County EMA Director: Force of Irma a 'Lifetime' Experience

'We haven’t experienced anything like this in a lifetime. I have no doubt we had some of the highest tides we’ve ever experienced before.'

by Larry Hobbs, The Brunswick News, Ga. / September 25, 2017

(TNS) — If you tried to pull a stunt like the one Jay Wiggins did on Sept. 11, to get back across the F.J. Torras Causeway during Hurricane Irma, he would probably give you a good scolding.

But the director of Glynn County’s (Ga.,) Emergency Management Agency said he had no choice at the time. Returning from a quick tour of St. Simons Island to assess storm damage, Wiggins drove upon a stretch of causeway that had completely disappeared beneath a swift current of rising storm surge. In his Ford F-250 pickup truck, Wiggins steered close to the concrete barrier along the inside lane while carefully navigating across a football field’s length of submerged roadway. Riding with him were county Public Works Director Dave Austin and County Commissioner Bill Brunson.

Wiggins was more amazed than scared by the encounter. The long-time EMA director and Golden Isles native said he had never before encountered flooding to such a degree in the county.

“The water was just absolutely flowing across the road, like a river,” Wiggins said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve seen the water come up and get high enough to cover two lanes. But I have never seen it get so high that it crossed all four lanes.”

They encountered the flooding in a stretch of road just east of the Back River Bridge, the second of the two large bridges from the island. It is not a maneuver he would condone from the residents he serves. But Wiggins was in a sturdy, elevated truck. And he determined that the three of them were needed back at the Emergency Operations Center back on the mainland.

“I have a very high-profile vehicle and I stayed along the barrier,” Wiggins said. “I got back across the causeway, but I wouldn’t want anybody else doing that. One of the things we teach is don’t drive into water — turn around, don’t drown.”

For Wiggins, the flooded stretch of causeway speaks to the surprising force with which Irma hit the Golden Isles and Coastal Georgia. Original forecasts showed a powerful Hurricane Irma skirting the Georgia coast, similar to Hurricane Matthew’s path last year. This prompted the Glynn County Commission to take Wiggins’ advice and order a countywide mandatory evacuation, which went into effect on the morning of Sept. 8.

Over the weekend, however, a weakening Irma continued to drift farther west, eventually placing Glynn County outside of the National Hurricane Center’s projected cone of uncertainty. Irma eventually landed near Tampa as a hurricane and traveled up Florida over land, entering Georgia as a tropical storm some 100 miles west of the coast. However, the storm was massive in size, and its approach placed the Golden Isles in the direct path of the dangerous northeast quadrant.

As such, Irma slammed Glynn County between the night of Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 afternoon, with nearly 10 inches of rain, record-setting storm surge and wind gusts of up to 77 mph.

“We haven’t experienced anything like this in a lifetime,” Wiggins said. “I have no doubt we had some of the highest tides we’ve ever experienced before. It was a historical event, it really was.”

The storm’s impact was made worse because it coincided with an unrelated Nor’easter that brought heavy rains and stiff winds night of Sept. 9 and throughout Sept. 10. Because of that storm, water was held up in the marsh and on the coast even during low tides, Wiggins said. Compounded with the heavy rains, this contributed to the excessive storm surge, which flooded homes along the coast and the inland marsh.

The National Weather Service measured a storm surge of 6.9 feet above mean high tide at the St. Simons Pier at 11:45 a.m. Sept. 11, after which the gauge stopped working. High tide, however, did not crest on the island until 12:35 p.m., meaning the actual storm surge was almost certainly higher. However, that was enough to break the previous record storm surge of 6.2 feet, measured during Hurricane Matthew last year. The weather service measured a storm surge of 6.2 feet during the day’s previous high tide, which occurred just after midnight.

“The thing I noticed, there never really was a low tide,” Wiggins said. “The tide came in and stayed in for two (tide) cycles. That accounts for a lot of that storm surge.

“It was just such an unusual storm,” he added. “The way it went down, it was difficult to gauge when it was moving through the area.”

Wiggins said Irma presented a greater threat than Hurricane Matthew, which hit the area last October and caused more than $10 million in damages. An estimate of damages from Irma has not yet been calculated.

“They were two different storms,” Wiggins said. “Matthew was more of a wind event, and this was more of a storm surge and fresh water flooding event. But we took the brunt of Irma because of the northeast quadrant and because of the storm surge. You can hide from the wind, but you can’t run from water.”

County officials endured a backlash from many of the residents who heeded the call to evacuate. Some were angry, feeling that they were being prevented from re-entering the county in a timely manner. But Wiggins said he has no regret about the decision.

Between sewage spills, downed utility lines and other hazards, it was imperative that first responders had the opportunity to safeguard the area before the reentry. Residents were permitted to return on Sept. 14.

“There were hazardous, life-threatening conditions,” Wiggins said. “I know that we’ve taken a lot of hits from a lot of people who are upset about it. And I know it sounds overused and trite, but I don’t gamble with money, and I’m certainly not going to gamble with people’s lives. I’d rather be safe than sorry. We wanted it to be safe for all when we allowed people back in.

“I’m so thankful that nobody was hurt, and I’m very glad that people got home safely.”


©2017 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)

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