Chris Sweat stood in the middle of Beach Drive early Monday afternoon on high ground, looking down at the Atlantic Ocean surging over the section of Myrtle Street he calls home.
But Sweat had already managed to move his prized Jeep Wrangler, with its Dukes of Hazzard paint job, to higher ground. And his black Lab, Jesup, sat safely, high and dry, in the passenger seat.
The Hurricane Irma-induced flooding that accompanied Monday’s 12:35 p.m. high tide and brought flooding to St. Simons Island and throughout the Golden Isles, but Sweat wasn’t terribly concerned with what he might have lost in the flooding.
“I’m good, man,” the 27-year-old said. “We got flooded bad down there and I lost some things, sure, but Jesup is safe and I’ve got what matters.”
Stories of flooding, high winds and property damage like this unfolded all over the Golden Isles Sunday night and into Monday afternoon, brought on by a deluge of rainfall, brute-force wind gusts and a record-breaking storm surge.
Although Irma passed through Georgia about 100 miles west of the coast as a weakening tropical storm, it looked a lot like a hurricane plowed through here. Massive oaks toppled, power outages were widespread and flooded neighborhoods and streets were reported from St. Simons Island to Jekyll Island and from downtown Brunswick out to Marshes of Mackay in northern Glynn County and beyond.
Glynn County officials closed the F.J. Torras Causeway, extended the midnight to 6 a.m. curfew, and Gov. Nathan Deal called in the Georgia National Guard to monitor and control re-entry into the county for residents who heeded the mandatory evacuation order.
Between Irma and an unrelated nor’easter that arrived Saturday, nearly 10 inches of rain drenched Glynn County between Sunday and Monday afternoon around 3 p.m., said Nate McGinnis, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.
The weather service recorded 9.99 inches of rain at a gauge 3 miles south of Morningstar Youth Estate. Another gauge 5 miles southeast of Thalman recorded 9.91 inches of rain, McGinnis said.
The weather station on St. Simons Island stopped working due to conditions at 2:27 a.m., however, the weather service measured a hurricane-force gust of 77 mph on Jekyll Island at 4:27 a.m. Monday. Wind gusts of 60 mph were recorded at the Brunswick Golden Isles Airport, McGinnis said. Even at 9:27 a.m., the weather service recorded on Jekyll Island a gust of 70 mph, just 4 mph short of hurricane force.
With the ground saturated and winds blowing, trees began toppling across the Golden Isles. Massive trees completely blocked Kings Way on St. Simons Island and hindered passage on Demere Road. In Old Town Brunswick, ancient live oaks split in two and maple trees dropped limbs the size of whole trees. On campus at College of Coastal Georgia on Fourth Street, a tree split into three pieces.
One towering pine fell all the way across Mallery Street, its top limbs landing on the steps of the chapel of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church.
Then came Monday’s storm surge. As winds began to pick up late Sunday evening, the high tide that arrived on the coast just after midnight brought a storm surge of 6.2 feet above mean high tide. The surge created waves spilling onto streets along the beach, such as Ocean Boulevard.
But the storm surge that accompanied the next high tide shortly after noon Monday kept rising farther inland and brought widespread flooding. On the mainland, the surge pushed its way over the city docks at Mary Ross Waterfront Park and inundated the parking lot next door to Brunswick Landing Marina. An image on social media showed a kayaker paddling through a parking lot at the Brunswick West Shopping Center.
The storm surge, as measured by a weather service gauge at the St. Simons Pier, had reached 6.9 feet by 11:45 a.m. — nearly an hour before high tide would crest at 12:35 p.m. The gauge stopped working at that point, meaning the surge will prove to be even greater when finally calculated. But that surge was still enough to break the record of 6.2 feet set last October during Hurricane Matthew.
All this was brought on by a hurricane that had dropped to a tropical storm by the time it reached Georgia, passing far west of the coast, McGinnis said. That is why forecasters and county officials urged residents not to let their guards down just because Irma’s track continued to drift farther west. Glynn County also found itself square in the face of Irma’s northeast quadrant, the region that most often bears the brunt of a hurricane.
“That’s why sometimes the eye of a storm doesn’t mean a whole lot, especially in a huge system like this,” McGinnis said.
Sweat was convinced. He was still waiting out a close call with a crashing water oak earlier Monday morning at his boss' house in the island’s Oglethorpe Park neighborhood. They were outside the house inspecting damage when the snap of a breaking tree cut through the howling wind and rain.
“It was a big old tree,” Sweat said. “We were walking through there, then we stopped. All of the sudden — ‘Crack! Crack!’ It fell right next to us. Then we thought, enough of this, it’s time to get inside.”
The tide surged swiftly up to the point where Beach and Myrtle Streets meet, a full three blocks from the ocean. A crowd gathered at the edge of the water in the 500 block of Beach Drive — folks in trucks, riding golf carts and some on foot. They were hoping to check on friends or property and some were just downright curious.
Below them, the streets and property lines disappeared beneath the water and john boats became the best mode of travel.
Curt Howser was on a mission to retrieve a friend and her dog, but he would not risk his building company’s Ford F250 in those waters. He walked in with rubber boots, first carrying the friend’s sheep dog to higher ground, followed by his friend.
“I’m going to try to rescue a friend who is stuck in her house on Peachtree Street,” he said. “Speaking for myself, you hear about all this storm surge stuff and you think, ‘yeah right.’ Well — it’s for real.”