Hurricane Matthew: Watching someone fall through the cracks during an emergency

Journalists are first responders. Reporting from the Georgia coast before, during and after Hurricane Matthew, it was clear who gets there first. The journalists who cover the storm.

Driving down I-95 from Delaware two days before Matthew hit the southeastern United States, I continued to drive south into Georgia until the only vehicles on the interstate were utility trucks, law enforcement from other states, the media and coroner vans. The dark, empty road led me to Brunswick, Georgia, where I was lucky enough to get a hotel room thanks to a Washington Post colleague who was looking out for a me.

The day before the storm

The day before Matthew hit it was a matter of scouting out the area to understand the streets and area. It was observing what was there today and what might be gone tomorrow. Brunswick was a ghost town with homes and businesses boarded up. Law enforcement’s presence was everywhere. And so were the broadcast trucks and photojournalists. The hotel I stayed at was full of The Weather Channel personnel, Georgia broadcast journalists and reporters from all over the U.S. Everyone was getting ready.

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Family from Waverly, Ga., stop to get a few things at Loves Truck Stop before heading north. (Photo by Sharon Dunten)

Waiting for the storm to arrive in Brunswick or Gynn County, Georgia, was a bit awkward. It was a ghost town, no people and police who wouldn’t talk to the press. But I was on assignment to find a story before Matthew arrived. I had to write an article that evening for the Washington Post. So I decided I had to leave Brunswick and find people. Checking my gas gauge often to make sure I had plenty of gas, I thought about the people escaping Florida on I-95. I thought to myself: “the last ditch effort to beat Hurricane Matthew will be a good story.” And I was correct.

As I approached the Brunswick Loves Truck Stop on Exit 29 off I-95S, it reminded me of driving in a desert where you might see an iconic sign reading, “Last stop for gasoline for 100 miles.” The place was packed. I cruised around the area and found that all other truck stops were closed and even the Waffle House was closing down for the storm.

Everyone had a different story at the Loves truck stop. Many were escaping out of Gynn County because they lived too close to the marshlands or coast. Dozens were going north to out run Matthew from Florida. A few were locals just getting a few things before they hunkered down for the storm.

Loves’ customers were purchasing ice, food, gasoline and water. Everything was flying off the shelves. The check out lines were long but people were patient and friendly. The Loves staff said the truck stop would be open during the storm. All that was happening at the Loves truck stop was my pre-Matthew story.

Matthew arrives

Out early on Saturday with other media members, I returned back to Loves truck stop to check on the exit of people from the Georgia coast. Let’s be honest, there were people there to interview. It was my assignment to talk to people, not officials. It was starting to rain. Nothing I couldn’t handle. I checked my phone frequently because I knew the outer bands of Matthew would be hitting the Georgia coast soon. I needed to give myself time to get to my safe haven: my hotel room in Brunswick.

Law enforcement was swarming under the I-95 interstate bridges. Again, no officers would talk to me. The truck stop was still busy. The rain was getting harder and the winds were gusty and strong. What happened next delayed my return to my hotel and left me exasperated with Gynn County and 911 dispatchers.

There were a few days of evacuation from Brunswick and Gynn Co. before Matthew arrived on early Saturday morning. But if you didn’t have a phone, a radio or a television, you wouldn’t know when to leave or how to get out. Driving around I saw a few individuals waiting in under an overhang of a closed Denney’s restaurant on I-95. One woman held her luggage close and an apparent homeless man found a large black garbage bag in preparation for a soggy wait.

They told me that they were waiting for a Greyhound bus. They didn’t know that their bus wouldn’t be coming to pick them up. All bus routes were cancelled.

I circled around and checked back with these individuals as the storm grew stronger. Sheets of water were plummeting down on the Denney’s black parking lot. My windshield wipers had a hard time keeping the water off to see out the window. I knew I had to head back to the hotel. It was time. I checked back to see if the two individuals had found a place to stay. They were still in front of Denney’s.

