Camden takes a beating from Irma; recovery continues slowly

For the storm-weary survivors in Camden County, there will be time to swap hurricane survival stories later. For now, three days after Hurricane Irma unloaded water and wind on southeast Georgia, recovery mode is well under way. 

It didn’t take long to hear the roar of chainsaws on Monday and Tuesday, as the residents who stayed behind grabbed their tools and got to work cleaning up their yards and neighborhoods — some of them banding together as informal work crews.

One of those work crews responded Monday to the home of Charlene Sears, executive director of The Salvation Army in St. Marys. She is usually one of the people providing disaster aid to others, but on this day she had a disaster of her own. 

“A ‘ginormous’ oak fell on my home (Monday morning),” she said. 

As she sat there in disbelief looking at her house, a handful of people she knew showed up on her doorstep with a backhoe and chainsaws, ready to go to work. 

“My eyes burst with tears each time I think about what you did for me today,” she wrote on her Facebook page. 

Once Sears got her home in order, she could then go about her work in helping others with their disaster needs. 

This kind of generosity by fellow citizens was evident before the storm as several local landscapers and tradesmen offered to board up windows and batten down the hatches for total strangers in their community who needed help.  

A community on hold

Hurricane Irma flooded dozens of homes and as of Wednesday, many residents were still waiting for power or utilities to be restored. A county advisory on Tuesday reported nearly 14,000 households in Camden were still without electricity.  

According to Steve Howard, power companies serving Camden said they will first be focusing on critical infrastructure and then will begin repairing downed lines throughout the neighborhoods. 

The National Guard as well as the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s Incident Command Unit also have been deployed to Camden to assist with recovery efforts. 

Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens also was slated to tour Camden and Glynn on Wednesday morning. Camden Sheriff Jim Proctor toured Camden by helicopter Wednesday afternoon with Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Williams

A curfew of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. has been in place since the hurricane hit. 

County administrator Steve Howard said there is still plenty of infrastructure assessment that has to be conducted before a damage estimate can be reached. 

By Wednesday evening, the county had reached phases two and three of its re-entry plan, which is detailed in the Camden County storm preparedness guide, available on the county’s website. The county’s administrative offices have been closed all week. 

Those who evacuated were given the go-ahead to return to the county late Wednesday. Camden County schools and government offices will remain closed until Monday.

With water and sewer systems partially operational, officials had worried that an influx of returning evacuees would overwhelm the system and force them to shut it down completely. 

According to the county, 43 of 70 lift stations in Kingsland and 35 of 75 stations in St. Marys were running as of Tuesday afternoon. 

“Please limit water use at home to prevent and reduce the risk of sewer system backups. This includes the use of dishwashers, sinks, washing machines, showers and toilets,” according to a statement from the city of Kingsland, where many of the homes were still without water and sewer service. 

The wreckage

The entire region was battered, along with most of Georgia and Florida along with it, as gusts nearing 100 miles per hour raged along the coast from late Sunday night into Monday afternoon. 

Following a tornado warning near the Georgia-Florida state line around 2:30 a.m., several large oak trees in downtown St. Marys were twisted and crumpled. Many others throughout the county fell due to the sheer force of sustained wind and unrelenting gusts. 

The combination of a nor’easter off the Atlantic coast, a full moon and high tide caused minor flooding on Sunday before the hurricane arrived. Wind and waves came later, wreaking havoc on the boats at the St. Marys waterfront. 

Floating docks from both Lang’s Marina East and West apparently broke free from their tethers, sending boats crashing into the National Park Service Visitor Center property and into the marsh just upriver from Howard Gilman Memorial Park. A large cabin cruiser came to rest near the pavilion where Cumberland Island visitors wait for transport. 

Cumberland Island National Seashore has been closed until further notice while staff assess storm damage. All camping reservations have been canceled through Wednesday, Sept. 20.

