Irma a Powerful Reminder That Things Have Changed

By Brad McEwen

It was hard staying focused on writing this week’s Beyond the Bank—much tougher than it should have been. It’s not that I don’t have an interesting subject to write about—I do—or that I’m suffering from some kind of writer’s block—I’m not.

No, were this a normal week, this would have clicked along nicely.

The problem, which I now realize has been bothering a large number of my fellow south Georgians, has been trying to stay on task in the face of a gnawing need to keep one eye attuned to the progress of deadly Hurricane Irma, which, if certain forecast models hold true, could be tearing across the state I was born in on a direct course to the state I now call home—challenging the safety of dozens of people I care deeply about.

That I’ve obsessed about this weather event since news of the storm first came to light last weekend—almost powerless to stop it from dominating my thoughts and even my conversations with co-workers and loved ones—is really out of character for me. Or at least it was.

Other than the occasional glance here and there I’ve never been one to keep a close watch on the weather. While I’m fascinated with the science behind meteorology, I’ve always had the attitude that I’d know it’s raining as soon as the raindrops hit me in the head.

My loving wife, however, is quite the opposite, having been a weather-watcher throughout the course of our relationship and that need of hers to constantly check on things only intensified through the advent of regular internet use and most assuredly following the smart phone takeover.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with her interest in weather—she’s a science teacher after all—but the drive behind her interest has always been that of safety—her need to know what might happen so she can make sure her loved ones are safe.

Sadly, I hate to say that on far too many occasions to count, I’ve poked fun at Tay about her obsession over fronts and pressure systems and lovingly teased her the numerous times she’d gather up children, pets, blankets and her trusty bag of flashlights and move into the little bathroom next to what we call the “Florida room.”

But that’s all changed.

Too vivid are the memories I have of poking fun at her the night of Jan. 2 as forecasters warned of an approaching line of storms that could spawn tornadoes and other damaging winds.

The chides of “it’s only a thunderstorm, there’s nothing to worry about,” and “come on now, this house has survived every storm since 1939,” still ring hollowly in my ears every time I think back to that night nine months ago when a freak blast of straight line winds tore through this community, severing tree tops and light poles and leaving behind a tangle of smashed automobiles, downed fences and gaping holes in dozens of roofs.

I can tell you I learned a powerful lesson that night, driven home when I emerged from my Rawson Circle area dwelling to find the landscape of my lovely, historic neighborhood transformed by a vicious act of nature.

Any doubts I had about that lesson were quickly squashed when the truth of that night was reinforced just three weeks later as I too sat glued to WALB with a flashlight in one hand, and my son’s hand in the other, on the ready to dash into that tiny bathroom as yet another line of severe storms bore down.

One could argue that I was hyper-focused on the approaching weather because on that weekend—Jan. 21-22—I just happened to be the editor on duty for the Albany Herald. But that’s not the truth.

In all honestly I was anxiously awaiting those impending storms because I was scared and in short order my fears were justified.

Like many in this community the events of that weekend are emblazoned in my memory and I still get a shiver as I replay the unfolding of events.

I stayed late at the office Thursday and Friday nights, getting as much work done as I could to make sure that I was free to cover any storm-related incidents and be to be sure the paper could publish even in the event of computer systems failing due to any weather.

On January 21, things were still pretty calm and I again stayed at the Herald offices later than usual making sure that the bulk of Monday’s back pages were ready to go and that the desk in Gwinnett had plenty of copy to fill out the remainder of “A” section.

By the time I got home that Saturday night at roughly 10 p.m. forecasters were warning of overnight and early morning storms, so the McEwen’s—still reeling from the earlier wind event that left us without power for the better part of a week and resulted in both auto and home damage—hunkered down in the Florida room with Galaxy and Olive, watching intently as Chris Zelman, Yolanda Amadeo and the rest of the weather team tracked the line of storms moving across Alabama and Southern Georgia.

As the night inched painfully along we attempted sleep, but we couldn’t shake that fear of a repeat of Jan. 2. Thoughts that our house would end up like so many others on our block, with a hole in the roof, loomed large.

Perhaps it was knowing that I’d have to hit the phones early to check in with the likes of Dougherty County EMA chief Ron Rowe and Lee County Co-Manager Mike Sistrunk to get damage reports and then very likely head out with my camera to snap some photos, I finally willed myself to a fitful sleep around 3 a.m.

What I encountered when my alarm woke me at 5:30 a.m. was a sense of eerie calm bolstered by an undercurrent of dread that slowly intensified as the day wore on. Early reports from around Dougherty and Lee counties indicated the community had gotten through the first line of storms mostly unscathed.

But little did I know at the time that bad news was in the offing just a few hours later.

Both Rowe and Sistrunk, as well as the WALB weather crew, were quick to point out that despite the relative calm of the overnight and morning, larger, stronger storms were still making their way into the area.

It was for that reason that our television never left channel 10, despite the fact that the Falcons were in a playoff game, and I spent the bulk of Sunday morning, despite relatively calm skies outside, checking various news and weather sites in between calls to the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee.

