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.”
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.”
On Sunday mornings, the Sapelo Island ferry pulls up to the dock and lets off a stream of residents decked in dresses, hats, and suits.
Shaking hands and trading smiles, the dozen or so pile into a church bus that arrives just for them. They’re heading to St. Luke Baptist Church for a morning of worship.
The sun beams through a cloudless sky on a warm September day as churchgoers greet each other at the door and welcome each other home. Several children run about the yard before Sunday school starts, trying to catch the lovebugs floating in the air.
During the service, there’s a palpable tension in the air as church members hold hands during prayer and clap during worship.
“You don’t know what I’ve been through this week. I know something’s on your mind, too,” the pastor shouts out to the group. “We’ve got to yell to the Lord this morning. We’ve got to make Him hear us.”
A string of “Amens” echo in the chapel.
At the luncheon that follows the service, the subtle tension continues. There’s something on everyone’s mind, and they’re ready to talk about it.
The tax battle
Sapelo Island’s Gullah-Geechee community is trying to maintain its cultural presence while fighting off new property assessments that may cause property taxes to jump as much as 600 percent. This sudden increase could force some to sell their family homes.
Fewer than 50 residents — all descendents of slaves shipped from West Africa to work the rice and tobacco fields on the island — keep the historic identity intact today. With 97 percent of the island owned by the state, the islanders are proud to claim their remaining chunk of space in Hog Hammock.
McIntosh Island reappraised the homes earlier this year to address errors in previous property appraisals. A few residents have sold property to developers and newcomers who built high-end vacation homes, so property values and taxes increased.
Dozens of homeowners have hired lawyers to freeze the assessments and fight for the services that aren’t provided to match the property tax costs. With no police or fire personnel, doctors or hospitals, schools or post offices or even grocery stores, islanders argue they shouldn’t be charged. They must take the 20-minute boat ride for work or school, and the three daily round trips often limit job opportunities for parents and afterschool activities for kids.
“All these years of getting nothing, then all of a sudden they want to lay this tax on you and still not give you anything,” said Cornelia Bailey, the island’s self-appointed historian and spokeswoman. Her book God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man serves as a memoir and history of the last generation to be born and educated on the island.
Bailey’s taxes on a piece of one-acre property jumped from $600 to $2,300 a year. She’s the ninth generation of her family on the island, and she plans to stay.
“We have a legacy most people would die for,” she said. “We’re fighting to keep it — even for the unborn.”
Regrowing the culture
As part of the effort, Sapelo Island residents are reaching out to non-islanders for awareness and support.
Residents and supporters have looked into community land trust and community development solutions, whereby a nonprofit corporation manages the land on behalf of residents. They’ve set up a Sapelo Ancestral Land Trust and welcome donations through Atlanta-based group Gullah Geechee Culture Initiative.
“Developers are destroying the barrier islands by building as big as they can and as high as they can,” said Reginald Hall, an initiative worker and Sapelo property owner who saw taxes increase 500 percent. “There’s environmental justice and social responsibility at play here.”
In addition, the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society held its 18th annual Cultural Day Festival in mid-October, which featured storytellers, native food vendors, gospel choirs, arts and crafts, and African dancers.
“It’s been great to see people from other places buy tickets to help support the island and people keeping their land,” said Julius Bailey, Cornelia’s grandson. “This year’s event brought a lot of money in.”
The cultural society also works with marine biologists to promote research about the island.
“People come catch fish to do research, and others focus on dolphins and migration,” he said. “All of that helps to bring attention to the island.”
Community members often welcome college classes that visit the island through the University of Georgia Marine Institute. Founded on the island in 1953, the institute offers its student dorms to small university groups across the state, most often in the sciences.
“The institute helps out as well,” Bailey said. “When the community needs help, they call two friends, and those people call two friends. It really spreads the word.”
Bailey volunteers at the society during the day and takes online graphic design classes through the Art Institute of Pittsburgh at night. He makes it a priority to give back while he can.
“It’s been fun and rewarding to be here, where many of my relatives live,” he said. “It’s helped me to learn more about what’s going on with the island and the properties.”
Kalina Manoylov is happiest when out in the field, studying algae.
An assistant professor of biology at Georgia College and State University, Manoylov is known around the the college’s Department of Biological and Environmental Science as the one who loves diatoms.
