Along U.S. 17, Georgians picking up the pieces after Hurricane Matthew

October 9, 2016 Savannah - Eric Riley surveys the damage from Hurricane Matthew in Savannah on Sunday, October 9, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
October 9, 2016 Savannah - Eric Riley surveys the damage from Hurricane Matthew in Savannah on Sunday, October 9, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Eric Riley lay down in the “prayer corner” of his cream-colored room and asked God to spare his life. Hurricane Matthew was barreling through his Southside Savannah neighborhood, drenching his home and sending his flower pots flying through the air. Then it happened — the rangy auto mechanic heard the massive boom.

When Riley mustered his courage and poked his head out the door Saturday morning, he saw three massive trees had fallen across his neighbors’ yards, just like a row of dominoes. The storm ripped one of out of the ground, exposing its spindly roots. It split another right down the middle. A third snapped, crushing Riley’s car collection, including his black 2001 Toyota 4Runner, the truck he uses to get to work. But his house was mostly unscathed. And Riley was unharmed. Now he’s cleaning up the costly mess that Matthew left.

Georgia’s barrier islands — with their posh resorts, manicured golf courses and pricey restaurants — often draw much of the attention in the wake of devastating hurricanes like Matthew. Understandably, people want to know about the fate of their vacation homes, those cafes they love and the pristine beaches where they can let go and find peace. But storms like Matthew do not discriminate.

The hurricane also raked the mainland working-class communities along U.S. 17, which stretches from Riley’s home in Savannah to Brunswick. The road, which served as the main route along the coast before I-95 opened in the 1970s, is dotted with aging houses, tiny churches and weathered seafood markets.

On Sunday, parts of it were submerged. Others were flanked by fallen trees and long strands of Spanish moss in the wake of the storm. Many along the route were still without power.

Riley estimated his cars sustained $25,000 in damage, but he’s glad to be alive.

“I just thanked God it didn’t get a hold of me,” he said. “I’m from the old school. God is in control. I figured I would catch a corner and pray.”

‘I don’t believe in running’

Riley has long dreadlocks, a breezy disposition and strong beliefs. He reads the Old Testament, won’t let anyone with drooping trousers into his home and cherishes his late mother, his “everything.” He has a habit of saluting a framed photo of her that he keeps in his living room.

His wife and six children took shelter with a relative in Atlanta. Riley stayed at his home, which sits near the Windsor Forest neighborhood and the Vernon River.

“I don’t believe in running,” he said.

A steady stream of friends came to check on Riley Sunday morning. His auto repair shop has many loyal customers. Among them is George McKennie, a soft-spoken neighbor who trusts Riley so much that he gave him copies of the keys for all of his vehicles — “And nobody drives my stuff.”

Amid a lingering blackout Sunday, some of Riley’s relatives were helping themselves to the perishable foods in his freezer. He offered it to them so none of it would go to waste. They loaded their coolers with fish sticks, frozen salmon and a lobster tail.

His sister, Mildred McClain, marveled at the fallen trees outside. The fresh smell of pine needles hung in the air. The skies were blue and the birds were chirping, almost as if the hurricane had never happened.

“Give thanks and praises it did not fall on your house,” she told her brother. “Oh, Lord.”

The tornado closet

LuAnn Mutzabaugh calls it her “tornado closet.” It’s the small space where this diminutive but feisty woman hangs her clothes and rides out storms. She threw a pillow on the floor inside and tried in vain to sleep as Matthew struck. Her dogs Cookie and Lucy crowded inside with her. She had already secured the many windows with long strands of green tape.

“Someone had a screen door that was banging all night long,” said Mutzabaugh, who works as a secretary for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on Sapelo Island. “I did not sleep well last night. But I felt safe in here.”

Mutzabaugh lives in a little white house with a screened front porch in Darien, a McIntosh County town founded by Scottish warriors. Destroyed during the Civil War, it is now powered by the seafood industry.

Mutzabaugh’s home is just around the corner from B & J’s Steaks and Seafood, a popular eatery that sits on U.S. 17. Nearly a quarter of the county’s residents live in poverty.

Mutzabaugh’s home had no power Saturday. But she has a gas stove. So her son, Travis Main, was fixing them some pork, sweet peas and Stove Top Stuffing. Main heard their neighbor’s massive tree fall during the night.

“It was a nice loud crack and then a big thunk,” he said, wearing his cooking towel draped over his shoulder.

Main and his mother live two doors down from Sedrick Robinson and Melissa Rischette. Also without power Saturday, the couple was grilling chicken in a hand-dug fire pit in their backyard. He runs a car wash. And she manages the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant up near the Interstate 95 interchange.

The friendly couple heard the hurricane’s whistling winds but not the tree that crashed next door. The next day, the road next to their house was covered with tree limbs.

Paul Davis, a neighbor from across the street, checked in on them Saturday, saying hello through their bamboo fence. He fled with his wife, Connie, for their son’s house near Jacksonville, Fla. But not without some worry.

A Navy veteran who participated in the U.S. blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis there in 1962, Davis was reluctant to leave behind a prized possession. Inside a shed in his backyard sits a jet black 1953 Ford Customline, which he painstakingly rebuilt. He’s thankful it didn’t suffer a scratch during the storm, though his yard was covered with tree limbs when he returned home.

“I hated to leave my car,” said Davis, who grew up in McIntosh. But the hurricane, he added, “was too close for comfort.”

Fear and fatalism

Martin Wilson and his young nephews eagerly crossed the street from their Brunswick apartment complex to show some visitors the tree Hurricane Matthew brought down. They pointed next door to another tree lying on top of a boarded up house. That happened when Hurricane Hermine struck last month.

All of their neighbors fled over the weekend. But they hunkered down, keeping their flashlights and candles close by. At night, they heard the howling wind and pouring rain. It was kind of exciting. The next day was different. They were bored, sitting on their front porch and watching a 14-year-old friend do tricks on his skateboard.

“It’s hot,” said Wilson, a Miami native who is looking after his young nephews while his sister is traveling abroad. “We are sweating. I’m tired of eating cereal.”

They live on the south end of Brunswick, a town that was abandoned during the Civil War when its residents were ordered to evacuate. Brunswick later endured a post-war depression before lumber mills started humming on nearby St. Simons Island. Tourism, the town’s port and the sprawling Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers campus help sustain Brunswick now.

A short drive down the street, Dow Burck was pulling some plywood boards off his windows and doors and cleaning up fallen tree branches around his house. His home sits in view of the St. Simons Sound.

The water was too close for the taciturn general contractor and his wife, so they stayed in a hotel Friday night. That brought them a good stroke of luck: some chefs who had evacuated the Sea Island resort and were staying at the same hotel made everyone prime rib and cheesecake — for free.

“Delicious,” Burck said in a tone that sounded as if he had a religious experience. “Couldn’t have cooked it better myself.”

Burck’s wife, Sonya, is the worrier in the family. She didn’t sleep well that night, hearing the pounding wind outside. She kept getting out of bed and going to the window to look outside.

“It was awful,” she said. “The pine trees outside were bending over.”

Her husband surrenders to fate.

“You can’t stop it,” he said. “Just deal with it. No need stressing over it. It will make you sick.”

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