Tybee Island: Community collaborates to curb coastal erosion


Dan Hernandez set out to make a difference and invited others to join.

The Savannah resident has watched parts of Tybee Island erode slowly over the years, particularly the six-mile McQueen’s Island Trail, which offers high-tide protection to U.S. Highway 80 that links Tybee to Savannah.

He heard the voices of discontent during the past few years — Georgia’s first rails to trails project, which transformed the railbed that transported residents over the marshlands during 1887-1933, was dwindling. What provided residents and visitors an avenue for fishing, crabbing, hiking, bird watching, and sunset watching was slowly fading.

Hernandez decided to gather the voices. A few months ago, he started an online petition on Change.org and 570 people signed their names. The support was overwhelming.

“We must repair and restore this trail for future generations,” said Billy Bremer, a Savannah resident whose grandfather’s family lived at Tybee during the 1900s and depended on the train. “Fantastic history. Let’s get it done.”

Hundreds of locals added their names and comments to the list.

“It is in terrible condition right now, and it is sad to see that this hasn’t been prioritized sooner,” said Savannah resident Kathleen O’Sullivan. “We are the Hostess City — we need to look like it.”

Even out-of-state visitors signed their support.

“I want to be able to walk the trail with my family and friends each time we visit Savannah,” said Sandra Montgomery of Rootstown, Ohio. “The trail acts as a barrier against much flooding on 80. No barrier, no beach memories. Get the picture?”

Hernandez also held events to gather money for the restoration. In August, his nonprofit Run 4 a Reason hosted a first-ever race on Little Tybee Island to raise awareness about sea level rise and erosion.

Just weeks ago, Hernandez appeared at the Chatham County Commission meeting to show how much the nonprofit group meant business — and plopped down a $10,000 check. The county is pouring in its own money to address the problem, and funding to study possible long-term fixes was included in the special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) extension approved by voters on Nov. 5.

“The county engineer and I are preparing plans and putting out a bid as we speak,” said Robert Drewry, director of public works and park services. “About $300,000 has gone toward repair and restoration, and there will be more.”

Erosion history

Coastal problems on the 3.5-mile stretch of barrier island aren’t new. Located 18 miles east of Savannah and at the mouth of the Savannah River, the island continues to face problems as ships come into the Savannah Harbor. Now that the harbor deepening project first proposed in 1996 seems inevitable, residents are worried once again.

Vice President Joe Biden breezed into town in mid-September to bolster the plan that would deepen the federal shipping channel from 42 feet to 47 feet to accommodate larger ships.

“We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water,” he said.

The U.S. House approved a massive water projects bill in late October that authorized the project. As the House version is being reconciled with the U.S. Senate version, Georgia’s top politicians are trying to secure more federal funding before the groundbreaking begins.

A 2007 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study stated that about 80 percent of Tybee’s beach erosion can be attributed to the navigation channel and its maintenance. The proposed deepening to 48 feet is not expected to dramatically increase the erosion, so the Corps is not required to compensate.

But locals are worried about what the Corps will do with the material dredged from the bottom of the harbor. Wary of previous dredgings that created clay balls that washed up on shore, city council members continue to vote down ideas the Corps has offered for the deepening project. The state’s Department of Natural Resources and local environmental groups have raised concerns as well.

“DNR has its own worries about a nearshore berm,” said Brad Gane, chief of the ecological services section for the DNR Coastal Resources Division. “It could restrict sea turtle nesting or the movement of hatchlings back to sea.”

The Corps has replenished the beach in past years and completed a study in February that will continue the renourishment project through 2015. The project, which costs $28 million, calls for sand along 13,000 feet of Oceanfront Beach, 1,100 feet of South Tip Beach, and 1,800 feet of Back River Beach. The Corps will continue to pull sand from a site 5,000 feet south of Tybee Island’s tip, which is the same site used for renourishment projects in 1994 and 2008.

Creating an interdisciplinary solution

As the University of Georgia’s Sea Grant mission continues to expand, more professors and scientists are paying attention to the changes along the coast. In July, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography merged with UGA, and a recent gift from the Wormsloe Foundation donated 15 acres next to the Wormsloe State HIstoric Site near Savannah to the university.

To delve into the social and environmental aspects of the partnerships, UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government launched a series of meetings last year with Tybee Island residents to share data and brainstorm ideas about erosion and coastal sea rise.

“Now we’re in the nitty gritty planning phase of the project,” said Jason Evans, environmental sustainability analyst in the Institute’s Environmental Policy Program. “We really got involved in terms of the policy side.”

Evans and others are looking at federal flood insurance changes, which may reduce subsidies and soon hike rates for coastal communities. Tybee must be recertified under FEMA’s Community Rating System next year to continue to qualify for a rate reduction, and Evans is helping council members to incorporate and document the latest adaptations they’re planning.

“We’re pushing for cost effective, no-regret solutions that will help now,” Evans said. “That doesn’t include huge seawalls, which aren’t cost effective and may never be.”

For example, the city plans to install flap gates on stormwater pipes to prevent flooding during high tide and eliminate backflow problems.

“It sounds small, but it’s really effective,” Evans said. “These will help the immediate stressors for the next 20 years, and then we’ll discuss an adaptive planning cycle that will make the community resilient for 50 years.”

Evans and Georgia 4-H workers visited the island in early November to discuss ways to implement eco-armoring, or living shorelines, to stop erosion. Rather than use concrete seawalls, which often increase the rate of erosion, this approach uses plants, sand, and reefs to create a habitat along the coast.

“The Marine Extension Service has used these shorelines in demonstration projects they’ve done, and it’s a great alternative,” Evans said. “We’re looking for some demo sites and some money to support it and will present a draft plan in January.”

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