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Remember Savannah’s service industry in hurricane recovery

  • A woman walks a dog in front of Sorry Charlie’s on Ellis Square ahead of Hurricane Irma’s visit to Savannah. Evacuations hurt many, including restaurant workers who work for tips. (Photos by Jesse Blanco/Special to Savannah Morning News)
  • The Jinx on Congress Street advertised its hours of business over boarded-up windows ahead of Hurricane Irma.

What a week, huh?

It’s easy to sit with your coffee now and casually read this, but a few days ago, this town was very different. Quite frankly, it was one of the most bizarre weeks in all of my 20 years in this town. However, at the end of the day, I am too happy it didn’t turn out nearly as bad as we thought it would.

A little perspective here: The majority of us started paying attention to Irma about Monday or Tuesday of last week. At that point, all of the dialogue surrounded “the worst storm in Atlantic recorded history.” This was the worst storm we had ever seen. At the time, it looked like the cone of uncertainty was pointing directly at Skidaway Island — even if the storm had yet to reach the Leeward Islands. Bottom line, there was plenty of reason to be scared. The largest contributor to that fear was the fear of the unknown. This was not Matthew. We were in trouble.

As a point of reference, my wife and I had more discussions about evacuation last week than we had ever had in 20 years of marriage. We grew up with storms in Florida. We were concerned.

That concern extended, obviously, to restaurant owners across the region.

Ahead of the storm, I spoke to a few of them who were, like the rest of us, optimistic the storm would make a turn. East, west, it didn’t matter. The memories of Matthew were still too fresh. At the same time, Matthew was playing high school football compared to the NFL All-Pro that was spinning in the Atlantic.

There was genuine fear out there last week. Numbers were already down as the population prepared for something very bad.

“Even if it doesn’t come here,” one restaurant owner told me, “the hype ahead of the storm makes it very difficult for us.”

It’s easy to blow off a statement like that as another wealthy restaurant owner lamenting not making as much money as expected, but I walked away from that chat wondering about the staff. Employees who, for the most part, work for tips — not only in Savannah, but also at other restaurants, from St. Simons Island all the way to Charleston. Everywhere, really.

I’m leaving names of restaurants out of this because the issue is not isolated to those particular spots. Once it was obvious late last week that the worst of Irma would miss the Coastal Empire, I asked a restaurant owner if he was open. “No, I’m here alone cleaning up,” he said. “My staff all evacuated.”

That scenario repeated itself across the area. How many “closed until further notice” tweets do you have to see before you realize a lot of hard-working food and beverage folks took a major hit last week? Two months from now, Irma may have come up in conversation even if the eye traveled well west of us. Give it some thought — it could have been so much worse.

Full disclosure: Because of the storm, deadlines were moved up, so I actually wrote this before the worst of Irma reaches our shores. I chose to write this now because at one point we all feared “the worst storm in Atlantic recorded history” and that didn’t happen.

Count me among those who are so glad it didn’t.

So, as we get our lives back in order and get back to whatever we call “normal,” give some thought to dining out this weekend. I know I am with my family. Remember that, while the visible damage may not be catastrophic around here, a lot of people will be spending their next few weeks trying to recover.

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Jesse Blanco is a veteran TV news anchor whose real passion is food — both cooking and eating. Find him at eatitandlikeit.com.

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