Memories of Matthew: Covering Savannah’s biggest hurricane in decades

WSAV Hurricane Central

As I walked into our studio on Victory Drive getting ready to cover the biggest storm of my career, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I was about to play a big role in helping our viewers through what was likely the most disruptive, destructive, and potentially deadliest storm of many of their lives; a responsibility I took very seriously.

I didn’t know exactly what it would look like when it was finally safe to go back outside, and on a personal level, how long it would be until I got to sleep in my own bed again. WSAV is the place I would be calling home indefinitely as Hurricane Matthew unleashed its fury on our area.

Sure, I had covered my share of tornadoes, floods, ice storms and even blizzards in different parts of the country, but Matthew was the first storm that actually instilled some fear in me and made me truly worried. I was new to Savannah and the newest member of Storm Team 3, joining Kris Allred, Lee Haywood and Ariella Scalese in August of 2016.

A couple of weeks in — as I was still trying to memorize the county map and finding out I had been pronouncing Vidalia wrong my entire life — we were already facing a major tropical threat. No, it wasn’t Matthew. It was Hermine; a storm that likely would have held far more significance in our memories if not for Matthew one month later.

I’ll never forget being on air for hours the morning Hermine plowed through the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry as a tropical storm. We saw multiple tornadoes, flooding and widespread damaging wind gusts.

When I left work that day and saw tree limbs down and debris all over downtown Savannah, and even damage to some buildings, I remember thinking to myself, “I hope we won’t have to worry about a storm this bad for a very long time.”

Little did I know Hermine would just be the opening act that year, and a storm far worse was just one month away.

“Savannah hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since David in 1979,” I heard over and over again when I first arrived in town. Lucky me, it took less than two months after moving to Savannah to see the area hit by its worst hurricane since then.

The planning process for Matthew got started as soon as it became clear the storm could be a threat to us, well before it became certain. For those of us who can’t evacuate and have to work through a storm like that, we really have to practice what we preach about not waiting until it is approaching before getting prepared. Once there is a legitimate threat, there is little to no time to worry about making any personal preparations for your home or family. It’s go time long before the storm even arrives.

The week leading up to Matthew, we began expanding our newscasts. The weather team was working around the clock, going over the latest data and models, fine-tuning our forecast, discussing how best to communicate the threats, and producing lots of graphics to break down all of the possible scenarios and what impacts each would bring. There were daily staff meetings to plan our coverage, sometimes multiple times per day.

Being located on Victory Drive — where we sometimes have significant flooding issues from a routine round of torrential downpours in summertime thunderstorms — there were major concerns if it would be safe to continue broadcasting from our building. Between the storm surge and wind threats, it was possible we wouldn’t be able to broadcast from our main studio.

Several days before Matthew arrived, our news director, Kevin Brennan, asked me to provide an update to the morning meeting of our department heads, where it was explained to me that WSAV had a backup plan in the event that it became unsafe to broadcast from our normal home base. We had a remote location in Statesboro we could evacuate to in order to continue providing coverage, although it was a last resort. While better than the alternative of not being able to stay on the air to keep our viewers updated, there would be some significant limitations to our coverage. The plan had been in place for years but had never actually been deployed. For the first time, it was being seriously considered, and I was providing daily updates to our management team to help them make a final decision on whether to stay or go.

They ultimately decided to get a skeleton crew up to Statesboro so we could at least begin our coverage from our main studio. If we needed to shut it down, the Statesboro crew could take over until the rest of us could join them.

We ended up staying in Savannah through the storm and, unfortunately, we were down a meteorologist. Lee Haywood was part of the Statesboro crew and there was no way to get back to Savannah during the storm.

Having that backup plan was absolutely the right decision, but having three meteorologists instead of four would mean less time to take a break or get any sleep in wall-to-wall coverage that was more likely to span multiple days than mere hours.

