Joanne DeVincenzo walked briskly up to her husband, Ed, outside Tramici restaurant on St. Simons Island on Tuesday afternoon, clueless, but urgent.
“What am I doing, am I cutting cucumbers?” she asked.
“Yes,” Ed O’Grady told his wife. “And I believe I am cracking eggs, and I know I am cracking up.”
After enduring Hurricane Matthew last October, this comedic couple is no stranger to hurricanes. But kitchens?
“I haven’t cooked since I met him,” DeVincenzo said before waltzing away into the restaurant.
Ed and Joanne usually make reservations at this fine-dining establishment, but they were among the handful of islanders who joined chef and Tramici owner Dave Snyder to feed the hard-working folks who were trying to restore order after Hurricane Irma blasted St. Simons Island and the Golden Isles with high winds, heavy rain and record-breaking storm surge late Sunday and Monday.
The storm left the island without power and wreaked widespread damage from flooding to downed trees and power lines. The power squads, public works crews and law enforcement officers who arrived in Irma’s immediate aftermath will no doubt work up big appetites while restoring order over the next few days. Restauranteurs like Snyder hope to keep them well fed.
“You’ve got people out there working with chainsaws, working on tractors, cleaning up the mess,” Snyder said. “We’re just trying to do our part with food.”
Short-handed because of the storm, Snyder’s kitchen was staffed mostly with people more accustomed to being on the seated side of a Tramici menu.
“Everybody’s pitching in,” Snyder said. “I’ve got 12 people here — only two of them are employees. People want to help out, I’m just putting them to work.”
Hulking John Deere tractors, Army Humvees and Georgia Power trucks filled the parking lot at Southern Soul at the roundabout at Frederica and Demere roads.
The picnic tables outside were occupied by uniforms of all stripes — Glynn County Public Works, Glynn County Police, Army National Guard, state Department of Natural Resources and Georgia Power.
Like Snyder at Tramici, the owners of Southern Soul Barbeque were more than willing to feed the folks doing the hard work necessary to get St. Simons Island up and running.
The popular barbecue joint did the same thing last year, when Hurricane Matthew plowed through the Golden Isles and left more than $10 million in damages in its wake.
“Déjà vu,” said Griffin Bufkin, Southern Soul co-owner. “Same as last year. We’re just feeding first responders and emergency personnel. The community has rallied behind us, and we’re just paying it forward.”
The restaurant’s pitmaster, Harrison Sapp, said both the work and restaurant crews were toiling as hard and as fast as they could.
“They are trying to get everybody back home as quick as possible,” Sapp said. “We love the community, and we want it to get back up and running, quick like.”
Both Snyder and the Southern Soul men were quick to point out they were not the only restaurants pitching in. Others included Bubba Garcia’s and Half Shell, both contributing food to the Southern Soul kitchen. Tramici’s kitchen got food from Loco’s and Palmer’s Village Cafe, and Brogen’s North was feeding hamburgers to responders and island residents.
“All I’m doing is connecting people,” Snyder said. “We’ve got to take care of the people who are taking care of us, plain and simple.”
Those were people like Antio Davis and Thaddeus Johnson. The two veteran county public works employees sat across from each other at Southern Soul during lunch hour Tuesday. The two Brunswick residents had worked hard all morning, helping to clean up the mess Irma left behind. After so many years working on the island, the two expressed a sense of ownership and responsibility to do their part.
“It’s great,” Johnson said of the good, free meal served up by Southern Soul. “It’s all about helping people. They’re helping people, we’re helping people.”
Davis expressed a fondness for the island along with a desire to get things back to business as usual.
“We’re trying to make the island back like it was — beautiful,” Davis said. “The island is our (work) zone, and we love it. It keeps our county going. It’s all about tourism.”
The public works crews certainly had their work cut out for them.
Testimony to the strength of Monday’s storm surge during the noon-hour high tide lay scattered about the grass and walkway along Neptune Park’s oceanfront.
The tide tossed boulder-sized Johnson Rocks — erosion-prevention stones installed during the Johnson administration — from the seashore abutment up into the park as if they were little more than beach balls. P
aver bricks from the walkway lay scattered everywhere. A 30-yard stretch of the path was washed out entirely, as were whole swaths of the picnic pavilion. Oceanfront roads such as Beachview Drive and Park Way were covered by as much as a foot of sand.
“There is a lot of work to do,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of trees in the way, a lot of power lines down. The water’s starting to recede a bit, but there is still a lot of standing water there.”
Although Irma’s center passed some 100 miles away from here, the Georgia coast found itself in the crosshairs of the storm’s powerful northeast quadrant, according meteorologists with the national weather service in Jacksonville.
Irma dropped some 10 inches of rain on Glynn county between Sunday night and Monday afternoon, accompanied by winds of 60 mph on the mainland and gusts of 70 mph and greater on the islands, the weather service said.
Monday’s high tide caused widespread flooding, thrust inland from the beach with a record-setting 6.9-foot storm surge above mean high tide. And the surge was certainly much higher since the gauge that measured it at the St. Simons Island Pier stopped working due to the conditions at 11:45 a.m. High tide did not crest until 12:35 p.m.
By then St. Simons Island and the rest of the Golden Isles had been caught in a widespread power outage for several hours.
Ron McRae was part of a Georgia Power crew who hoped to remedy that soon. After a good meal at Southern Soul, the crew set out again, scouting downed lines and fallen utility poles for the power calvary that would soon arrive on their heels.
“We’re just out assessing damage,” McRae said. “Crews are on the way, I’m sure they’ll probably end up getting here later today from out of town, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, the Carolinas, all over.”
Meagan Counts’ job as a second-grade teacher at St. Simons Elementary School is on hold until enough semblance of order emerges that classes can resume. In the meantime, Counts busied herself Tuesday raking up the thick carpet of leaves, broken twigs, and other debris that covered the entire front entrance to the school. Her boyfriend, Ryan Toler, was nearby with a leaf blower, helping clean up the school for his daughter, Molly, a third-grader.
“We’re just cleaning up the school the best we can,” Counts said. “So when the kids get here, they’ll have a place to go that’s not ruined with debris. We have no power, so this is better than sitting around in the dark.”