By the time an EF2 tornado was reported in Thomas County moving east toward Lowndes I had already posted one version of my weekend weather story on albanyherald.com, but I had no idea that I’d update that piece as many as five more times as the day and night wore on.

Despite the lull around my house darkening skies and ominous weather reports had my crew on edge as the minutes crept by as each storm cell approached. Twice we took refuge in our bathroom hideaway, barely big enough to contain us all, but each time the vicious winds and battering rain would slacken without any incident. By the time the sun tentatively appeared shortly after lunch, I had mistakenly believed the worst had passed, only to have a text exchange with Chief Rowe that proved ominous.

In that communication he warned that the ugliest cell was still approaching and Dougherty County wouldn’t be out of the woods until it was in our rearview mirror.

As I had done throughout the day I called my boss Jim Hendricks over in Worth County to give him updates and see what kind of information he was receiving. As a newsman through and through and someone who treats the daily publishing of the Herald as his own personal mission, I knew Jim had not left the storm monitoring solely to his junior editor. True to form he was stationed at his computer monitoring weather reports as he checked with his contacts in Worth County and beyond to gather updates.

It was while chatting with Jim that I experienced possibly the scariest moment as I recounted the nasty weather that I just passed my house while he informed me of the increasing intensity of the conditions developing around him.

We had to end our conversation quickly so he could take shelter in an interior room as the pine trees all around him began to thrash wildly back and forth and it was just moments later that I started hearing reports of a possible tornado hit in Southern Dougherty County.

Despite my fear over continued wind gusts I kissed my family goodbye, grabbed my camera and drove toward the Radium Springs area to see what was happening, trying desperately to ignore the knot in my belly.

What I experienced when I came up Radium Springs Road and crossed over Oakridge is something I won’t soon forget. Despite golden bands of sun filtering down through the rapidly departing clouds I had a strong sense of foreboding—that something bad had either happened or was about to happen. I didn’t get very far before traffic was stopped and people were rerouted. I tried to cut through a neighborhood with the hope of getting around on the 19 side, but it was bedlam—cars driving in all directions, people on foot, and above towering pines swaying madly in the remnants of the storm.

Needing to regroup and gather myself in the face of my mounting terror, I made my way back to the Herald office in a near panic and began frantically calling contacts, trying to find out what happened so I could update my storm story.

As the information trickled in my heart sank with the realization of what had happened. I got through to state rep Darrel Ealum who was in the heart of the chaos on Holly Drive. It was Darrel who described the scene at Big Pines Estates as a “war zone” and later sent me cell phone pictures of the devastation.

It was Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler, however, who somberly drove home the truth of what had happened though—informing me that he was on the scene and four people were confirmed dead.

My career as a journalist has been markedly short compared to that of my many of colleagues, but I’m convinced that were I to work another 30 years in the industry I’d be hard-pressed to encounter such a nerve-wracking and disheartening day.

Surely having to inform my community that a horrific storm had claimed the lives of four of their neighbors has a lot to do with that assessment, but it is not the only factor.

What has remained in my mind months after the images of the January destruction have faded is that palpable dread I experienced as the storms approached. What I can remember all too vividly is the empty feeling of shock that came over me as I surveyed my neighborhood on Jan. 2 and as I spoke to Michael and Darrel three weeks later.

Although those feelings aren’t always at the surface, they’re still lurking there, waiting to bubble up, which is exactly what has been happening as I’ve joined thousands of my fellow residents in closely monitoring the path of what is being called the most ferocious hurricane every recorded in the Atlantic basin.

As I write this there’s still some uncertainty around Irma’s ultimate path, but there’s no confusion about how I feel. Quite frankly I’m scared. I’m scared that the storm could work its way west and tear through heart of Georgia, crossing over Albany, leaving destruction in its wake. I’m also worried that it could stay to the east and pummel the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, threatening the safety of too many of my loved ones.

I’m certainly not alone in the fact that I’ve got countless relatives and friends who are squarely in the crosshairs of a potential disaster and like everyone who has been changed by the January storms that taught us a tough lesson about the fury mother nature can release, I can only breathe deeply and offer my prayers to anyone caught in the storm’s path.

I hope by the time the public reads this week’s Beyond the Bank that the U.S. coast is to be spared and that no lives are to be lost. But even a positive outcome like that won’t change the fact that things are different now.

My once carefree, devil-may-care attitude toward the weather is forever changed. No more will I good-naturedly rib Tay for gravitating toward the interior bathroom every time the skies darken and no more will I take the blessings I’ve been given for granted.

If there is one bright spot shining through the lengthening shadow of Irma, it’s that while the January storms brought pain and a lingering fear, they also brought out the best in my fellow Albanians. Before the winds had died down and the rain slacked off as Jan. 2 wound to a close, the overwhelmingly caring heart of Albany, GA was already beating true and it’s yet to stop.

For all the struggle and strife and anger and hatred we witness on a daily basis, it doesn’t hold a candle to the decency and love that is displayed when the chips are down.

So as I offer my prayers that Irma’s wrath is minimal I intend to offer one of thanksgiving as well—a thanks to God that I live in a community whose true humanity remains a powerful beacon even in the darkest times.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen