On a misty morning several days after Hurricane Irma battered the Georgia coast, eight Red Cross volunteers loaded dozens of boxes of relief supplies and more than 70 cases of water onto a passenger ferry bound for a barrier island. The ferry is the only public access to Sapelo Island, about 45 miles south of Savannah.
The volunteers were headed for Hog Hammock, which has fewer than 100 residents and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents and their forebears have lived on Sapelo Island for more than 200 years. They are doing their best to preserve their Geechee-Gullah heritage, which combines their African background and the island traditions they’ve created.The New York Times has called it “one of the most fragile cultures in America.”
They’re also used to hurricanes, and everyone left the island during Irma. Upon returning to their homes they found numerous tree falls and much flooding. When the Red Cross team arrived, power and water had been out for days. Maurice Bailey, who said he was a ninth-generation Geechee, had flooding above the floorboards of his home, which would classify it as destroyed, according to Damage Assessment volunteer Jewel Young. She said most of the homes surveyed were in the categories of destroyed or with major damage.
The supplies distributed filled two pickup trucks. They included meals ready-to-eat, or MREs, cleanup kits, comfort kits, shampoo, baby wipes and the cases of water. Volunteers and residents first unloaded them to a central location selected by the residents – a guest house known as the Wallow. Members of some 30 families came by as word spread rapidly that the Red Cross had arrived. The volunteers left a portion of the supplies behind for those unable to come right away.
As the residents dropped by, the Damage Assessment and Mental Health teams spread out, providing comfort and critical information on top of the relief supplies. Every resident the volunteers encountered was grateful for the help, the volunteers said.
When Andrea Dixon came to the Wallow for supplies, she was still upset that a live oak tree had crashed onto her roof during the storm. Branches had been cut away to allow her to enter her home. The tree was still on the roof days later, with a blue tarp stretched over it and the roof.
“The Red Cross came by and they have been absolutely terrific,” she said. “They brought us meals, water, and cleanup supplies, and they’ve been absolutely great.”
To a person, the volunteers were moved by the experience and impressed by the people of Hog Hammock.
Sarah Knuth with Mental Health and her colleague Elizabeth Wood managed to talk to 40 people in a few hours. Despite the stress of the hurricane, Knuth found them “resilient and very hospitable. They are just wonderful and fascinating people.”