While supervising a group of students collecting samples on Sapelo Island in early September, she’s even wearing a shirt that expresses her love for algae.
“The biodiversity of these primary producers is outstanding,” she said. “On this island, there are probably 14 groups of algae and 10 million species.”
Manoylov promoted the phycology field trip to Sapelo to document diversity in Georgia. Once the students take samples from several ocean, lake, and river sites, they return to the classroom and study what they see under the microscope.
“With the low human activity, we can really see what’s happening,” she said. “We can use it as a reference for the other barrier islands that have major tourism.”
Manoylov, who hails from Bulgaria, earned a biology degree from the University of Sofia, followed by a master’s in ecology and environmental sciences. In 2005, she earned a double doctorate at Michigan State University in zoology and ecology, evolutionary biology, and behavior.
Her research interests include aquatic ecology, population and community ecology, speciation and aquatic ecosystem health, and algal taxonomy and ecology.
She applied for a grant from Georgia College to study freshwater algae in barrier islands and traveled with the phycology class this fall for the third time. The group of 20 undergraduates measured biomass, dissolved oxygen, water temperature, salinity, and pH levels for three types of algae — cyanobacteria, green algae, and diatoms. Then the handful of graduate students summarized the data into a poster presentation.
Manoylov also appreciates the social and hands-on nature of the trip. As the students ride bikes around the island, cook together in the dorms, and catch ghost crabs on the beach at night, they form friendships that stick in the classroom.
“They get to know each other and become good friends,” she said. “Some of the students are in the field for the first time when they do this trip, and this is a great way for them to get started.”
For students in an environmental hydrogeology class at Georgia College and State University, class time means searching for crayfish on Sapelo Island.
In early September, a group of 20 trekked to the island on the Georgia coast with waders and nets to catch and study an endangered species that hasn’t been documented well.
“We’re looking at what factors control distribution of crayfish,” said Sam Mutiti, an associate professor who studies environmental geology and hydrogeology. “What’s the water and soil chemistry here?”
The students clomped around in knee-high and waist-high water, shoveling soil and looking for the signs of a crayfish burrow. They shouted to each other in glee when they swished a net through the water and sifted the silt through a pan, often revealing a small crayfish or larva.
Sarah Hazard, a graduate student in the program, plans to write her thesis about the crayfish species alongside Professor Christopher Skelton, whose research specializes in freshwater fish, particularly Georgia’s 70 species of crayfish. Skelton’s research is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and supported by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
During the weekend, the Georgia College hydrogeology students also studied soil composition to learn about the island’s environment.
“If fish are swimming, we know the water isn’t toxic,” said Allison VandeVoort, an assistant professor who focuses on soil contaminants, agroecosystems, and biochemical cycling. “We’re looking at the nutrients and bacteria in the runoff and soil here.”
After nabbing crayfish for study back on campus, the class traveled to Sapelo’s beach to map the salinity of the water as the tide moves in and out during the day. By transecting the salinity of the vegetation nearby, they could study whether the groundwater picked up the salt.
The students dug deep holes in the sand to measure the water table and then plotted electrical nodes nearby to measure the current passing through the sand.
“See how great science is? You can test your hypothesis,” Mutiti said, showing the class how to place nodes and dig holes. “Then cover it up. The environment shouldn’t show we were here.”
Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love water. Well, folks, Paris is certainly a river town. Mostly anything and everything you need to see (especially for your first two-day trip) is along the river, and it’s a nice walk. I now understand why everyone wears scarves all the time … quite windy, even when warm outside.
As soon as I threw my bags in my room near the Bastille, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening walking the length of the river, stopping and snapping photos along the way. I ended at the Eiffel Tower, rode to the second level (the top was closed) and stuck around until the lights popped on around 9:20 p.m. It began raining and I caught the metro back to the hotel to pass out.
I didn’t think about the fact that it was Sunday when I started out to the Louvre in the morning. When I passed the Notre Dame and saw a long line going inside, I still didn’t realize a service was going on. But when I walked inside, my breath caught in my throat. It felt sacred.
It was a bit bizarre to watch the service as a tourist, with people gaping and snapping photos (that made noise, no less) and then moving on. The strangest moment was when tourists took photos during prayers. Then there was Communion.