• By Lt. Tim McMillan

The Night I Met Hurricane Matthew

Truly, my thoughts and prayers to everyone in Texas that have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. Because, if there is one thing I know, it is just how terrifying and destructive a hurricane can be.

On October 9th, 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit us. That night I was the night-shift operations commander at our primary shelter, which was a high school about 30 miles inland. The bulk of our officers were stationed with me and we had left only a six-person reactionary force back at the Police Department. A fairly risky venture considering, our department is less than a mile from the Ogeechee River which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean about 10 miles away. Initial reports suggested our department could be under 6 to 8 feet of flood waters from the storm surge.

Matthew was set to hit us in the early hours on October 9th. Since it wasn't like we would be going anywhere, I let our entire night-watch go to sleep. In fact, I was the only one who was awake when Matthew came roaring into our area around 2 a.m.

We human beings are so accustomed to being in control of everything around us, however, when you go through a hurricane you realize just how powerless you really are in this world.

While maintaining operations command, I was trying to monitor where exactly the hurricane was as it approached us. Look, you want to complain about "fake news." Try knowing that a hurricane is barreling down your way, and three different weather maps have it in three different locations. One has it 65 miles away. One has it 20 miles away. One has it making landfall, ironically, coming out the Atlantic Ocean and making a B-line right for your house.

36 hours earlier, my wife wasn’t overly thrilled that she had to load up with our 4- and 2-year-old sons, 2-month old daughter, and two dogs; and head northwest to get the hell out of Matthew’s way. However, at 2 am that morning, I was very thankful that I didn’t have to worry about them being home as the massive hurricane could have been wreaking a path of havoc straight towards our house. Honestly, at this point, I didn’t even know if my house was still standing.

As I switched back and forth between the weather maps, it began to sink in for me that no one really had a clue where exactly this hurricane was. There was zero legitimate real time info for what's going on around us. If you’ve never been through one before, one of the first things you find out is that with a hurricane, you basically assume when it’s hitting an area when a particular location goes off the grid and loses contact with the outside world. As certain areas begin to regain communications, you at least know where the hurricane isn’t anymore.

The last damage assessment that had come in was from St. Augustine, Florida. Video feeds were coming across showing the entire Spanish Quarter of St. Augustine under water. Basically, I knew that Matthew had to be between Jacksonville and us somewhere.

When I could see the 150-foot pine trees outside were almost horizontal to the ground, I assumed the hurricane had to be close. Around this same time, intermittent police radio chatter started picking up from Savannah Chatham-Metro Officers. I heard that Tybee Island was completely gone and underwater. Not long after that, I heard that the Islands Precinct Officers were headed inland and they were shutting down the Bull River Bridge that leads to all of the outer barrier islands around Savannah. Officers said that the river was starting to cover the bridge. I remember hearing that and thinking, “Holy Shit!” I mean the Bull River Bridge has to be at least 150 feet above sea level.

Suddenly, more populated areas were going underwater. There were reports of people trying to swim from apartment complexes to the nearby mall parking garage because the water was coming in so quick. Metro police cars started going down left and right as officers ran into downed trees. There was even a report of a completely submerged police car on the South Side of Savannah. I remember thinking why and the hell didn’t they pull their officers off the street?!

This constant mummer of digital chatter truly summed up that something immensely powerful, and frightening was occurring all around us.

As Matthew was wreaking havoc and carnage on Savannah, I began to I worry about my friends, and coworkers, who weren't able to flee the storm. Then came the sinking feeling of realizing that so many areas along the coast of Georgia had prolonged ordering a mandatory evacuation for so long the Governor himself had to step in and issue the mandate. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal will forever have my respect for how he handled Hurricane Matthew. Governor Deal had to basically assume leadership of a lot of cities and towns across Georgia when their own elected leadership froze under stress.

I started to worry all the people who didn’t make it out in time before the storm hit. Sure, my family had evacuated and was safe. However, we are all someone's family, so in a roundabout way, we are all basically like family in the grand scheme of things.

Then suddenly everything went completely dark. I lost radio communications, cell phones service, landlines were dead, and all the power was out. In an instant, 2016 became 1875, the year before the telephone was invented.

Now, when I say all the power was out, imagine staring outside and all you see is a pitch black abyss. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. However, it sounded like War of the Worlds was going on outside. Add to the creepy, every now and then the horizon would light up with a bright flash and there would be an explosion as a power transformer exploded. The wind was howling and then every now and then it would sound like a freight train was coming through the parking lot of the school. I remember thinking what the hell is that?

I’m standing in the door way of the high school’s cafeteria just listening to this chaotic scene going on outside. Remarkably, every single one of our officers was still fast asleep. After about an hour of listening to Matthew ruthlessly beating us up. I began to walk the interior of the school to check on the building’s structural integrity.

