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Irma strands Florida family in Chatham County

Although the storm has passed and floodwaters have begun receding, the journey back to normalcy is far from over for two Florida families stranded in Chatham County.


The two families were evacuating from Brandenton, Fla., when their car broke down, leaving them with nowhere to go and no way of getting home — until the American Red Cross stepped in. Colona McGruder and her neighbor Shana Howell were making their way to Pennsylvania but ended up at a temporary shelter at Groves High School on Monday afternoon.

“It’s so overwhelming,” McGruder said. “We don’t know what to do, but we’re thankful for the help of the Red Cross.”

Local Red Cross volunteers set up blankets and cots for about 1,000 at Groves High School, 100 Wheathill Road in Garden City, early Wednesday morning to offer assistance to evacuees returning home to Savannah or simply passing through after Hurricane Irma. About 2,100 Chatham County residents were shuttled out of the county ahead of the storm and returned Tuesday.

“The shelter is open for anyone who needs additional time or assistance as they return home,” said Esther Sheppard, executive director of the Southeast and Coastal Georgia chapter of the Red Cross.

McGruder, a mother of two, said she initially planned to ride out the storm but made a last minute decision to leave ahead of mandated evacuations after talking with Howell.

“I’ve never evacuated before,” McGruder said as she paced back and forth in the lobby at Groves High School. “Shana was worried and the more we saw the news, the more concerned we got.”

Fearing the worst, the combined families, which included four kids and two small dogs, jumped on Interstate 95 and headed north. Then McGruder’s car broke down and the costs of repair were too high.

“Irma scared me,” Howell said. “I’m not native to Florida, and we decided that we could all go to my parents in Pennsylvania. She had a car and we had a little extra cash. She’s more like my sister. We figured we would be fine… We figured if we could get the car fixed then we would be fine. But the people at the (garage) kept increasing the price and the car still wasn’t fixed. Plus we had to pay for a hotel for every night that we weren’t at home.”

But officials say stories like McGruder’s are fairly common, and the shelter is there to help in any way it can.

“We are aware that the Salvation Army is full so we’re taking clients as they do damage assessments to their home,” said Shelly Talmo, shelter supervisor. “We are happy to have them.”

The makeshift shelter at Groves High School, 100 Wheathill Road in Garden City, is expected to close Sunday night ahead of the Savannah-Chatham schools reopening. Anyone in need of immediate assistance can contact the American Red Cross at 800-733-2767

United Way fund

United Way of the Coastal Empire has established the Hurricane Irma Relief Fund to provide support to those affected by Hurricane Irma. United Way will distribute 100 percent of the funds received to its funded agencies and programs that are on the front lines of disaster response and provide assistance to victims affected by the storm.

Donations are accepted to support response and recovery efforts related to the disaster. To give, go to or call 912-651-7700. Volunteers for restoration efforts should call 912-651-7727 or go to