Tybee homeowners start lifting houses with $1.5 million FEMA flood mitigation grant

Our Changing Climate

TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WSAV) — With the help of a $1.5 million flood mitigation grant, the City of Tybee Island is taking steps to improve its resiliency against rising waters.

Through the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted the city with the funds to cover costs of lifting at-risk homes high off the ground.

“We have a lot of surface flooding on the island,” Tybee’s community development director, George Shaw, told WSAV.com NOW.

He says Hurricane Irma devastated between 60 to 80 of the vulnerable island’s homes with flood-related damages. 

“We’re very low; this lot probably sits at about 6 feet above sea level,” Shaw said of a Lewis Avenue property, which is the first of 10 homes to be lifted as protection from flooding.

The selected homes had either suffered substantial flood damage in the past or have flooded several times before. 

Contractors began elevating the home of Larry and Donna Piper last week, and the project is expected to take 60 days total.

“It took them a day and a half of prep work and about six hours to elevate it,” Larry Piper told WSAV.com NOW.

The house, which sits right on the marsh, now stands 12 feet and 2 inches off the ground.

“It’s gonna drop down a foot, 2 inches,” Piper said. “Once we get the pilings in, get the cross braces in for the subflooring and all that, it’ll be an 11-foot elevation, so plenty of room to drive our cars, trucks and boats under.”

He and Donna, along with the 10 other Tybee homeowners selected for the project, are only responsible for 15 percent of the costs associated with lifting the homes.

FEMA will cover 75 percent, while the state will handle the remaining 10 percent.

Each homeowner will have to find their own contractors and have their house plans approved by the City of Tybee Island before beginning the process. 

How high their homes get lifted is up to them, as long as the height rises above the base flood elevation — 9 feet — plus an additional 2 feet, Shaw says.

“I’m 72 years old, so hopefully we’ll have another 20, 30-year span without a hurricane,” said Tybee Island resident Larry Piper.

That means the homes have to sit at least 11 feet above sea level.

Piper, who’s temporarily staying at his son’s fiancée’s home on Whitemarsh Island, says his spirits are about as high as his house now sits.

“If I get any more elated, my feet will be off the ground,” the 72-year-old laughed, adding, “It’s wonderful.”

He and his wife recall the nightmare of having 28 inches of water inundate their house during  2017’s Hurricane Irma, and hope never to live through another flood event.

“We were in the house when it flooded,” Piper recalled. “My wife stepped into the yard and the water hit her; it was 4 feet deep out here in the yard, all the way across both ways far as you can see with water, and it flowed through here like the Mississippi River, I mean, it was flying through here.”

The Pipers look forward to having a home that’s like new once the overall project is complete.

“We have a lot of work to do inside because we completely gutted it,” Piper said. “We’re starting all over on the inside; new walls, ceilings, electrical, plumbing.”

The flood mitigation grant funding runs through July 2021, according to Shaw. 

“We are just happy to see this get started, it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “We applied for the grant in 2018, so it’s been a while, and we’re glad to see houses going up.”

The City of Tybee Island is currently awaiting a response from FEMA within the next six months on another elevation grant. 

This next potential round of funding would allow 50 more homes on the island to be lifted.

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