September 14, 2020, with Hurricane Sally intensifying in the Gulf, a group of long-time friends who attend Deerfoot Baptist Church in Trussville, AL, decided to proceed with plans for a much anticipated and long-awaited beach trip to Gulf Shores, AL. Of the sixteen who originally signed up, the “Crazy Eight,” as Jack and Judy Hill, Nick and Olga Hill, Arnold and Jo Self, Linda Taylor and Bob Banes called themselves, were the only ones who ended up going.
Their destination was about two miles west of Gulf Shores. Their three-story stilt house rental was about 200 yards from water on three sides of the peninsula. However, even with water all around, the group wasn’t extremely concerned.
“The real estate office assured us there hadn’t been problems with flooding or wind. It was a fairly new house and had been built with the latest hurricane codes, so I wasn’t worried,” said Jack Hill.
When they made the final verdict on whether to go or stay, the forecast was stating that Hurricane Sally was supposed to hit Louisiana. Heavy winds and rain were predicted for all along the Gulf, but as the group had planned to be inside the majority of the time anyway, this wasn’t an issue, even deciding that the only extra provisions they needed to take were some flashlights.
They arrived late Monday afternoon, Taylor’s birthday. She said, “We’re going to have some stormy time in Gulf Shores but it’s going to go on to New Orleans and let us have a good time. Well, Sally decided she wanted to party with us.” When they arrived, it had just started raining but the forecast still said it would hit west of Gulf Shores.
On Tuesday the group kept an eye on the weather but did what Baptists normally do on these trips — eat and play games. They did go to the store to purchase charcoal, anticipating a probable power outage, but otherwise nothing changed.
By Tuesday evening, they knew the hurricane was coming right at them. Around 9:30, those in the lower floors went to their bedrooms while those occupying the third floor stayed downstairs and talked, nervous about going up. About 10:15 they decided to try it. They found that walking was difficult because the house was swaying so much. So, they decided to sleep on the main floor.
They gathered what they needed and stepped onto the elevator. Just before pushing the “down” button, the power went out. Thankfully, God provided for the group as one of the people on the elevator was claustrophobic.
It was around 10:30 p.m. All of the chairs and beds were shaking, and water sloshed in all of the toilets. The wind was whistling through door and window cracks so loudly it hurt. They could hear debris hitting the house.
At this point, everyone went downstairs to have a prayer meeting. J. Self said, “We all laughed and called it a pajama party.” Banes fell asleep on a couch, saying he knew God was going to take care of him. N. Hill looked up Bible verses about God’s protection and weathering the storm and read them aloud.
Though it was a nervous time with very high winds, they weren’t overcome with fear. Since it was night, they couldn’t see how far the predicted storm surge was getting and they weren’t sure how long the house would hold up with those winds, which added to the anxiety some felt.
When Sally hit land, the group’s organizer, Judy Hill said “grabbed my husband’s hand because it was so loud. We were right on the edge of the eye, like 100 mph winds. It was so noisy, and the house was creaking, and we could hear screeching. We could hear [debris] flying and didn’t know if it came from our house. So, I started praying … Lord, if you want to take me now, I’m ready to go.’ And then I got peaceful. I wasn’t worried anymore.”
When the wind stopped, it was like turning a fan off. “That was the most scary [sic] part, I think. We had gotten used to hearing that wind all night and then it was gone,” said Taylor.
Wednesday morning, they opened windows and shutters for natural light and a breeze (having no air conditioning). With no electricity, the first priority was to take care of the refrigerated and frozen foods. The rental had two refrigerators with an icemaker in each. It was just enough ice to store the food in the coolers the first day.
They sent three of the men to survey the damage, “like Noah sent the dove out in the Bible,” said J. Self. Houses nearby had lost siding and shutters. They saw an air conditioner hanging by the cord with its supporting pallet gone. Sand dunes near other houses had sidewalk sized holes punched out.
As far as they could tell, their house had no damage. The sand dune had stayed intact and no water was under the house. One of their vehicles had gutters and a shutter leaning against it but no dents, even with hurricane force winds. The only issue was sand and salt residue on their vehicles.
As seasoned citizens, there was nothing they could do to help others. So, other than an underlying concern about what others were going through, they did what they would normally do on a trip together — eat and play games. They looked for the humorous side of this experience and laughed a lot.
Throughout the day they ate foods that didn’t have to be heated — mostly sandwiches and snacks. They drank sodas and bottled water. Thankfully, the BBQ grill hadn’t blown away and they had charcoal, so Wednesday night they ate a meal they had planned much earlier — salad, steak, and baked potatoes.
After their food was cooked, the charcoal was still hot and their next-door neighbors needed heat to cook their meal of jalapeño poppers. The neighbors were from Oklahoma and California (coming to Gulf Shores to escape the fires).
Not knowing water was limited, they washed dishes and used up the small amount of water still in the pipes. They had enough bottled water to drink and to brush their teeth, but they had another issue — washing hands and flushing the toilets.
COVID-19 meant they all had hand sanitizer. Each having been through a lot in life, they had dealt with the toilet issue before and knew buckets of water would flush the toilets. N. Hill had spied a bucket earlier and his wife, O. Hill, mentioned they could use it and the water in the little private pool on their main level porch to flush the toilets.
As all had mobility issues and no elevators, water had to be carried by stairs to the bathrooms in all of the floors as needed. J. Self laughingly said, “The guys were great with the bucket brigade.”
Knowing there would be no power or water for days, the group decided to return home a day early. A few went out searching for enough ice to keep any unused food good during the trip home. The nearest Publix and Target weren’t open, but another Publix was using generator power to open up. There were very long lines and, sadly, no ice was left.
However, the neighbors with whom they had shared the hot BBQ grill had extra ice and ended up giving them two bags, which was just enough to get all the food home.
It wasn’t until they were on the road home that they realized just what they had survived. Power poles and trees littered the streets; traffic lights were out; roofs were completely gone; light poles looked like a knocked over line of dominoes; various debris was scattered; and water was everywhere. They saw a condo whose top three floors had lost the outside wall closest to the ocean.
The power was out all the way to Bay Minette, about 50 miles away, and it was almost impossible to find gas. Lines for the few gas stations that were open were up to a half mile long. The group had all filled up their vehicles when they first arrived but after being in incredible traffic for hours, they needed a bathroom break and something to eat.
They finally found a sole restaurant open in Bay Minette. Judy Hill said, “This restaurant had 506 people waiting when it opened at 6:00 a.m. By the time our group arrived around 2:00 p.m., they only had hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and a little bit of peach pie left.”
Self was grateful for something else. “What a treat it was to go into that place where they had bathrooms that flushed,” she said.
After that point, the traffic moved a little faster and they all arrived home between 7:00 and 8:00 that evening. Taylor said, “We were totally blessed to get home safely. My heart breaks for those people who live down there or have rentals. … It’ll be a while before Gulf Shores is back.”
Even after experiencing a Class 2 hurricane, the entire group was glad they went.
Taylor said that she was reminded to “be thankful for what God gives you. Don’t take anything for granted. … This made our faith stronger. We all knew that God had each of us protected. There were a lot in Birmingham who were praying for us.”
Hill said, “We managed to go through it. We just felt like we had gone back in time 100 years — no power, no water — but you do what you have to do.”
Self said, “It was a good trip; it really was. If I had to do it over again, I would.”
Judy Hill summed it up by saying, “We can go through anything. There’s nothing like the fellowship of Christian friends in spite of the storm.”