A Post-it Note. A little square scrap of crumpled yellow paper with a sticky strip on the back was stuck in with some old photos that I was recently going through. It looked like just a piece of trash. But there was some faded handwriting on it. Once I read it, I remembered why I had saved it.
This little note spawned one of my most unplanned, unexpected, and somewhat scary journeys. It took me from an island, through numerous states, and hundreds of miles. None of which I had planned. It all happened because of the message on this Post-it Note.
Well that’s not totally true. The weather played a big part in it. This is a story of how I was chased off an island on the coast of Georgia and driven into the mountains of Tennessee by Hurricane Floyd.
Here’s some background. It all happened back in 1999. That year, my oldest son was attending college in Savannah, GA. It was early September, and I had just driven him down with all his stuff to help him move into his dorm room to start his second year. It took a couple of days to drive down and a couple more days to get him settled.
On this trip south, I planned to take some vacation time and do a little exploring on my own once I got him settled. My plan once I left Savannah, was to drive north a little ways and camp out on Cumberland Island National Seashore. I had made reservations and was planning a two night stay.
Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cumberland Island is a beautiful unspoiled barrier island off the coast of Georgia. Its 17 miles long and about 2 miles wide at its widest point. Other than an inn and a couple private residences, 95% of the island is protected and undeveloped. It’s a great place to see a barrier island that’s had no development.
It’s all controlled by the National Park Service. There’s a small ferry (no cars) out to the island from St. Mary’s, GA. The park service maintains a ranger station, a small (16 walk in sites) developed campground (Sea Camp) and three primitive campsites for backpackers. The daily number of visitors is limited. Walking is the only allowed mode of transportation.
I had a reservation for a two night stay at Sea Camp, which I made 6 months in advance. It was a new adventure and I was anxious to explore this remote island.
The day before I departed Savannah, I saw news reports about Hurricane Floyd that was targeted to make landfall possibly within a few days somewhere along the mid-Florida coast line. The hurricane’s projections were all over the place in terms of strength and when and where it would hit. I figured – what the hell. I had planned this trip 6 months ago and was really looking forward to the adventure of exploring the island. If the hurricane went south, stayed out to sea, or petered out, then it was no problem. If it kept going west and made land fall, the Park Service would alert me in time and evacuate the island. So, I figured what the heck. I’m just a day away. I’ll go out and see what fate will bring.
The day I went out, the weather was beautiful. It was sunny with a slight breeze – warm summer like weather. I checked in with the ranger, found my site, and set up my small backpack tent. I then ventured out and spent the rest of the day hiking and exploring the beach and island. What a beautiful place.
When I got back to my campsite, the post it note was on my tent. I decided to heed the notice and packed up my tent and headed back to the ferry dock. Cumberland Island would be here for another visit. I took the 4:45 pm ferry with most of the other campers and was back in St. Mary’s by 5:30 pm.
This all happened before the time of smartphones. There were no weather or news apps to check what was happening. I had to stop at a bar to see the latest weather report and heard that Hurricane Floyd was now projected to glance off the coast of Georgia and hug the coast as it continued going north. The good news was there would be no land fall. The bad news was it would bring 110 mph winds near the coast and a 10 ft tidal surge. All the coastal areas including Savannah were under an evacuation order.
I immediately drove back to Savannah to see if I could find my son. Liam didn’t have a cell phone back then, so I couldn’t call him. Calls to his dorm went unanswered. When I got to Savannah, there was a steady stream of cars leaving the city. The college was an empty ghost town and no one was at his dorm. I figured they had evacuated and sought shelter somewhere. So, I spent the night in an empty hotel out by the highway. The next morning, I headed out on my own evacuation.
The road out of Savannah was a slow-moving multi mile traffic jam. Once I made it to I-95, my plan was to head north a ways up to I-26. One there, I met another clogged road full of cars and trucks all headed in-land. The drive to Columbia, SC was a slow stop and go crawl. I figured once I was past Columbia I would get beyond all the evacuees but the heavy traffic just continued well past the city. Time for a plan B.
I targeted Asheville, NC as a destination. I figured no one could possibly be going this far. Once there, I’d get a chance to do some sight-seeing in the city, visit the Biltmore estate, and check out the surrounding mountains. I’d be well away from any hurricane and the throng of evacuees. I figured wrong. Asheville had no hotel rooms available. Nada nothing. They were all booked up with evacuees from the coastal areas.
My only option was to just keep driving inland. Somewhere, maybe in Tennessee or Kentucky, I’d find a place to stay. At Johnson City, Tennessee, I stood in line at the check-in desk of a Super 8 Motel and got the next to last hotel room. And that’s where I hunkered down for 2 days waiting out Hurricane Floyd – 370 miles away from the coast and Cumberland Island. My son took off with come class mates and drove 250 miles to a parents house in Atlanta. They all stayed safe.
Hurricane Floyd triggered one of the largest evacuations in the US history. It caused 2.6 million coastal residents to leave their homes and seek refuge inland. It caused almost $7B in property damages due to winds and flooding. I took the lives of 57 people. The tidal surge came in and peaked at 15 ft.
It’s a good thing I left Cumberland Island when I did. If I had stayed, I would have been washed away.