Hurricane Matthew: A Feature Story That Explores the Impact of Hurricane Matthew Five Months Later written By: Latonya Smith

Paula Valdez and her three children have lived in Magnolia Park for more than 20 years.

The family never thought they'd have an issue with hurricanes, so when they were told to evacuate she figured it would be safe to wait out the storm.

“I remembered it like it was yesterday,” said Valdez. "It was calm and quiet before we went to bed the night before the storm hit. I was keeping up with the news and they said it was in Tybee but still no sign of Matthew. It was midnight.”

Valdez drifted to sleep. Around 2 a.m. she was awoken by the heavy winds, torrential downpours, and crashing thunder.

Valdez was afraid. She immediately ran to the other end of the house, her teenagers' rooms, and told them to get up.

Minutes after the family was safely gathered in the living room, a tree crashed through the roof right into the two of her boys' room.

Half the home was damaged by Hurricane Matthew. The family was in a distraught awe.

The Valdez family was not alone. Hurricane Matthew, which hit the city in October 2017. More than 90 private homes were reported damaged by the hurricane, according to the Chatham Emergency Management Agency (CEMA).

Paula Valdez home destroyed

Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew developed as a tropical storm off the coast of African in late September 2016. According to a timeline compiled by National Geographic, the storm surge and rainfall caused severe flooding from Florida to North Carolina. Analysts estimated the damage in the United States at a minimum of $10 billion.

The storm was officially named on Sept. 28, as the 13th tropical storm of the season. Hurricane Matthew's intensification from tropical storm to Category 5 was one of the fastest in recorded history, according to a researcher at Colorado State University.

Matthew was off the coast of Colombia and moved northwest. It made landfall, as a Category 4 Hurricane, on Haiti and Cuba on Oct. 4, causing devastation in the countries' poorest regions. More than 800,000 people were left without food. According to the United Nations, an estimated 280,000 are still suffering from damages five months later. Thousands of families lost their livelihood and some were abandoned by their loved ones.

On Oct. 5, hurricane warnings were issued for the East Coast, from Broward County, Fla., to Edisto Beach, S.C. Hundreds of thousands of people are strongly encouraged to evacuate the coast and move inland.

According to the Weather Channel, more than 500,000 Georgians were ordered or urged to leave their homes. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for six coastal counties east of I-95 including Bryan, Chatham, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn and Camden counties.

President Barack Obama on Thursday evening declared a state of emergency for Georgia, less than 24 hours after Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency. The order will allow the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts, according to the weather channel.

On Oct. 6, Savannah citizens and other travelers along the coast headed towards Atlanta. On I-16 going west, all four lanes of the highway were opened, so the traffic could flow smoothly. Atlanta metropolitan hotels were packed with evacuees searching for a place to escape from the storm. This was their new home away from home spot until the storm pass.

According to the Weather Channel, on Oct. 8, 2016, a storm surge of just under 8 feet was recorded at Ft. Pulaski, which sits between Savannah and Tybee Island. With River Street under water and St. Simon Island flooded, Hurricane Matthew made landfall a little north of Charleston at 11 a.m.

As a Category 1 hurricane, Matthew continued up the coast, destroying an historic pier in Myrtle Beach, S.C., wreaking havoc on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The hurricane was downgraded to a post-tropical storm on Oct. 9, as it worked its way east of the coast and back into the Atlantic Ocean.

Number of Deaths

Hurricane Matthew left an estimated 44 people dead in the United States, and thousands in other countries. According to NBC, at least eight people were killed in North Carolina and three in South Carolina, bringing the storm's death toll to 19 across four Southeastern states.

In Norfolk, Virginia, there was only one storm related death, According to the Richmond Times dispatch.

According to Huffington Post, Haiti started burying some of its dead in mass graves in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, a government official said on Sunday, as cholera spread in the devastated southwest and the death toll from the storm rose to 1,000 people.

However, countries like Haiti were not as fortunate. According to Huffington Post, Haiti started burying some of its dead in mass graves in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, a government official said on Sunday, as cholera spread in the devastated southwest and the death toll from the storm rose to 1,000 people.

Savannah residents wait it out

Magnolia Park after the storm

When George and Anne Salley, residents of Magnolia Park in Savannah, heard about the storm, they decided to wait it out despite warnings from the county and state emergency management departments.

"I wish we would have listened to the evacuation orders," says Anne Salley. The rain was really coming down."

As the waters rose and the rain got worse, the retired couple traveled inland to Statesboro, Ga.

"I wish we would have evacuated a little sooner, and somewhere further out because Statesboro was still a bad location to evacuate," Anne Salley said. She said the power was having issues in Statesboro, and businesses in the area closed because of the storm.

Another resident of Magnolia Park, Kenneth Miles, decided to stay. "I am not going nowhere," he said. "Every time they say we have a hurricane, we never have one, he laughed." His wife went to Tifton, Ga. Kenneth was relaxed, he put some wings in the oven and kicked back and had a beer. He laughed, “Around 1 a.m. my lights went out, then suddenly an hour later, it was ugly outside, said Miles. At this moment I was thinking, Damn I should have left with my wife” he laughed.

