TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WSAV) – Tybee Island is one of those places that does not change much: it’s quaint, it’s local and most residents hope it stays that way.
But as hurricanes get stronger, city leaders are changing the way they fight them, largely due to a drastic shift in funding.
A decades-long agreement with the United States Army Corps of Engineers is ending in 2024. It provides funding every seven to 10 years for regular beach renourishments.
Tybee Island City Manager Shawn Gillen says it would take an act of Congress to renew the agreement.
“We don’t anticipate getting an extension on that. It’s a big problem that a lot of cities are running into,” he said.
Gillen says now, the city is looking at other options to protect the island from hurricanes. It can be broken down into three categories: defend, adapt and retreat.
“Our approach to dealing with sea-level rise is to defend. We put up dunes, we re-nourish the beach, the size of the beach itself helps absorb the power of a storm surge,” explained Gillen.
Vegetation with rebar-like roots also help absorb water.
The island is adapting to stronger storms by raising homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funded the elevation of 12 homes.
The city is waiting on funding for 49 more.
“And then we retreat,” said Gillen. “We back away from the flooded areas by the use of setback requirements or we could use FEMA money in areas that are frequently flooded and make them green space.”
The beach could also still quality for storm-related funding.
Project Manager Alan Robertson is in charge of a recent shift in focus to the back river. It presents a different challenge.
“On the back river — it’s rising water,” he explained. “It’s very difficult to stop rising water as the marsh floods.”
He says it is also difficult to create a plan because most of the property on the back river is privately owned and armored with docks.
Robertson is working with the University of Georgia to research how to realistically mitigate flooding. Horizontal levees and routine street closures are early potential solutions.
“The first thing we’re doing is developing a topography of the entire island, so people can start to learn where the water hits us, where it wants to go and we’re trying to let it get there and with the least amount of damage,” said Robertson.
Robertson is using a new application to collect real-life data from residents on the island. Anyone can submit pictures and information on flooded areas to better inform his research.
A FEMA grant is also helping him create a massive stormwater management plan.
Still, he says the island as a whole is more protected than it has ever been.
“This beach is as big as it’s ever been. The dunes are as high as they’ve ever been. We are as prepared as we can be at this point,” said Robertson.