'It could have been a whole lot worse'
It was far from business as usual on Monday morning in downtown St. Marys.
While most businesses were open, many of them are still cleaning up and assessing the damage from Hurricane Matthew’s brush with the southeast Georgia coast on Friday.
“It could have been a whole lot worse,” said Jerry Brandon, owner of the Riverview Hotel and former mayor.
Brandon said it was not as bad as when Hurricane Dora hit the area in 1964. Back then, they had to use shovels to scoop out the sand and mud that had made its way inside.
This time, it was just a lot of water as high tide hit with the Category 2 hurricane raging just off the coast. And the water drained back out about as quickly as it had come in, he said.
The lobby floor tiles were clean and gleaming white by the end of the weekend, but the heart pine floors in the saloon area are already starting to warp and buckle. The Brandons’ personal residence in the back of the building is unlivable, Gaila Brandon said.
On Monday, they were in the process of reaching their insurance carrier to see if they are covered for the damages.
The Riverview Hotel has withstood every storm since it was built on the St. Marys waterfront 100 years ago. It not only sheltered Jerry and Gaila Brandon over the weekend, but also many of their friends and others who needed a haven from the storm.
“We were open. I’ll have the dining room back open today. The bar never closed,” Gaila said Monday.
Anticipating a loss of power as the storm approached, she served free food to their guests as they waited — at least until power gave out.
“This place could have been looted so that is the only reason we stayed,” Gaila said.
Many others in Camden County decided to stay, despite mandatory evacuations that were called by local emergency management officials and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
Others scrambled to find hotel rooms inland, which were largely booked up by Wednesday due to evacuations already called in other states. The American Red Cross also set up shelters outside the county to take evacuees.
To help citizens, the county employed a hotline for the storm, which county administrator Steve Howard said was helpful in keeping people informed. Some just needed a person to talk, he added.
Howard said he even took a shift on the switchboard.
“I was answering calls until 12:30 a.m. (Friday night),” he said.
Deal visited southeast Georgia Sunday afternoon to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew and speak with local officials.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we did not suffer the damage that could have been our fate and for that I’m very, very grateful,” Deal said in a Glynn County news conference with U.S. senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, U.S Rep. Buddy Carter and local officials, including state Rep. Jason Spencer and Kingsland Mayor Kenneth Smith.
Deal thanked Georgians for heeding the evacuation order and emergency crews and those operating shelters for responding to the storm and The Salvation Army for feeding people. He also thanked Georgia Department of Transportation employees for inspecting 180 bridges, which were all determined to be safe, Saturday as part of the re-entry efforts.
Carter also thanked first responders and asked for residents to be patient as power was restored and clean up continued.
“This was a real tragedy in a lot of ways but thanks to the great leadership of the governor and the teamwork that we saw with all the different agencies, we were able to survive this with minimal damage. And we are very fortunate,” Carter said. “… The clean up is going to be tough, so let me encourage everyone to be patient. We’re doing the best that we can. We’ve got crews out. The power will be restored. Everything will get back to normal but it’s going to take time.”
Georgia dodged a major bullet, Perdue said.
“We’re just blessed today that we had no more loss of life than we had,” Perdue said.
Isakson noted, too, that Hurricane Matthew could have wreaked more havoc.
“In a way, we’re very lucky,” Isakson said. “Any hurricane that hits your state is a bad hurricane. We could have had worse damage.”
As of Monday, power had been restored to almost all county residents. Water and sewer systems were fully operational and Kingsland had lifted the boil order it called on Saturday.
Without power, water/sewer systems could not operate at capacity and hospitals could not safely open. This was a major factor in the timeline for reopening the county to returning evacuees, said county administrator Steve Howard, during an interview on Saturday.
Although the National Guard and other visiting agencies have been assisting local law enforcement officers since the storm, Camden County residents were not prevented from re-entering the county. However, those who did found that their movements were impeded by downed limbs and power lines, closed bridges and safety barricades. Most of that had been cleared by Sunday.
As an additional measure to help secure unoccupied homes of evacuees, Sheriff Jim Proctor mandated a curfew on Saturday and Sunday from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
In advance of the storm, most prisoners from the Camden County jail were evacuated to other jails. However, Proctor noted that some inmates who had misdemeanor charges were released on their own recognizance. None were violent offenders and the chief Superior Court judge approved their release, he added.
Back to normal
Camden County students headed back to school Tuesday, and a faculty workday scheduled for Monday was held as planned.
It may take a while for all of the debris to be cleared from the area. Fallen trees and tree limbs damaged several area homes. Cumberland Island Nationa Seashore has been closed until further notice while damage is assessed and clean up is underway. It may be weeks before the national park re-opens. Those with reservations can call 877-860-6787 to ask about a refund or transfer.
To help with the cleanup, a Facebook page called “Hurricane Matthew Cleanup Volunteers-Camden” has been established to help match up community volunteers with people who need help clearing their properties and repairing damages.