Returning Home

When the storm was over, residents could not immediately return because CEMA had to inspect every area of the county.

David Donelly, CEMA director said, “We had to do an assessment on the amount of damages such as cutting and clearing, so folks can get in and out their homes."

In Savannah and Chatham County, five shelters opened for those impacted by the storm and returning evacuees. According to Red Cross Executive Director Esther Sheppard, 63,452 clean-up kits and bulk supplies- such as racks, shovels, work gloves and kitchen items- were administered.

People could get updates on their cell phones from CEMA about the returning process. CEMA orchestrated four phases to evaluate the safety of re-entering the city and implemented a curfew from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. until all was safely cleared.

When residents arrived back in Savannah, fallen trees lined every major thoroughfare. Emergency management and crews made sure the most used roads were cleared of debris. The city was quiet, lacking the bustle of a normal midsize city for a Sunday evening. The power was out through much of the city, and some neighborhoods were watching for looters.

According to Randell Matthews, CEMA coordinator, Chatham’s total estimated debris summary, as of Oct. 21, 2016, was 755,000 cubic yards. For reference, the volume of Martin Luther King Arena is 120,000 cubic yards. Savannah’s debris from Matthew could have filled the arena nine times.

Construction site

The total was much higher than surrounding areas. In Bloomingdale, the total was was 5,000 cubic yards; in Garden City, it was 30,000; in Pooler, it was 25,000; in Port Wentworth, it was 15,000; in Thunderbolt, it was 8,000; in Vernonburg, it was 5,000; and in Tybee Island it was 40,000.

Hurricane Matthew's amount of debris collected in different counties

So over time, amounts of debris fluctuated between cema, contractors, and the city. All three contributors had different figures because the amount is calculated based upon curbside vegetative debris by public property.

"Debris information is based off of estimates from piles of debris that were brought to the public right of way", said Randell Matthews emergency management coordinator. Debris estimators aren't allowed to go onto private property to conduct assessments. So over time as more and more people brought debris to the curb, that number will go up. Final debris pick up occurred at different times depending on which jurisdiction you look at. For Unincorporated Chatham County and City of Savannah, that occurred in January, said Matthews.

Moreover, it has a high crime rate and some of the worst schools. Westlake apartment tenants were devastated when they returned home to damages and an ongoing issue of mold. Westlake apartments is located on 1900 Westlake Avenue in Savannah, Ga. It is a predominantly black neighborhood, with low income based section 8 housing.

Westlake apartments undergone a lot of flooding after the storm. Due to the flooding the biggest problem was mold. If not address, mold could cause some serious health issue. According to wtoc, they were told to clean the mold with bleach. This is ridiculous that the owners wanted their tenants to clean the mold with bleach instead of hiring professionals to get rid of the mold. If it was not for the mayor Eddie Deloach and commissioner stepping and applying pressure Westlake apartments conditions would have been worse.

After the storm, Miles did not have any damages towards his house but he had a power line down that Georgia Power have not fixed as of April 2017.

“ I have tried to speak with Georgia Power about get the power line fixed and they have been giving me the run around ever since the storm,” said Miles.

The City of Savannah

Customer service administrator, Margaret Williams works for the city of Savannah and she helps answer any questions Savannah residence may have about trash pick-up, pot holes, street paving etc. In regards of Hurricane Matthew, she answers questions such as re-entering dates and debris removal. She also indicated that the city has a map on the city of Savannah website that illustrates the pass process of debris removal.

Federal Emergency Management Assistance

On the FEMA website, people in savannah and surrounding counties could receive assistance on specific dates and if they did not submit their information by the deadline, they were stuck paying out of pocket expenses. Savannah Georgia residents in need of disaster assistance for Hurricane Matthew damage were encouraged to register soon before the Dec. 16 deadline, according to FEMA. Damages must have occurred from October 4 through October 15. After the storm, survivors could contact FEMA on Fema.gov. Survivors who sustained damage or losses caused by Hurricane Matthew in southeastern counties could have applied for assistance by calling FEMA’s helpline at 800-621-3362 for voice, 711 and video relay service (VRS), according to FEMA.

Magnolia Park

Magnolia Park did not worry about looters. However, the neighborhood had a larger problem.

Magnolia Park sits in an area of the city that has a history with flood issues. The neighborhood started development in 1952 when the LAMARA Corporation started building the mid-twentieth century suburban residential district it is today. The 420-home, mixed neighborhood is bordered by Derenne Avenue, Skidaway Road, Bona Bella Avenue and Truman Parkway. It has not had any flooding since 1996, when a water pumping station was built to deal with heavy summer rains that flooded the area.