I discovered that the roof in the gym had caved in and water was raining down on us. When I got to the northeast side of the school, just for kicks I tried to open one of the big metal doors. However, that side of the building was the side that was taking the direct beatings from Matthew’s wide bands of intense wind. The force was so strong I couldn’t even open the door enough to get out if I wanted to. When I checked the western hallway of the school, I discovered the ceiling above me was creaking like the hull of an old wooden ship. Basically, the entire roof on this side was holding water and collapse was imminent.

Now, there isn’t any reason to let a large massive, and potentially deadly hurricane suck all the fun out of life. Because, as I was checking the school, I found a classroom that must have been like a health or Phys Ed room because it was filled with CPR manikins. This find was too good to pass up, and so I borrowed one of the infant manikins and crept over to the barracks area where the officers were sleeping.

Carefully, I placed the small lifelike manikin in the cot next to one of our detectives. Now, I’m not even making this up, and I’ve included the picture here to confirm it. Inexplicitly, the detective was awakened just enough by his new bedmate, that he wrapped his arm around the manikin and began to snuggle with it. I thought to myself, “who the hell just snuggles with a random baby that appears in their bed?"

After I checked the building, I decided we were all probably going to die when the entire roof collapsed. Basically, I determined there was no need to wake anyone up. Instead, just hope they got to go peacefully in their sleep.

I then assumed my post back in the command center to ride the rest of the hurricane out. Now, I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but, the Patrol Commander, who was the daytime operations commander, and I had selected an ideal location for operations command and barracks. The entire southeast side of the cafeteria was covered by the gym, which was two stories taller and its large brick walls extend out a good 100 feet beyond the doorways to the cafeteria. Because we were tucked into a little cavity, we were protected from Matthew’s destructive bands as they made land fall from the southeast.

What this little enclave also allowed me to do was sit, just outside the doors to the cafeteria so I could watch and listen as the hurricane hit us. I was completely secure, basically tucked into a cubby where the wind and rain couldn’t reach me.

As I sat there by myself looking out the doorway by myself, I realized I was experiencing pure raw, unbridled power. A hurricane is the closest thing I can imagine to experiencing God’s unstoppable authority Honestly, it was enchantingly incredible.

When the day shift operations commander woke up to take over, my report to him was I have no freaking clue what’s going on.

We had no communication with the outside world. By this point, things appeared to have calmed down. However, I didn’t know if this was the eye of the hurricane, or if it had indeed passed us. The last communications I had with the reactionary force back at the department was a text message from the other Lieutenant that said, "It's getting pretty bad here." That was five hours ago and I have heard nothing since. The Last report I received from NOAA said the police department was at risk for 10-12-foot storm surge. In terms of structural integrity, half of the roof gym had collapsed and water had been pouring in for almost 3 hours. The entire length of the hallway along to the northwest side of the school was under imminent threat of collapse. I had been hearing loud crashes and the cracking of trees falling, however, I was unable due to the darkness to see if our police cars were damaged or even if the entire fleet had been wiped out.

Basically, my assessment amounted to being, “Maybe we’re ok or maybe it looks like a scene from Mad Max outside. Hell, the entire city of Savannah may have been purged and swept into the ocean. Honestly, I have no clue.” As meager as the information was at the changing of the guard that was all I had, and then finally for the first time in almost 48 hours I got to go to sleep.

About 4-hours later I was woken up and told that we had sent out two scout teams who had successfully made it to the Police Department and back. The department still stood and we were going to be packing up and heading back to the city. As it stood right now, the city of Savannah was going to be completely shut down to everyone except for emergency personal for most likely a week, due to initial damage reports. I later found out, we didn’t even take a direct hit from Matthew that early morning. In fact, by sunrise, Matthew lived on and was still heading on up the East Coast finding new locations and people to terrorize.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the story of that time, a little less than a year ago, that I rode out a hurricane. Incredibly, I was the only officer in my entire agency, that actually got to experience

Hurricane Matthew first hand. Everyone else was asleep. Truthfully, I have to admit it was an awesome and exhilarating experience.

However, I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt, if you are ever in an area that finds itself in the path of a hurricane, please don’t worry about anything else except for just getting the hell out! There is no stopping it. There is no slowing it down. Basically, if a hurricane is headed your way, anything and everything along its path are going along for a ride. For me, that ride was indeed adrenaline inducing. However, if I don’t have to, I’d gladly never do it again.

Tim McMillan is a retired police lieutenant and investigative intelligence analyst; and holds BA's in mathematics and cognitive psychology. Primarily, focusing on the Defense and Intelligence Communities, he now uses his unique background, coupled with a willingness to examine any mystery, to deliver groundbreaking investigative reporting. Tim is a contributor for The War Zone, Vice, and Popular Mechanics

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© Lieutenant Tim McMillan All Rights Reserved by The Raziel Group LLC