Along Georgia’s coast the long recovery after Irma begins

7:44 p.m Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 Local
Curtis Comption/AJC
Dozens of boats are blown into the marsh and a shrimp boat sits on the bottom as local resident Michael Whitemore, 36, checks to see whether a friend’s boat survived at Langs Marina after Hurricane Irma hit St. Marys on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.

Almost anyone can seem like an angel the day after a historic storm: a neighbor with a growling generator in the truck bed, a fried chicken cook hawking warm wings in a town with almost no open businesses, a gas station attendant telling that one guy who cut in the long, maddening line to go wait like everybody else.

On Tuesday, coastal Georgians navigated damaged counties and islands, where historic flood waters from Tropical Storm Irma rushed over doorsteps and killed power for thousands.

People revved chainsaws. They hung soggy things to dry on fences. They wiped sweat and wished for AC. They helped each other and longed for things to get back to normal. They hoped the insurance would cover it.

 Boats blown away from their docks sit in the marsh after Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, September 12, 2017, at St. Marys on the Georgia coast. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

In Chatham County, officials let locals go home, but those who had left from Camden and Glynn counties still couldn’t return Tuesday. Folks in Liberty and Bryan, two other coastal counties, were also allowed to return Tuesday. In McIntosh County, officials urged people not to come back yet, but didn’t keep them from returning if they did.

RELATED: Tybee Island reopens as evacuation order lifted 

MORE: Georgia governor warns of ‘slow’ recovery from Irma

“We know you’re anxious, but we’ve got to get you back safely,” Glynn County Chairman Bill Brunson said in a news conference near Brunswick. “Right now we feel like our community is not safe.”

Those who stayed home during the storm told stories of close calls.

On Tybee Island, the water came suddenly, with the fury of a bull let out of a pen. In 15 minutes Brenda and Scott Neese went from rejoicing that Irma passed them by to swimming for their lives.

“We thought, ‘We made it. Awesome,’” Brenda Neese said, recalling how the winds hadn’t seemed all that bad, how the trees in their yard had remained upright. “We even started taking the sandbags down.”

And then it seemed like the Atlantic Ocean and the Savannah and Bull rivers all raced in at once.

St. Marys: A dock comes to quick end and a destroyed cabin boat sits on the bottom after Hurricane Irma swept through the Town on Monday in St. Marys. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

“We grabbed our baby (the toy poodle), threw some things in a bag and had to swim out of here,” she said.

Fellow Tybee resident June Saunders said she was trapped in her house when Irma raged. She couldn’t open the door against the surge and worried she would drown.

She panicked also for her little Maltipoo, Camee Rae. Pouty, the cocker, spaniel can swim, but that was of little comfort.

Finally, her son, Tybee Police Sgt. Bruce Saunders, rescued everyone by smashing off the doorknob, then evacuating the dogs out a window.

Despite her harrowing ordeal, Saunders seemed sanguine. Her insurance check from last year’s Hurricane Matthew had just arrived; she’ll be able to devote those proceeds and whatever her flood insurance pays for Irma toward repairs. Tuesday afternoon she sat surrounded by waterlogged mattresses and other household items, calmly working a crossword puzzle.

PHOTOS: Aerial photos show Irma’s impact on coastal Georgia

“We’ll pick up and start again,” she said. “Tybee takes care of its own.”

In Brunswick’s College Park neighborhood, 82-year-old Clarence Gibbons tried to sleep through the storm, but he kept feeling the urge to get up and see how high the water had risen. It climbed the steps as the wind tossed trampolines, lawn furniture and garbage cans, flinging trash all over the neighborhood.

“Just prayed and prayed,” he said.

In the end, he had about an inch to spare. He knows he’s luckier than many around Glynn County.

Now he just wants the power to come back on so people can get groceries and gas and everything else.

Tropical Storm Irma caused some flooding along the popular River Street in downtown Savannah on Monday, September 11, 2017. (JENNIFER BRETT/JBRETT@AJC.COM)

Triumphantly, Downtown Grocery, a convenience store on Albany Street, had electricity. After lunch, owner Ken Patel held a drill and had two men hoist him on their shoulders so he could remove the screws from the plywood on the entrance.

When the door swung open, the slushies were still frozen and whirling.

Patel quickly lit the sign: OPEN.

“We’re trying to help people out,” he said.

Farther south, on the causeway leading to St. Simons Island, water rose over the road, leading officials to shut it down until it can be inspected. Jekyll Island was in the same position. It’s left marooned residents with few options for supplies.

Officials planned to soon start letting workers return to open grocery stores and other businesses.

On Tybee Island, Nickie’s Bar and Grill owner Calvin Ratteree partnered with his friends at the Tybee Island Pier & Pavilion for an impromptu community cookout. They knew no one had tasted a hot meal in days.

“All this food was fixing to go bad,” Pier manager Bobby King said, “so let’s eat.”

A look at the damage across the state of Georgia in the aftermath of tropical storm Irma.
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