According to Magnolia Park Association, This community was filled with trees, all walks of life and home to a large variety of residents including original owners, who moved to the neighborhood back in the mid-1950s; longtime friendships, who enjoy living surrounded by nature, but still like to be close to shopping and historic downtown Savannah; young families, enjoying the safe and open environment for their kids to grow up; and several architectural enthusiasts, who cherish, renovate and restore the visionary architecture and design of the 1950s and 1960s and they have several multi-generational families within our neighborhood.

According to neighborhood scout, Magnolia Park median real estate price is $158,866, which is more expensive than 55.3% of the neighborhoods in Georgia and 40.5% of the neighborhoods in the U.S. Moreover, their real estate is primarily made up of medium sized (three or four bedroom) to small (studio to two bedroom) single-family homes and small apartment buildings.

"The Magnolia Park neighborhood has more African and Sub-Saharan African ancestry people living in it than nearly any neighborhood in America, According to neighborhood scout. However, an estimate 90 percent of residence spoke English. An average of 80 percent of residence drive alone in a private automobile to get to work. In addition, six percent carpool with coworkers, friends, or neighbors to get to work. Unlike major cities whereas citizens depend on subways for transportation, many residents find owning a car useful for work related purposes.

According to the Magnolia Park Association website, the storm water pumping station is the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River. A tree fell on the water pump station during the storm. The residents who stayed awoke the day after the storm to Magnolia Park flooded with raw sewage.

"The problem wasn't the rain coming down. It was the drainage," said resident Cornelia Stumpf. "When they built Truman Parkway, the drainage system got worse, and I think that's why the flooding was so bad. However, if it wasn't for the community coming together and helping one another our community would have been worse."

Stumpf stayed through the storm. She is from Florida, so she was accustomed to hurricanes. She boarded her windows and waited the storm out with her four dogs.

"After the storm, nobody couldn't get through not even the media. A tree fell on the pumping station and sewage was everywhere, making it an environmental issues," said Stumpf.

“The lift station lost power to the storm and the entire general area became flooded, completely filling the manholes and sewer lines with water," said John Sawyer, Chief of Public Works and Water Resources Bureau. There was tree damage to the security fence, but no damage to the lift station. Once the water receded, the station was pumped down, checked, restarted with no issue. A spill of 1170 gallons was reported to Emergency Protection Department (EPD).

Five Months Later

“The city just removed yesterday the last fallen trees, it took 5 months to get finally all done in our neighborhood. Some roofs are still under repair,” said Stumpf during an interview March 2017.

Dow Knight, senior president of Ashbritt, Inc., said he hired 90 to 100 people to continue clean-up of debris. They're still working five months later.

“We collected 11.6 million cubic yards of debris,” said Knight.

Residents within Magnolia Park had complaints about the time frame and how long it has taken to clean up the debris. Knight said he thought his company did a good job cleaning up the city, but he said there was room for improvement.

“If there was one thing I could have done to improve my project it would have been to improve the line of communication and keep people informed about the clean-up process," said Knight.

Valdez and her family stayed in a church for three days immediately after their home was damaged.

After the storm left Savannah, they went outside to assess the mess.

“There was nowhere to go. There was trees everywhere, but once city officials came and gave us clearance, we eventually were able to go seek shelter,” said Valdez. Later that day, Valdez and her family got on the road to look for a place to live.

“It was not easy to find a shelter because all shelters were full, but we found a place to live in Dublin, Ga.,” said Valdez.

She and her three teenagers had to stay at a hotel for five months until contractors made repairs to her home.

“I had great home owner insurance. Allstate paid for everything, said Valdez. “The only repairs that needs to be done is my fence. Other than that, I am so glad my house is back to normal because it was a nightmare,” she said, laughing.

George Salley said him and his wife found damage when they returned to their home.

"When we got back home, our roof was damaged but we had good home owner’s insurance with State Farm and they paid for all the damages," he said. I think the city did a pretty good job picking up the debris.”

It took them about two months after the storm to pick up the trees.

“Our back yard looked like a jungle,” laughed Anne Salley. The city workers put X’s on the trees to indicate that the tree needed to be cut down. I am glad they did that because a lot of trees was falling out of nowhere," she said.

Jessica Futrell, another Magnolia Park resident, did not have any damage to her home. However, she did call the city to let them know there were trees down near the Magnolia park red brick sign.

“They never picked up the limbs but sent someone to cut the grass last week, he mowed around the limbs," she said.

On April 3, Savannah announced, “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced this week that it will award the City of Savannah $9.2 million for debris removal resulting from Hurricane Matthew."

This funding will not only solve the debris removal problem but it will save tax payers lots of money in the long run.

Communities such as West Lake Apartments were left more severely damaged than the homes in Magnolia Park. Renters- many without insurance to cover their assets- couldn't return to their homes. According to WSAV, four months after the storm, people were finding mold in homes that had been cleared to be re-inhabited months earlier.

“Next time I will listen to my wife and evacuate ,” laughed Miles.

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