main strip to assess the damage.

The roofs on some of the condos facing the beach were damaged and some were completely ripped off, causing significant water damage to units inside. Many of the repairs have already been made and life has bounced back, but many residents and business owners realize the damage could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for the dunes. After back-to-back storms, there's not much of a buffer between the beach and the island.

"When you look at the dune line, you think, 'yeah, that looks weak, that looks weak,' said Tim Arnold, Tybee Island.

The mayor says they've already secured state funding to replace the dunes that were destroyed, but the effort to rebuild them will be ongoing during this hurricane season.

For residents, this is just another reason to pray for a peaceful hurricane season.

"We need a break this year, so if we get a break this year, we will be good to go," Arnold said.

"When they said it was hurricane season the other day, you just cringe because you are like, 'Oh my gosh, two in a row. What's going to happen,' Smeltzer said.

The entire WTOC news and weather team have been working hard to get you ready for the 2018 hurricane season. Make sure to watch the WTOC First Alert Storm Watch 2018 special this Friday at 7:30 p.m.

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