On Monday after the storm subsided, at least one person in a life jacket could be seen walking around the pod of tangled boats in the marsh at the St. Marys waterfront. According to Lt. Shannon Brock of the St. Marys Police Department, there were a few people who rode out the storm on their boats. Those that were anchored out in the channel, away from the marinas appeared to fare the best. 

Most of the ferry boats from Lang’s Marina were taken upriver for safe keeping during the storm, but their docks have since been destroyed. The ferries were able to return Wednesday to another dock.

Styrofoam from the errant docks disintegrated as they churned against the St. Marys riverbank, giving St. Marys Street an oddly “snow-covered” appearance.

In a moment of levity following the storm, former mayor Jerry Brandon, who operates Riverview Hotel at the waterfront, and some friends built a snowman from the white stuff after the storm passed. 

Also permeating the riverfront was the smell of diesel, presumably from the boats that were lost in the storm. 

You didn’t have to live along the waterfront to be affected by flooding. Drainage systems in some low-lying neighborhoods, such as The Meadows, Lake Jordan, Lake Wisteria, Summerfield, Wolf Bay, Woodhaven and May Creek in Kingsland, were inundated by storm water when the inches of rain continued to fall. 

Helping storm victims

Shelters have been set up at local churches to help those who were displaced by the storm. Howard said there were not a lot of people being served at the shelters right now. Many of the storm victims have family nearby they can stay with, he said. 

“As of yesterday, there weren’t a whole lot of people using the shelters. When people come back to town, we may have some issues,” Howard said, noting that many evacuees don’t currently know what conditions their homes are in. 

The county sent five buses to the affected areas to transport them to available shelters and sent deputies and officers with bullhorns to seek out those who may have still been inside the homes. 

“We have a large military population and they tend to heed warnings and evacuation orders pretty well,” Howard said. 

The county and cities may have more demand for services as those people arrive back in Camden. 

Anyone needing help is urged to call the Camden County information line at (912) 576-3800. Howard said he is copied on those calls and that line has helped them provide aid or rescue to several callers. 

“I think we fared pretty well overall,” Howard added. 

Those who are using the shelters are not likely to go hungry. When Helping Hands Food Pantry lost power in downtown St. Marys, they had to find a quick use for 500 pounds of frozen meat. Some of it was prepared to serve first-responders and those displaced by the storm. 

The Salvation Army in St. Marys also geared up this week with its mobile canteen and had several others from outside of the area lined up to arrive. The canteens are stocked with fresh food and drinks daily. 

“We hope to send multiple feeding units in the coming days to support the residents of each community who need help and hope,” said Sears. “Our love and prayers go out to each person affected by Hurricane Irma.”

Those who wish to support their efforts can donate online at helpsalvationarmy.org, by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY or by texting STORM to 51555. Normal texting charges apply.

Although the grocery stores are now opened, some of them also suffered losses. The St. Marys Winn-Dixie had to dispose of its entire stock of refrigerated and frozen foods. And while perishable food was available at some of those stores, many shoppers did not have power in their homes to refrigerate or cook anything. 

Safety first

Local governments are advising citizens of the many hidden dangers that still exist because of the storm. 

For example, those who are using generators should place them at least 20 feet outside the home, and garage, in a well-ventilated area. Many also do not consider gas lines, which can be damaged by fallen trees or by vehicles driving over soft, water-soaked ground. 

Standing water also presents a variety of hazards and should be avoided. Downed power lines can be hidden in standing water, which presents an electrocution hazard. 

“Avoid walking or driving through standing water or letting children play in standing water,” stated a release from Kingsland Police Department. “Residents should always exercise extreme caution when leaving the home for any reason.”

Although many residents who stayed in Camden are getting anxious being cooped up in homes without electricity or other basic needs, officials advise that it is safer and wiser to stay close to home for a few more days.

Tribune & Georgian

Mailing Address:
P.O. Box 6960
St. Marys, GA 31558

Phone: 912-882-4927
Fax: 912-882-6519