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As Hurricane Florence Approaches, Some In Georgia Are Struggling To Recover From Irma

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The threats of dangerous storm surges and flooding have been growing worse because of the warming climate and rising sea levels. Molly Samuel of member station WABE reports on one place still struggling to recover from Hurricane Irma, which made landfall a year ago today.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Tybee Island is a popular beach destination near Savannah. Fran Galloway lives here full-time in a little 1950s bungalow. But for the last year, she's been living with the studs in her walls exposed.

FRAN GALLOWAY: I'm sort of like glamping out here (laughter).

SAMUEL: She's doing that because she was flooded by Irma last year and hasn't finished rebuilding. During that storm, she remembers watching from a neighbor's house as waves washed into hers.

GALLOWAY: It was so surreal because you saw this water coming, in rolling in like a lake, just rolling in. And it kept getting higher and higher.

SAMUEL: This was actually the third time in three years that Galloway's house had flooded. Hurricane Matthew had hit her, too, in 2016. But it doesn't take a major storm to flood Tybee Island anymore. In 2015, Galloway's house was flooded by an exceptionally high tide called a king tide. And floods like that with no storm attached are becoming more common because the sea level is rising here. A tide gauge near Galloway's house shows it. In the last 80 years, the sea level here has gone up by about 9 inches.

JASON BUELTERMAN: Whatever the cause of it is, it's happening. And so we're just going to have to deal with it.

SAMUEL: Jason Buelterman is the mayor of Tybee Island. He says it's not just people's homes that are affected. Beaches erode. Storm water sewers flood. So does the only road connecting the island to the mainland. Sometimes ambulances can't get on and off the island. And it affects commutes, including Buelterman's to his other job at a high school.

BUELTERMAN: I've had issues where I couldn't get into work on time. I mean, there are not many people in America they can't get into work because a tide covers the roadway.

SAMUEL: The island is doing what it can. Former City Councilman Paul Wolff takes me to see a beach.

PAUL WOLFF: What we're looking at is a new configuration of sand fence.

SAMUEL: This zigzag of wood and wire fencing is meant to catch the sand and build up the dunes. Wolff says that will protect the homes behind them.

WOLFF: This is our first line of defense against storm surge. We've got to do everything we can to build these dunes and keep them where they are.

SAMUEL: Tybee has also upgraded some storm water sewers so they won't flood with salt water. And the Georgia Department of Transportation is repaving highway 80, the road on and off the island, so that it won't flood as often. But federal data show the best-case scenario for sea level rise here is another 3 feet by the end of the century, the worst-case 6 feet. Most of this island would be under water.

GALLOWAY: The reality is nature - it's going to win, and we all know that.

SAMUEL: Fran Galloway says she doesn't think she'd be able to sell her house with all the flooding, so she's waiting to hear if the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help pay to get her house lifted up on stilts.

GALLOWAY: We got to be raised. I mean, we just have to.

SAMUEL: That's why she hasn't finished rebuilding since Hurricane Irma - because her house will have to be nearly gutted again to get raised up. She says a lot of people in her neighborhood are in that kind of limbo right now. Still, she says she loves it here on Tybee.

GALLOWAY: Beautiful blue herons fly over there. I've seen a eagle, otters at play, dolphins. It's paradise.

SAMUEL: Even if it's a little like being trapped in paradise. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel on Tybee Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.