I still vividly remember the day I moved to Savannah. It was October 2, 2007, and I had just been hired as WSAV’s chief meteorologist. I was moving my whole family from Michigan. It was my chance to return to the south… a place of heat, sun… and hurricanes.
As I was driving on I-16, I saw the barricades for the first time. That’s when it hit me… I’m responsible for hurricane monitoring. I am responsible for saving lives. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this scares me. I have followed my fair share of tornadoes and lake effect snow, but have had very little experience with hurricanes.
But to be honest… no one else here really had it either.
The last time the Savannah area was directly affected by a hurricane was in 1979 with Hurricane David. So when the 2016 hurricane season hit, we were all set to take a ride.
See, it wasn’t just Matthew. We were also touched by Hermine. It hit us over Labor Day weekend.
Houses were damaged. The Savannah area saw a wind gust of up to 63 mph and 3 to 4 inches of rain. It wasn’t a terrible storm, but damn it, we ended up with so many power outages and downed trees. The trees were easily felled because we had gone so long without a real blow… 1979-2016 is quite a long time!
So it was a good exercise for us as a storm team. We had Hermine covered well, but we were exhausted when he left.
We had no idea that a much bigger storm was on the way a month later.
Hurricane Matthew started as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa on Sunday, September 25. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, it would soon become a Category 5 hurricane. It caused extensive damage. A total of 1,000 deaths have been attributed to Matthew. It is the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Stan of 2005.
On Tuesday, October 4, Matthew was a Category 4 hurricane, affecting eastern Cuba and Haiti. Reportedly, 80 percent of buildings in Haiti were destroyed, crops were devastated, and many towns and villages were inundated with several feet of water.
At the time, I had a good feeling that we were going to have something. The latest weather models are out and I remember running over to my boss and telling him… that could be it. We immediately got the station ready to go.
I called my mom right away and told her you had to start packing for Alabama, and I would like you and the kids to go tonight. (She later admitted that the neighbors in Savannah laughed at her because she was gone so early. They knew what I did for a living and told her people were always wrong and Savannah is always missed. storms.)
Well, Matthew hit the Coastal Empire and the Lowcountry on Friday and Saturday. We basically had two days to get ready at the station before the kick off.
WSAV is located on Victory Drive in Savannah, and we are flooding even during a normal summer thunderstorm. We had to make the decision to pack the whole station and report from Statesboro… or just send a crew to Statesboro in case we lost power in Savannah. After an intense meeting in my GM’s office, we decided to send only one team to Statesboro. Most of the WSAV would stay in Savannah.
We had four meteorologists at the time… Lee Haywood, Kyle Dennis, Ariella Scalese and myself. We decided that Lee would be the one to go to Statesboro on Friday.
The crews were divided. The teams were given missions. Anxiety was felt throughout the station.
Even driving home Thursday after the last newscast was an experience. At this point, a mandatory evacuation had been ordered.
As I drove home on Wilmington Island, it was a ghost town. No one was in my neighborhood. Anybody. When you come home, it should be a place of comfort. It should be a place you walk in and say… relax… you get it. Instead, it was a reminder of the gravity of the situation. I remember packing a suitcase that night and trying to sleep. I turned and returned. When I got up on Friday I put on my best dress and said over and over… you get it.
I went on the air on Friday around 11:30 am. My adrenaline was high. So high, in fact, that my boss walked into the studio and told me to relax. He said… if you stay at this intensity, you won’t. I then took a deep breath and said… you’re right… you have to talk like you’re talking to your best friend and keep it simple and slow. Staying calm is the key.
At this point, Kyle and Ariella were on break to rest. 12 hours on it. 12 hours of rest. Lee was based in Statesboro and was able to give some updates.
Then things really started to pick up speed.
On Friday night, the eye of Hurricane Matthew moved along the Florida coast but remained offshore. The storm surge, however, caused high tides in St. Augustine, Florida in the afternoon, sending water over the city’s sea wall. Ormond Beach and Jacksonville, Florida also experienced flooding due to high tides.
Florida was spared catastrophic damage, but winds and flooding left five people dead in the state. As of Friday afternoon, around 1 million Florida residents were without power as winds of 110 mph were as Matthew gathered pace and was placed in Category 2.
We lost connection with the Statesboro team, so I was left alone. I was on the air for 18 straight hours. I used the bathroom twice and ate a bag of Cheetos the entire shift.
When the eye wall approached after midnight, I had to wake Kyle and Ariella up for help.
Savannah experienced extensive flooding as the eye of Hurricane Matthew moved north off the Georgian coast. Savannah experienced the largest storm surge since the 1800s – a peak of 5.1 feet ABOVE the highest average tides at Fort Pulaski. Tybee saw sustained winds of 75 mph, which corresponds to the Category 1 hurricane wind status.
At Hilton Head, the highest wind speed was 88 mph. Total precipitation was 14.04 inches.
I could hear the winds howling outside. I was getting messages from viewers of those who decided not to evacuate. Many were terrified. During all of this, I kept saying… keep calm. I also chose not to go out. I didn’t want to see what was going on. I wanted to keep my calm. I was worried that if I saw something bad outside, I wouldn’t be able to keep going at the same pace.
Finally, around 5 a.m., I got out of the air and slept on the floor for a few hours. When I woke up, I was back… on the air. The storm was gone, but storm reports were coming in.
Lee was now trying to get back from Statesboro. Unfortunately, Bulloch County had many felled trees. Not only did it take hours to get back to Savannah, Lee crashed someone in his car!
When Lee was finally able to return, I took a real break. I got in my car and drove to a friend’s house in Ardsley Park. As I walked down Victory Drive, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Trees were everywhere. Power lines out of order. I couldn’t tell what I was driving on. It was then that the emotions hit. I started to cry… really cry. Savannah has been hit pretty hard.
My friend greeted me with a glass of wine and I was able to have a nice long hot shower and a good night’s sleep. She had remarkable power! She was the only one in her neighborhood with power!
Eventually I was able to return to Wilmington Island, only to find that my house had been flooded and the roof had collapsed from all the heavy rains. I was a tenant at the time. My landlord told me it was better to find another place to live. So I went from Matthew’s blanket to finding a new home. We then moved three days later.
Looking back, I think Matthew has aged me! I was extremely exhausted from predicting it… following it… then getting over it. But it could have been much worse.
Our area has experienced much larger storms than Matthew, but these larger storms hit in the 1890s.
In the end, we only got a glimpse of what Mother Nature can do.