‘AS DANGEROUS AS A HURRICANE’: Mayor, City Manager address Orange Crush failures & future plans at fiery Tybee town hall meeting


“Boom. Boom. Boom.”

That’s the way Tybee Island City Manager Shawn Gillen described frantic phone calls to medics from Tybee’s beach on Saturday, April 22 during Orange Crush, an annual spring break-esque getaway for HBCU students across the southeast. The phone calls were requesting Narcan (a medicine to help people overdosing on an opioid) at a rapid rate for 20-somethings on the beach, seemingly dropping left and right during a chaotic period of time for scrambling Tybee Island city officials.

“It was one after another,” Gillen said of the calls during a Tybee Island Town Hall meeting held Thursday, May 4 with residents, the mayor and Tybee’s City Council in attendance. “An unresponsive 21-year-old here and then a 21-year-old male and a 21-year-old female overdosing. All of it within 30 minutes (on Saturday afternoon).”

“We never reached a point where we were out of Narcan, or shorthanded with it. But, we had to request more early on because of the pace at which these calls were coming in. The numbers are scary.”

Over the weekend (Friday, April 21 — Sunday, April 23), Tybee says it received 336 calls for service as 111,000 people came onto the island over the three-day period. Between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 22, Gillen said that roughly 7,000 cars passed onto Tybee. On Saturday alone, 48,000 people descended on the beach.

“I was angry. I was mad. I thought it was disrespectful like many of our citizens did,” said Sessions at the beginning of the town hall. “It was an event that got way out of hand. So to the other municipalities and governments, I would just say that Tybee is taking the hit for this, but it’s bigger than just Tybee. Tybee can’t handle these kinds of events on our own.”

The mayor directly addressed nearby City of Savannah leaders as well as state lawmakers and Chatham County officials.

“You can’t hide from this any longer. We need help.”

An elected body, Tybee’s City Council consists of Sessions and six elected City Council members. The current council is Barry Brown, Brian West, Monty Parks, Spec Hosti, Nancy DeVetter and Jay Burke. All were present at Thursday’s two-hour town hall meeting, officially designated as a “Town Hall Meeting on Large Unpermitted Events.” So too were Tybee Police Chief Tiffany Hayes and Fire Chief Jeremy Kendrick.

City Council members serve four-year terms in a staggered election cycle where three seats are up for reelection every two years. Mayors serve four-year terms, and Sessions is up for reelection in November. So too are council members Brown, DeVetter and Burke. The council is responsible for appointing City Managers, including Gillen.

The first speaker in the citizen open forum portion of the meeting was directly aimed at GIllen.

“My question is,” the female speaker said into the mic. “When are you going to resign Shawn?”

A mood of frustration from the residents did not bubble over into any other contentious moments of note, but Gillen was quick to take any and all blame for failures that resulted in gridlock, crime and more problems for the island. On Saturday, while 40,000 people partied on the island, Tybee Police made 18 arrests in total.

“Not only am I responsible,” Gillen said. “But I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We need to take a much more aggressive approach. When we have several instances of gunfire and we have overdoses and street racing all night long … It was awful. It puts our residents on edge.” 

The region – and the country – tracked the Orange Crush happenings mostly through social media images and videos showing large, rowdy crowds packed into small areas on Tybee. Social media is also the place where the event was first organized and promoted. Posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, one from as early as March 11, show that event organizers – a tough title to assign to anyone for an event that was never permitted officially – promoting the Orange Crush 2023 party to their thousands of followers.

Tickets to the event (Tybee is a free, public beach for which tickets are not needed) were sold and purchased on Eventbrite, a site designed to sell tickets for events by connecting promoters and party-goers. Still, Sessions said on Thursday that she won’t acknowledge the forum.

“The one thing I won’t do,” Sessions said in her opening statement. “I won’t get involved in social media. I think social media has made this much worse.”

Gillen’s presentation included six categories of questions/concerns: Pre-Planning, Traffic, Legal, Communications, Community Safety and Future Safety. In the future planning portion, the goal of the Tybee government was clear: Plan for future Orange Crush events as if they were natural disasters.

“This is as dangerous to Tybee as a hurricane,” Gillen said. “Just like hurricanes, we prepare. We’re going to be prepared and get ready for it to hit us. If it misses us, then thank God.”

About The Author

Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon has been writing in Savannah since 2016 and is host of Hot Grits Podcast. Follow Travis on Twitter/Instagram @JaudonSports. Email him at travisLjaudon@gmail.com
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