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Tybee businesses work past storm damage, hope for strong spring

  • Chantal Audran with Ike, a loggerhead sea turtle; Joy Davis with diamondback terrapins; and Alli Williford with Ruby and Pearl, the Marine Science Center’s resident diamondback terrapins, prepare to evacuate before Hurricane Matthew in October. (Photos courtesy of Tybee Island Marine Science Center)
  • Tybee Island Marine Science Center posted a sign featuring the center’s loggerhead sea turtle Ike on the boarded-up front door in October before evacuating with the animals.

Several small business and companies on Tybee are still dealing with damage from Hurricane Matthew, but most owners are looking toward spring and summer with optimism.

With winds above 90 mph during the storm’s peak, nearly every roof on the island suffered some type of wind damage, Manager George Shaw of Tybee’s planning and zoning department told the Savannah Morning News recently. The early October hurricane was the first in decades to hit the beach community.

The Marine Science Center, located behind the still-damaged and closed pier, fared better with only a minor water leak, but in the hours before the storm executive director Maria Procopio feared the worst for the low-lying building.

“We’re right around sea level, and since the building is from the 1970s and so close (to the beach), it’s really rough on the building with the constant salt and wind,” she said.

A former New Yorker, Procopio said she knew how to deal with snowstorms, but not hurricanes, so upon her arrival in 2007 she put together an evacuation plan with the help of the Chatham Emergency Management Agency. The plan included taking out additional insurance policies to cover equipment that can’t be moved from the facility and transferring paper records to a digital online cloud.

The center’s redesigned animal gallery and what they’ve created inside the center, even with insurance coverage, is something that couldn’t be re-created if lost, Procopio said.

“We designed all of it. … There’s talent that’s no longer here and we just couldn’t re-create it and I felt certain that the building was going to go,” she said.

Before Matthew they’d never had to put any part of the plan into place, and Procopio praises the city of Tybee for keeping everyone on the island well informed in the days leading up to Matthew. Because of that information, she enacted the center’s evacuation plan.

“… (Based on the city’s conversations) I knew we had to make a decision,” she said.

“Our plan consists of reintroducing all of the local indigenous animals and assigning a land reptile and non-native animals to each staff member with care kits. … We had animals from Macon to Atlanta.”

Back on the island after the storm, she and her staff were shocked to find the building dry and in good condition. She gives a lot of credit to the sand dunes that are across the street in front of the building.

“The reason we’re still here is because of the dunes. The dunes did what they’re supposed to do. They saved this building and took a beating,” she said.

The center is still working to restock its animal population, but colder weather and water makes it a little more difficult to find certain species, Procopio said.

“What Matthew did for me was I fell back in love with the science center. And what Matthew did for the science center was gave us a big jump on our offseason project work, so we’re actually ahead of ourselves this year,” she said, adding that the center just recorded its best January since opening.

“Matthew was pretty kind to us.”

Others on the island are having a little more difficulty getting back to normal operations, but with warmer weather and several weekend festivals and parades coming up, owners are optimistic.

“We didn’t have any damage, but it was a pretty tough fall and first part of 2017,” said Susan Kelleher, owner of Seaside Sisters and Seaside Sweets. While business picked up over the Christmas holidays, Kelleher said head counts at her locations were low during January, but things had slowly started looking better.

Kelleher said the recent three-day weekends brought more visitors, and she’s hopeful that Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day festivities will get the momentum back.

“Our economy is driven by tourism, so if it’s not up and ready then it’s going to hurt us, but I’m optimistic for a good spring and summer,” she said.

While most of the hotels and vacation rentals on the island are open and ready to welcome visitors back for the spring and summer, a few are still working through damage caused by Matthew.

Amy Gaster, president of Tybee Vacation Rentals, said that about 100 of the company’s 240 properties sustained damage in October, but they’ve gotten about half of those damaged units repaired.

“Since December we have been hovering around 50 properties that are still undergoing repairs,” Gaster said.

“Most of the damage was from some type of water intrusion – caused from roofing issues, tree damages, and the domino effect of other interior issues that can come about due to water intrusion.”

Repairs on those units are expected to last through April or possibly later, so the spring season looks to be a little slow for the company, but Gaster said looking ahead things are better.

“Our booking pace going into the summer and even fall months is looking strong. Guests are definitely making plans to visit Tybee this year,” she said.

Like the science center, the company has a structured hurricane plan that was enacted before the storm and that preparation and communication are key, Gaster said.

“Solid communications with employees, guests, property owners, the city and fellow business owners are necessary at all points especially during a mandatory evacuation,” she said.

“I believe our team and the city leadership handled the storm as well as possible; however, there are always learning lessons that we will incorporate into our storm plan.”

Although a lot of the businesses on Tybee are getting back to normal, there are those that are still struggling – mainly restaurants and retail shops – and Gaster said the best way to support Tybee is simply to come visit.

“Running a business while also cleaning up after the aftermath presents its own set of challenges. For the most part the Tybee business community, the city and its residents are pretty strong when the going gets tough. Everyone is looking forward to ‘business as usual,’ which hopefully means a strong spring and a busy summer season,” she said.

“We are very thankful that our wonderful island is still here, and we are all looking forward to welcoming our guests back to Tybee in 2017.”