Valdosta works to recover from tropical storm

VALDOSTA — Tropical storm Hermine was gone by 11 a.m. Friday, leaving many south Georgia residents breathing a sigh of relief that the worst had passed.

Even so, there’s still a few hundred trees down - some crashing into houses, cars and garages. And some 20,000 people who lost power won’t be seeing the lights come back on till tomorrow or the next day.

But emergency management officials say they’ve received no reports of major injuries, widespread damage or significant displacements.

In the world of hurricane management, that is the equivalent of no hits, runs or errors.

“We ducked the big one,” said Paige Dukes, spokeswoman for the Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency.

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The storm simply petered out, she said. As she sat in the emergency management center - with its big digital maps and lines of desks - personnel from the sheriffs office and other agencies were happily standing down, satisfied that their sleepless night had ended well.

Outside, what had been hours of hard rains and wild winds had morphed into a serene day.

Still, work remains. County crews continue to comb the streets removing downed trees and scads of tree limbs.

With power out, dangers persist in that many traffic lights are out. Several accidents were reported but no major injuries, Dukes said.

The communal sigh of relief follows days of high anxiety here. Valdosta had already had several days of rain that soaked the ground and weakened the grip of trees onto the soil. The fear was that a big hurricane would tear them down all over.

For now, after about six inches of rain, the shelter which drew about 70 people was seeing them go home.

Cars are coming back into the roads.

And the dark clouds are floating out if town.

Early Friday morning, the sky turned a fire hose on this city, knocking out power, sending scores of people to a shelter and blowing down trees onto roofs.

People huddled in their homes could hear, if not feel, the wind and rain scratching and pushing at their walls. The driving winds were blowing hard at the trees and everything else.

“Getting pounded. We’re hiding in the bathroom,” Brandi Sellars said on the Facebook page set up for the storm by the county early Friday. “My stomach is in knots. And no power.”

Even though the storm called Hermine was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, few people ventured outside in the sustained 50-mph winds. Power was out to 20,000 residents across Lowndes County, emergency management spokeswoman Paige Dukes said.

“Trees and power lines are still going down,” she said. “Right now we’re in the hardest part for us.”

Hurricane Hermine roared ashore at Florida’s Big Bend at 1:30 a.m. Friday, packing 80-mph winds. The National Hurricane Center said it made landfall at St. Marks, due south of Tallahassee at the “bend” where Florida’s Panhandle meets its Peninsula.

It was downgraded to a tropical storm just before 5 a.m.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said a homeless man was killed when a tree fell on him as he was sleeping in a tent near Ocala in central Florida.

In South Georgia, anxiety was high as the storm approached. The area was under a tornado watch through the night. Schools closed. Moody Air Force Base relocated planes.

About 70 people, a mix of those from mobile homes, hard-hit areas and homeless people, sought refuge at a shelter set up in the Mathis Municipal Auditorium, which lost power about 5 a.m. Generators were quickly brought in.

After a restless night sleeping — or not sleeping — on cots, many are gathered in the couches and chairs in the front lobby. They pull bananas, apples and fast food sandwiches from boxes on a big table. And they sit trying to pass the hours as they watch the storm through the big glass doors.

Curtis Cain, 35, from nearby Naylor, said he loaded up his wife and children Thursday night when the water became ankle deep in the yard of his mobile home park.

“I don’t want to be one of those people who waits too long,” he said. “My wife was deathly scared.”

His wife, Cynthia, couldn’t turn off her mothering instincts at the shelter. She was helping calm the children of other families, handing out coloring books and playing with them.

“What can you do when your community is in a crisis?” she said. “What can you do?”

Evelyn Salazar is only 9, but she fully understood the reason that her family came to the shelter.

“They were scared the hurricane would destroy the house,” she said.

Outside, the storm rose and fell in intensity. Sometimes it seemed like it was dying down and then the wind would start whipping everything around again.

David Schultz, 35, helped set up the cots. He’s had some experience with this, having served several tours in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he’s homeless.

He was afraid he’d have to pass the storm hanging around gas stations. But when he finished up some construction work he heard about the shelter.

“This is good,” he said.

Chad Corbitt, 29, sat in the hotel lobby, his feet propped up and a laptop opened to check the weather. He lives in Jacksonville and had been waiting for a flight out of Atlanta on Thursday that was “delayed, delayed, delayed.”

Finally, he rented a car and headed out, making it this far.

Brian Johnson, heading with his wife and two kids from Sarasota, Fla., to North Georgia, had hoped to outrun the rain but found themselves smack in it.

“We stopped and got a hotel room,” he said. “We didn’t want to risk it.”

Nance Storey and her co-workers at Denny’s were talking about tornadoes and power outages.

Storey’s flight on Friday to Atlanta was canceled. And the flight from there to California had been delayed.

John Paul Link, 40, is homeless and he had been looking at the prospect of riding out the storm in the woods. At about 4 p.m. Thursday, with the rain coming down, he started talking to a stranger as he was walking down the street.

“He noticed my backpack. And he asked if I had a place,” he said. “I said, ‘No, I’m homeless.’ He gave me money for a hotel.”

He added, “I’m very blessed. But I’m worried about my friend Kelly. She’s in the woods and she had a stroke three months ago.”

Krystal Nash, 39, just pulled into the city, having driven from Fayetteville for a birthday party. At times, she said, “You couldn’t hardly see. I put my hazards (lights) on just to get up the road.”

She said she saw lots of trees down, some roads closed and lights out by the mall. Still, the party is still on.

Nate Jones stood outside under the awning of the Hilton hotel, trying to figure out if he was expected at work. The wind whipped the trees mightily and the rain rushed down the road in sheets. He just started working at the local company that makes aviation batteries and he didn’t want to miss work.

“I was in (Hurricane) Katrina. This is nothing compared to Katrina,” he said.

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