Special Report: Tybee Island Leaders Prepare For Sea Level Rise - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Special Report: Tybee Island Leaders Prepare For Sea Level Rise

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TYBEE ISLAND, GA - If steps aren't taken in the coming decades, Tybee Island as we know it may die.  Its streets will be flooded and its beaches washed away.  Over the next 20, 50, or 100 years it will become impossible to ignore. 

It's a difficult pill to swallow but that's the harsh reality of Sea Level Rise for many low-lying coastal areas.  Now Tybee city leaders are developing plans before it's too late, to keep the island from sinking into a watery grave. 

The Manucy name has been a Tybee Island staple for 200 years.  Over time, Billy and Brenda have watched flood waters grow in their neighborhood after storms.  But today's high tide is tomorrow's normal tide.  "I want it to be better, but unless you can raise this island up 20 feet, there's not a lot that can be done," Billy Manucy said.   

It's part of Dr. Clark Alexander's job at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography to study things like sea level rise.  "As sea levels continue to rise, the high tide will reach farther and farther up onto the upland and we'll see greater and greater flooding," Dr. Alexander said.   

Dr. Alexander says Sea Level Rise is actually accelerating.  Water levels only rose about one foot in the past 100 years.  But he says it's expected to climb more than three feet over the next 100 years.

He says a rise of one foot is expected in just the next 25 years.  Three feet or more are expected with a normal tide by 2100.  Finally, storm tide with three feet of Sea Level Rise in 2100 would amount to about five feet of water.  Only a thin sliver of the island would be immune. 

With water levels like that, will islands like Tybee even be inhabitable?  "Not necessarily,” said Dr. Alexander.  “There are a lot of decisions that will have to be made in the next 50 years." 

But planning must begin now.  And two people on Tybee leading that effort are Mayor Jason Buelterman and City Councilman Paul Wolff.  "If we ignore sea level rise and fail to plan for a 20, 50, 100 year window, our grandkids, instead of riding beach cruisers from bar to bar, are going to be paddling kayaks down the streets. That's how serious it is," Wolff said.    

One of the biggest challenges will be relieving flooding on Highway 80, the only way on or off of the island.  This roadway already floods four or five times each year.  "With just one foot of sea level rise it's going to flood 45 to 50 times per year.  And with two feet it's going to be under water 80 times per year," Wolff said.    

The plan is to elevate the highway by several feet with the help of the Georgia Department of Transportation.  But negotiations have been difficult because that would cost G-DOT hundreds of thousands of dollars.  "That's our main concern, and right now there is no money allocated to fix that," Mayor Buelterman said.    

Then they need to keep the rising water from washing right into the streets along the beach during storms.  Tybee Beach already has a series of dunes which do that.  But they come in patches with gaps in between them.  Now city leaders want to fill in those gaps by building sand dunes that wrap all the way around the beach creating a protective barrier against the ocean.  Tybee will ask the Army Corps of Engineers for help with that in the next ten years. 

Another major expense will be beach re-nourishments, replenishing the sand lost at sea particularly at high tide.  It's a costly process every seven years the city can barely afford now. 

In the coming years the amount of sand needed will increase exponentially, especially to sure up the new continuous dunes. 

The back end of Tybee Island is the lowest and most flood prone area.  That’s where the Manucys live.  Right now their neighborhood sees 1-2 feet of flooding 3-5 times per year damaging driveways and car ports.  Roughly speaking, one foot of sea level rise in 25 years would double that.  A three foot rise by 2100 would mean 4-5 feet of flood water dozens of times per year.  Every high tide the roads would be submerged and water would be in houses. 

The Manucys want their family name to carry on this island another couple hundred years, with the help of Tybee Leaders.  "I hope they do that.  Our mayor and council have done an awful lot to make this island better," Billy Manucy said.   
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