As the storm ramped up, I got my first feel of what covering a big hurricane was like. With the entire news team involved, in some ways it was actually much less demanding for the meteorologist than covering a tornado; something I had done countless times. With tornado warnings, it’s pretty much just the meteorologist and the radar talking nonstop the entire time until the threat passes.

This was completely different. Of course, this coverage would last a lot longer, but we had our anchors, our reporters, live video, press conferences, you name it. While Kris, Ari and I were providing frequent weather updates, all of the other elements of our coverage allowed us time to regroup and go over all the new data that was coming in by the minute.

Time passed a lot faster than I expected, although eventually, someone was going to need sleep. We needed to be at our best at the height of the storm, so we relieved Ari to get some rest. Kris and I continued to tag-team coverage for a while until she eventually told me to get some sleep too. So far, we had been getting very heavy rain and winds were increasing, but the worst was still yet to come.

I left the studio and had a very strange feeling as I was walking down the hall trying to figure out where I was going to sleep. It was dark and eerily quiet aside from the first sounds of roaring winds outside. There were people sleeping in just about every office space of the building, so finding a private spot wasn’t going to happen.

I knocked on the door of a conference room and one of our reporters at the time, Devin Negrete, opened the door. I had clearly just woken her up.

“Hey! I’ve seen you on TV!” I said, as it was my first time actually meeting Devin in person. What a way to meet a new coworker. I found a spot on the floor with a sleeping bag and pillow. With my mind racing, I thought I’d have a hard time falling asleep. I guess the sleep deprivation was enough to overcome that because the next thing I knew, Kris was waking me up. I didn’t realize I had even closed my eyes yet, but it had apparently been a few hours. Better than nothing!

It was time. Matthew’s eyewall was getting close and was probably no more than an hour away. There was that sinking feeling again. All the buildup and anticipation, and the moment of truth was just about here. We’d soon know just how bad a beating we were going to take from this storm.

Knowing it was possible that people who chose not to evacuate might not survive the next couple of hours sent a shiver down my spine. I was going to do everything in my power to help anyone who either still had power or was at least able to watch our livestream.

Ari and I got ourselves ready to go back on the air. As I was walking back to the studio, you could really hear the winds roaring outside. When Kris showed me the latest radar scans and was updating me on what I had missed during my nap, I could see it was still a very close call as to whether or not Matthew would officially make landfall along our coast. So close, that it might not make a huge difference, as Matthew’s strongest winds were on a course to pass directly over parts of our coast.

On the air, we really started to zero in on the eyewall as it was coming into view on our radar, inching closer and closer to Tybee Island until, finally, it appeared Matthew’s strongest winds and heaviest rain were about to push onshore. I remember Kris and I gasping when the radar refreshed and we saw what was about to happen. It was happening exactly as we expected, but seeing it actually unfold just hit us on a different level.

We gave the same advice we would for a tornado, and urged people to get away from windows and to the lowest level, interior room with pillows and blankets to cushion their heads. Around that time, a 96 mph gust was reported. Hilton Head would be next.

It was a brutal couple of hours as the worst of Matthew was ravaging the area. The coverage continued long after the worst was over, but as the storm was finally loosening its grip on our area, the pressure was somewhat off the weather team as our coverage began focusing more on the aftermath of the storm. The nonstop weather updates were being replaced with more updates from our reporters showing what damage was like in their area, updates from the Chatham Emergency Management Agency, and information on how and when people who evacuated would be able to return.

While I sincerely hope we never have to go through something like that again, the lessons I learned having covered that storm will always stick with me. For a meteorologist, there is a kind of knowledge you gain experiencing a storm like that that could never be replaced by any textbook.

After decades of not getting a major hit from a hurricane, Matthew was an unfortunate reminder that they can and do happen here, and perhaps most frightening of all, they can be much worse. So at the beginning of each hurricane season when we repeat for the millionth time not wait to get your supplies, plan the logistics of your evacuation and anything else you need to be prepared for the big one. Please listen — it truly may save your life.

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