5 years later: Hurricane Matthew from a chief meteorologist’s view

Weather She Wrote

I still remember very clearly the day I moved to Savannah. It was October 2, 2007, and I had just been hired as the chief meteorologist of WSAV. I was moving my entire family from Michigan. This was my chance to get back to the south… a place of warmth, sunshine… and hurricanes.

As I drove along I-16, I saw the barricades for the first time. This is when it hit me… I am responsible for tracking hurricanes. I am responsible for saving lives. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this scared me. I have tracked my share of tornadoes and lake effect snow, but I had very little hurricane experience.

courtesy of Corey Church

But to be honest… no one else here really had it either.

The last time the Savannah area had a direct hit by a hurricane was back in 1979 with Hurricane David. So when the 2016 hurricane season hit, we all were in for a ride.

See it wasn’t just Matthew. We were also hit by Hermine. It hit us over the Labor Day weekend.

Homes were damaged. The Savannah area saw a wind gust up to 63 mph and 3 to 4 inches of rain. It wasn’t a terrible storm, but goodness we were left with so many power outages and downed trees. Trees were easily knocked down because we had gone so long without a real hit… 1979-2016 is a pretty long time!

So this was a good exercise for us as a storm team. We covered Hermine well, but we were exhausted when it left.

Little did we know that a much bigger storm was on its way just a month later.

Hurricane Matthew began as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa on Sunday, Sept. 25. As it traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, it would soon become a Category 5 hurricane. It caused substantial damage. Overall, 1,000 deaths were attributed to Matthew. It was the deadliest Atlantic Hurricane since Hurricane Stan of 2005.

By Tuesday, Oct. 4, Matthew was a Category 4 hurricane, making landfall in eastern Cuba and Haiti. Reportedly, 80 percent of the buildings in Haiti were destroyed, crops were devastated and many towns and villages experienced flooding with several feet of water.

By this time, I had a good gut feeling we were in for something. The latest weather model runs came out and I remember running to my boss and saying… this could be it. We immediately got the station ready to go.

I called my mother right away and said you need to start packing for Alabama, and I would like for you and the kids to leave tonight. (She later admitted that Savannah neighbors were making fun of her for leaving so soon. They knew what I did for a living and told her we weather people were always wrong and that storms always miss Savannah.)

Well, Matthew hit the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry on Friday and Saturday. We had basically two days to get ready at the station before the hit.

WSAV is located on Victory Drive in Savannah, and we flood even during a normal summertime thunderstorm. We had to make a decision whether to pack up the whole station and report from Statesboro… or just send one crew to Statesboro in case we lost power in Savannah. After an intense meeting in my general manager’s office, we decided to send only a crew to Statesboro. Most of WSAV would stay in Savannah.

We had four meteorologists at the time… Lee Haywood, Kyle Dennis, Ariella Scalese and myself. We decided Lee would be the one to go to Statesboro on Friday.

Crews were divided up. Teams were given assignments. The anxiety could be felt all over the station.

Even driving home on Thursday after the last newscast was an experience. At this point, a mandatory evacuation had been ordered.

As I drove to my home on Wilmington Island, it was a ghost town. No one was in my neighborhood. No one. When you go home, it should be a place of comfort. It should be a place where you walk in and say… relax… you got this. Instead, this was a reminder of how serious the situation was. I remember packing a suitcase that night and trying to sleep. I tossed and turned. When I got up on Friday, I put on my best dress and said over and over… you got this.

I went on the air at around 11:30 a.m. on Friday. My adrenaline was high. So high, in fact, that my boss came into the studio and told me to relax. He said… if you stay at this intensity, you won’t make it. I then took a deep breath and said… you’re right… you need to talk as though you are talking to your best friend and just keep it simple and slow. Staying calm is key.

At this point, Kyle and Ariella were on break to rest. 12 hours on. 12 hours off. Lee was set in Statesboro and he was able to give a few updates.

Then things really started to ramp up.

By Friday evening, Hurricane Matthew’s eye moved along the Florida coast but remained offshore. The storm’s surge, though, caused high tides in St. Augustine, Florida, by the afternoon, sending water over the city’s seawall. Ormond Beach and Jacksonville, in Florida, also experienced flooding as a result of the high tides.

Florida was spared from catastrophic damage, but the winds and flooding attributed to five deaths in the state. Approximately 1 million Florida residents were without power as the 110 mph winds by Friday afternoon as Matthew gained momentum and was designated a Category 2.

We lost the connection to the Statesboro crew, so I was left alone. I was on the air for 18 hours straight. I used the bathroom twice and ate one bag of Cheetos during the whole shift.

When the eyewall approached after midnight, I had to wake up Kyle and Ariella for help.

Savannah experienced significant flooding as Hurricane Matthew’s eye traveled northward off the Georgia coast. Savannah saw the biggest storm surge since the 1800s — a high of 5.1 feet ABOVE the average highest tides at Fort Pulaski. Tybee saw sustained winds of 75 mph, which is Category 1 hurricane wind status.

On Hilton Head, the highest wind speed was 88 mph. Total rainfall was 14.04 inches.

I could hear the winds howling outside. I was getting viewer messages of those who decided not to evacuate. Many were terrified. During all of this, I kept saying… stay calm. I also chose to not go outside. I didn’t want to see what was happening. I wanted to keep my composure. I was afraid if I saw something bad outside, I would not be able to keep going at the same pace.

Finally, at around 5 a.m., I got off the air and slept on the floor for a couple of hours. Once awake, I was back at it again… on the air. The storm was gone, but the storm reports were coming in.

Lee was now trying to come back from Statesboro. Unfortunately, Bulloch County had many trees down. Not only did it take hours to get back to Savannah, but Lee had someone crash into his car!

When Lee was finally able to return, I took a true break. I got in my car and drove to a friend’s house in Ardsley Park. As I drove down Victory Drive, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Trees were everywhere. Powerlines down. I couldn’t tell what I was driving over. It was then that the emotions hit. I started to cry… really cry. Savannah was hit pretty hard.

My friend greeted me with a glass of wine, and I was able to get a nice long hot shower and a good night’s sleep. She remarkably had power! She was the only one on her block with power!

Eventually, I was able to get back to Wilmington Island, only to find that my house had flooded and the roof caved in from all of the heavy rain. I was renting at the time. My landlord told me it was best to find somewhere else to live. So I transitioned from covering Matthew to finding a new home. We then moved three days later.

Looking back at all of this, I think Matthew aged me! I had extreme exhaustion from forecasting it… tracking it… and then recovering from it. But it could have been so much worse.

Our area has seen much bigger storms than Matthew, but these bigger storms hit in the 1890s.

In the end, we only got a glimpse of what Mother Nature can do.

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