As Hurricane Irma brought high winds and flooding to Savannah last week, numerous businesses from Hutchinson to Tybee islands brought a sense of community and normalcy with hot meals for first responders and those who sheltered in place during the storm.
On Hutchinson Island, the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center housed Duke Energy crews.
Downtown, the DeSoto Hotel on Liberty Street had its share of four-legged friends over the weekend after opening their doors to employees and their families, which included pets.
In Thunderbolt, westside, southside and Pooler, restaurants kept emergency and city crews fueled and ready.
On Chatham Parkway, the Savannah Morning News housed first responders and emergency management personnel from the county and the state.
Nearly 30 Parker’s locations across the Lowcountry kept their doors open during the height of the storm on Monday and provided food for first responders in Beaufort, South Carolina.
And on Tybee, businesses lined up to help those stranded there as the storm surge flooded roads.
For all, it was a sense of mission and responsibility.
“We’re locally driven, so we want to make sure we’re considered the resource for locals. Our responsibility, when possible, because obviously there was a mandatory evacuation, but our first and foremost responsibility is safety and security for everyone,” said Jeff Kmiec, managing director for the DeSoto.
The hotel provided space for employees who volunteered to stay throughout the storm. Kmiec said they hosted about 70 team members along with their families and then the locals started calling.
“Once that word got out that we were a safe haven we started to field calls from the local community who live in low lying areas or the islands,” he said.
As the hotel began to fill, Kmiec said they had to focus on how to take care of the guests and how to feed them since they were operating with a much smaller staff than usual, but the staff still rolled out three meals a day from Friday to Tuesday with Kmiec and other hotel executives serving up the food for the guests.
The hotel also had regular guest who had planned trips to Savannah before Irma moved up the coast and they also provided shelter for first responders.
“(The guests) made the best of the situation, too,” he said.
“… We had a team of helicopter pilots that were staged here and a team of police and rescue workers that were staged here and it really gives a sense of security for everyone when you see the community come together and rally around a particular cause.”
The hotel was equipped with emergency generators and a plan to shelter guests in interior ballroom spaces for safety, but once the path of the storm shifted Kmiec said they didn’t have to enact their emergency plan.
“The thing that struck me is the camaraderie that’s built during an event like that,” he said.
“And from the hotel’s perspective, the ability to provide safe shelter and a warm meal and the semblance that everything is going to be OK is almost an emotional time.”
For those team members who are coming back into town and finding themselves without electricity or have homes suffering from damage, the DeSoto’s parent company, Chesapeake Hospitality has set up an employee fund to assist those who suffered any type of loss.
“… It’s a pretty admiring thing to be a part of, just to show that we’re one big happy family, during the storm, after the storm. It’s devastating, the interruption in business also means interruption in someone’s life, interruption in someone’s hours and we’re just trying to make everyone whole,” he said.
Kmiec said the reaction and thanks from family members and the local community since the storm has been overwhelming, but Kmiec insists the hotel was just doing the right thing.
“When it became apparent that we were one of few hotels that stayed open we didn’t do anything with our rates. Our rates were our rates it was never a thought that we could be charging 10 times this amount because there is nowhere else for anyone to go,” he said.
“That’s not the intent of our place in our community. We always want to be viewed as the partner who would never dream of taking advantage of a situation like that… It’s such an important message for us to carry out.”
Several restaurants from Pooler to Savannah’s southside provided meals for first responders including, Lovezzola’s, Olive Garden and Circle K convenience store on White Bluff Road, who donated all their ice cream to the Savannah-Chatham police precinct at Oglethorpe Mall after the store lost electricity.
One familiar sight all over Chatham County and South Carolina was open Parker’s locations. More than two dozen locations were open on Monday when Irma swept through the area. The company also worked to provide Beaufort County Emergency Management Services with food for first responders as part of a special voucher program.
“This was a defining time in our company’s history. As this epic storm approached, we set a goal to be the last the close and the first to open. Together, we took our commitment to our customers and to our community to heart, said Greg Parker, president and CEO of Parker’s.
“We wanted Parker’s to be the place where people could meet their energy needs and find essential items at the prices they expect. I’m delighted that our team rose to the occasion, working incredible hours because they believed in our mission.”
To help their staff, which was working on a volunteer basis, the company offered time-and-a-half pay along with providing more than 70 hotel rooms and eight apartments to team members and their families.
“The teamwork at Parker’s before, during and after Tropical Storm Irma was extraordinary. Serving our customers was a true team effort,” Parker said.
While Irma was an epic storm, it was also an epic test for the company, according to Parker, but they focused on what customers needed such as milk, batteries and flashlights and never attempted to profit from the crisis.
“I’ve had so many customers thank me for keeping our stores open. It really meant a lot to the community, and it meant a lot to all of us at Parker’s as well. We felt a responsibility to help our customers during a time of need,” Parker said.
“We’re not driven by profit during a crisis. We’re driven by a commitment to our customers and to our community. At Parker’s, we made a promise to our customers to be the last to close and the first to open, and we fulfilled that promise.”
A little further east, Coach’s Corner and Tortugas Island Grille helped keep Thunderbolt’s police fed with burgers and pizza.
“We were the only ones open at the time, so we reached out to them and I know almost all of them. They come in on a regular basis,” Coach’s owner John Henderson said of the police department.
“We were able to open Saturday and Sunday, which was a blessing. And we did it with customers helping since our staff had gone out of town.”
Henderson also helped out during Hurricane Matthew last October, serving about 50 first responders from around the area every day, this year since the storm wasn’t as severe the number was much smaller, but he remained humble about both experiences, like so many others, he said it’s just the right thing to do.
“It really wasn’t a big to do. I’m glad people appreciated it, but it really wasn’t anything… We do numerous things for other people and we’re proud to do it and give back to the community and people who need it,” he said.
“We’re glad to help and fortunate to be able to, too… And if it happens again we’ll be here.”
On Tybee, which was inaccessible due to flooding during the storm Mayor Jason Buelterman said there were so many island establishments that helped out that it was too many to count.
“I think in a lot of situations like this it’s nice to have the food, but in this particular situation we actually needed the food. We were in a situation where we were unable to access the mainland from pretty much Sunday night through Tuesday when the bridges were opened up again. It wasn’t just helpful, but it was needed,” he said.
From The Breakfast Club and A-J’s Dockside Restaurant to Huc-A-Poos and Nickie’s 1971 Bar and Grill providing food to Atlantic Waste and Carroll & Carroll working to pick up debris and trash, everyone is working to get the island back on Tybee time.
“There’s going to be a lot of need out here, not just in the coming days, but in the coming months to get these people back to where they need to be. The sad thing is a lot of them are going through it for the second time in less than a year,” Buelterman said.
“I can’t express how appreciative our entire community is for what they did for us. To see people come together to help one another out, it’s great to see that.”
“We are happy and proud to be able to support our community, whether as a Red Cross Shelter or a staging camp for first responders Duke Energy,” said Sherrie Spinks, general manager of the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center, which housed dozens of linemen for North Carolina- based Duke Energy.
“We have a large facility that is capable of housing sleeping and feeding large numbers of people.”
Irma wasn’t the first time the facility has severed as a refuge from a major storm, last year after hurricane Matthew the building housed a Red Cross shelter and hosted those who couldn’t return home due to power outages or damage.
While the facility did receive some water damage, Spinks, who also sheltered in place at the center, said the conditions across the Savannah River were similar to what the rest of the county experienced and that the crew was happy to be able to support the community and responders.
“… This is what we do every day,” she said.
“Some events are large and complicated and some are simple and small. Supporting our community with these emergency type events is very rewarding for our team.”