Originally created 09/17/99

Storm damage stayed minor in Savannah



SAVANNAH -- Coastal residents returned home Thursday to find their city and the neighboring islands barely touched by the force of Hurricane Floyd.

Traffic wasn't as bad on Interstate 16 as Tuesday's exodus, but roads were full and Savannah was once again becoming a populated city.

Those who left their homes Tuesday expecting to find little left, instead found little changed.

"Once again, being in this crook on the coast is wonderful," said Paula DeVivo of Tybee Island. "We made it through another one."

The storms caused by Floyd came and went quickly through Savannah, leaving little evidence of anything more than a thunderstorm.

Small debris, mostly dead limbs and leaves, and a few downed power lines were the few markers left by what was projected to be Georgia's storm of the century.

"We dodged a very big bullet," said Pete Nichols, public information director for the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency. "Those downed limbs and other debris are nothing more than nature's pruning."

Residents started arriving in Savannah almost immediately after the rains stopped around 9 p.m. Wednesday.

A few folks who stayed in town ventured down to River Street to see what damage had been done to the riverfront restaurants and shops.

Besides a couple of collapsed storm drains and some concrete blown off the side of one of the street's older buildings, it was business as usual on a clear, beautiful night.

As the night wore on, vans and cars with turtle tops and pulling boats began trickling into the city before the 8 a.m. lifting of the mandatory evacuation by the local emergency management agency, using back roads and alternate highways. One person ran through the barricades set up on I-16, according to Savannah police.

The ghost town began feeling a strong pulse as the sun rose Thursday in Savannah.

On Tybee Island, Paul and Paula DeVivo began taking the boards off of their business, Tybee Island Online. The couple had driven all night from Albany, Ga., after hearing the first reports of the storm passing by without much incident.

They both said that it might be hard for people to take a similar mandatory evacuation seriously after the hype of Floyd.

"What people had to go through to get out of here will make some people think twice about leaving next time," said Mr. DeVivo, who heard of people waiting 12 hours in traffic.

Across the street from their store, a car that had been given two parking tickets two days before Floyd hit was untouched, the tickets still lying intact under the windshield wipers.

Tybee resident Howard Bellinger also made the overnight trip home, coming from his hotel in Augusta in time to see the sunrise on the beach.

He found his trash cans, left outside on his driveway, still standing.

In downtown Savannah, people were pouring onto the streets to take down plywood and enjoy the sunny morning. Joggers, pedestrians and the first signs of traffic in more than 36 hours set the scene for the start of a picturesque day.

Robert Schwartz, Larry Smith and S.A. Walcott returned early to see for themselves if any of the rumors floating around refugee centers around the state were true.

"We heard that Tybee was under 25 feet of water and that River Street was flooded, but obviously nothing's changed," said Mr. Smith, standing on a dry River Street.

But there were some sporadic power outages even this morning as some people returned to their homes.

Of the estimated 51,000 that were without power at one point Wednesday night, Mr. Nichols said the number was down to a fraction of that. He also said there were no other problems, except for a couple of downed trees.

He recommended to avoid a traffic jam that people take advantage of an extended weekend away from home because local schools and most businesses were staying closed.

"We're still here, and we're going to be here whenever anyone decides to come home," he said.

Reach Mark Mathis at (706) 823-3332 ormarmathis@yahoo.com.