Anxious about how these individuals would fend the storm, I approached them in my car. The waterlogged woman had a cell phone and was talking to friends in Atlanta. She had been staying across the street at the Eco Lodge for a few days to catch the Greyhound bus. She said she would be going back to the hotel to camp out in the lobby for the storm. I said to hop in. I drove her to the Eco Lodge.

And then there was the homeless man. He had no idea on what was about to happen. Hurricane Matthew was only hours away. I decided to call 911.

Calling 911

Gynn County dispatchers answered quickly. I described the situation of a homeless man under a porch of Denney’s without a coat or belongings. There response was alarming. “We have no resources to help this man,” the county dispatcher said. I asked once more for a police officer or emergency personnel to pick the homeless man up and take him to safety or a shelter. “We are not going to send out our officers during this dangerous time to pick up this man,” exclaimed the dispatcher.

I asked to talk to a supervisor. He said that this man had every opportunity to get out during the evacuation. I told him that the homeless man had no idea about the hurricane. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Meanwhile, the county law enforcement camped out under the interstate close by.

I questioned and scrutinized the dispatcher for their lack of action for this homeless man. He suggested that I take care of the homeless man. I said it was outrageous that no one would find shelter for this man. I played the press card. It didn’t seem to matter. No one was coming.

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Georgia Governor Nathan Deal arrives at the Brunswick Airport on Sunday to talk to the media. (Photo by Sharon Dunten)

My next call was to the Georgia Emergency Management Center. Their response was to drop the homeless man off somewhere like Waffle House. The Waffle House was closed across the street. The winds were so strong that my car was shaking. I called the 911 dispatcher again and pleaded with them to please have someone pick up this homeless man. Now four county law enforcement vehicles were staged under the interstate. I asked for one of these cars come to pick up the homeless man. “It is too dangerous for our officers to be out in this storm,” said the dispatcher.

Yet, the news media trucks were still out and working.

At this time I was getting pretty mad. I asked for the supervisor again. He said he needed to cut off my call because they had other issues to address for the storm. He hung up on me.

I asked the homeless man to get into my car. I took the man to the only place I knew that was open – Loves Truck Stop. By this time, warnings were going out to “Shelter in Place.” The homeless man was going to be safe at the truck stop. I told him that I would contact the authorities to find out where he could go after the storm. I hit the interstate along with other media trucks heading back to Brunswick. It wasn’t a pleasant ride. I was crawling about 20 mph. I had to get back to the hotel for the evening.

After the storm

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Many businesses were damaged because of the high winds of Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Sharon Dunten)

The next morning the media trucks and journalists were out very early. The Brunswick News was out covering the damage at 4 a.m. By late morning road blocks were erected to stop anyone from coming and going in Gynn County. A photojournalist from the Washington Post and I surveyed the coast and reported on small business owners checking on their damage buildings. Brunswick residents who stayed during the hurricane were concerned about downed power lines and huge trees falling in their neighborhood. St. Simon Island, an exclusive resort community across from Brunswick, was not accessible. We filed and uploaded our articles and video. It wasn’t Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic damage, but it was a dangerous storm that shook up the southeast Atlantic coast. A staging area was set up in Brunswick to manage the emergency services.

As the reins of roadblocks eased on I-95, I went out to check on the homeless man and continued to call the Georgia Emergency Management Center. Fortunately, the homeless man had found a ride to his brother’s home in Atlanta. I was relieved. He got into a car with three dogs and a generous soul who was thoughtful enough to help this homeless man.

Later that day the Georgia Emergency Management Center called me to say that a deputy from Gynn County would be calling me to make sure the homeless man found shelter. I waited for the deputy’s call. It never came. I didn’t expect it.

Sharon Dunten, Assistant Region Director, Society of Professional Journalists- Region 3 and editor of SizingUptheSouth.com, a website for SPJ Region 3 members and journalists throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

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