Storm shelters turn strangers into survival allies

Markita Riley and her 2-month-old daughter Amaris from Brunswick, Ga., prepare to spend the night in a Red Cross shelter in Macon on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, as Hurricane Matthew hits the coast. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

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Markita Riley and her 2-month-old daughter Amaris from Brunswick, Ga., prepare to spend the night in a Red Cross shelter in Macon on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, as Hurricane Matthew hits the coast. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Staff writer Jewel Wicker contributed to this article.

As night fell Friday and Hurricane Matthew raged toward Georgia, Red Cross officials in Macon raced to take in more people fleeing the storm.

At the Red Cross Shelter on the Hephzibah Ministries campus, about 50 people sat waiting in the lobby Friday afternoon, hoping to get the last remaining cots. Among those waiting: 2-week-old Eva Renee Smith and nearly two dozen of her relatives who drove from Ellabell, a town 15 miles west of Savannah.

At 5 p.m., the shelter was nearing its capacity. Outside, Red Cross and Emergency Management Agency workers’ walkie-talkies and phones squawked as they worked to get more beds for the shelter and set up a third one in the area.

In the gymnasium, Red Cross workers hustled to set up more cots. Nearby, 102-year-old Susie Way sat savoring a lollipop. Her granddaughter Ja'Briel Walthour hovered protectively. They had made the trek from the Hinesville/Fort Stewart area.

“It’s a rough situation,” said Rusty Bissell, lead pastor at 4 Life Church, which meets in the cafeteria on the Hephzibah Ministries campus. The ministry runs a children’s home. Bissell came to the Red Cross shelter set up in the children’s gymnasium on the campus to offer his help.

“They’re displaced. It’s heartbreaking,” Bissell said. “They don’t know when or if they’ll get back home and it’s an open room of strangers. There’s no privacy. They’re kind of lost in a way. Most have not been through this before.”

The storm barreling toward Georgia had brought together a collection of strangers who otherwise might never have met. Savannah residents Cindy Mock and Lee Martin live less than a half-mile from each other, but it took Matthew to introduce them.

The evacuees have been making their way to the Hephzibah Children’s Home since Wednesday. They’ve come mostly from Savannah and Brunswick. Some are first-time evacuees. Others like Julius Harley and Tiffany Smith have been through it before.

Harley's last stint in a shelter was in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd paid a visit. Harley was 9 at the time. Since then, he has become fascinated by the sheer strength of hurricanes. He studies them.

The wind is no big deal to him.

“I’m partly scared of the storm surge,” said the 26-year-old restaurant worker who made the three-hour trip by van from Savannah with his brother, sister, girlfriend and 11-month-old nephew. They arrived just before noon Friday.

Hurricane Andrew dashed Tiffany Smith’s hopes of having a 13th birthday party in Miami that August, 24 years ago. Now she was in a Macon shelter with her 21 family members, including her newborn Eva Renee.

Some who arrived had to be transferred to area nursing homes because they were paralyzed, said Maxine Batcha of the Red Cross.

While most of the hotels throughout Georgia are booked, there is another housing option for Hurricane Matthew evacuees. And, it’s free.

AirBnB’s Disaster Response tool now covers Georgia, along with South Carolina and Florida, providing a way for AirBnB hosts to offer free houses for people affected by the hurricane.

By 5 p.m., Red Cross shelters were home, albeit temporarily, to more than 3,500 people, according to Divina Mims-Puckett, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Red Cross. The Red Cross has some 1,800 workers on hand to help Hurricane Matthew evacuees, Mims-Puckett said.

Across town, the North Bacon Road Red Cross shelter was lodging some 200 evacuees. The swell of people prompted Red Cross officials to look at opening another shelter at the city Auditorium.

Melvin Williams, a disabled paper mill worker from Kingsland just a stone’s throw from the Florida line, spent his time at the shelter talking with fellow evacuees and eating meals provided by Red Cross volunteers. He arrived on a chartered bus on Thursday.

Cindy Mock wasn’t so fortunate.

The former Savannah Police Department employee was among the throngs of people winding their way out of Savannah along I-16. She arrived early Friday after eight hours on the road with her dog Crickett, a Chihuahua-Daschund mix she was forced to hand over to animal control when she got to the Macon Red Cross shelter.

Matthew is merely a “drizzle” given the other challenges Mock has faced in life. In 1994, she and her two sons watched as her husband committed suicide in front of them. Then five years ago, a roommate viciously slit her throat. She survived both, although she now is on disability.

As for Matthew and its 125-mph show of strength?

“This is a mild shower,” Mock said.