On Thursday, September 7, the governor of Georgia issued a mandatory evacuation of all 147,000 Savannah residents. Hurricane Irma was barreling toward the coastal city, expected to make landfall as a Category 4 that coming weekend. After the damage the city sustained last October during Hurricane Matthew, most businesses weren’t taking risks. Savannah started shutting down — cars were packed, windows boarded up, goodbyes were said. On Sunday, September 11, Irma arrived in Georgia, ultimately leaving 1.5 million without power and three dead. Throughout the South and the Caribbean, damage was profound.
I didn’t evacuate. I grew up in Northern Canada, and inclement weather has never scared me. I figured I’d be okay on the second story of the concrete apartment building where I live, so I opted to load up on wine, snacks, and water and ride out the storm, as did several of my friends. As the days leading up to the storm passed — and we started growing weary of eating nonperishables — we ventured out. Save for a few bars that were still pouring pints, it was hard enough to even find an open corner store. So when I heard that the Grey, one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, was still plating up food, the call of a warm meal and friendly faces was all too tempting.
“It wasn’t really a choice for us,” the Grey’s co-owner John “Johno” Morisano said after the storm had passed. “We were going to be open. It’s either going to be me by myself or it’s going to be myself and whoever feels comfortable with being in Savannah.” And that’s what they did: opened the restaurant’s doors with a skeleton crew. “We encouraged everyone [from our staff] to follow the mandatory evacuation,” Morisano said. “Everyone who stayed in town had taken ownership of the fact that we were there for our neighbors. People saw that this is our role and it was tangible to them.”
Good news... We are #open for #lunch and #dinner today. Bad news... This is your #cleaning, #cooking, #serving and #hospitality crew. #friedchicken @tree_boy330 @bmorenicole @t_stormz @flabbiabi and @thegrey_johno #FlounderandOtter #whateverittakes #servethecommunity #hereforsavannah #kissourassirma #savannah #tougherthanwindandrain
With a diminished staff — most had evacuated by Thursday — and an even more limited food supply, the Grey opened up its doors to the community as rains started moving through the city and the last of the evacuators took to Interstate 95, leaving the city looking increasingly like a ghost town. I went in on Friday night and saw the Grey’s more casual-leaning Diner Bar full of familiar faces, including staffers from nearby bars, as well as new faces, all there to hide from the storm.
It was no easy feat keeping chef and co-owner Mashama Bailey’s kitchen fully functioning in the days before and after the storm. Bailey herself was in Atlanta for an event with several other local chefs over the hurricane weekend, leaving the kitchen to her sous chefs Brian Fiasconaro and Trevor Elliot. While the Grey usually receives a truckload of produce almost every single day, trucks stopped showing up three days before the hurricane. As the final few items of the last produce delivery dwindled and the walk-ins took a turn for the barren, Elliot and Fiasconaro had to get creative to feed the growing crowd. They took the five quails left in the walk-in — usually marinated in house-made hot sauce, grilled to order, and served alongside a panzanella salad — and deep-fried them, serving the birds on a first-come, first-served basis.
The chefs turned several of the 28-day aged ribeyes — usually char-grilled and served with a compound herb butter — into sandwiches, placing the sliced meat on a house-made bun for a juicy prime rib sandwich. The homestyle potatoes they served on the side only made it on the plate thanks to a manager who spent the morning frantically scouring local grocery stores for enough potatoes to make it through the day’s service. The citrus suppliers weren’t delivering, so cocktails were sans garnish. None of us minded; we were happy to sip the $4 drinks the bartenders were pouring that night.
The #hurricaneirma festivities continue today in the #DinerBar from 1pm to 5pm. We have drink specials (although not a lot of garnishes so forgive us if your lemon twist is missing). Charcuterie, crab cakes, cheese and whatever other goodies @t_stormz and @tree_boy330 can rustle up for you. Board games provided by @thegrey_johno and @carolsawdye so please try not to lose any of the pieces, dammit. And yes, 'Operation' has batteries in it - we checked. #kissourassirma #whenindoubtdrinkeatandplayboardgames #savannah #tougherthanwindandrain #FlounderandOtterinthehouse #servethecommunity #wearehavingfun #thankssavannah!
On Sunday, mere hours before Irma was set to hit, the staff had dwindled to the point that managers were waiting tables and any staff available was on cleaning duty. Back for a second visit, I saw Morisano manning the charcuterie station. Guests were playing the board games he brought in to lighten the mood. And, despite darkening skies and the four-and-a-half-foot storm surges barreling into the coast, not a seat in the house was empty.
That night at the restaurant, we felt more excited than scared. People — staff and guests alike — were actually laughing, enjoying themselves and their experience. At the bar I shared stories and daiquiris with a couple who ended up in Savannah after fleeing their Southern Florida home. After hours of driving, the Grey was a respite. It was the only open restaurant they found on their drive up I-95, and, luckily for them, this one had the promise of a ribeye sandwich and a decent glass of wine.
“I have to be honest,” Morisano admitted later, “the staff truly got as much out of it as the guests did. We really had fun. We were proud of what we were able to be for the community.”
The storm was far kinder to the city than anyone had predicted. It was stomach-turning to be sure; streets flooded, many a live oak hit the pavement, and the power flickered for the days following. Any of the apprehension and anxiety I would’ve felt sitting at home waiting for the inevitable was calmed by the sense of community in that dining room. Yes, the Grey is just a restaurant. But that weekend, it was also a port in the storm.
Thank you #savannah for sharing the weekend with us! In stressful times there is nothing more comforting than #camaraderie and mutual support from your community. Our thoughts are with all of our friends and neighbors who were impacted by the storm - especially those in Florida. #staystrong We will be closed today (Monday) as normal. We will see you all tomorrow. #servethecommunity #savannah It's #911 #neverforget #tougherthanwindandrainandmorethanthat
Kate Dingwall is a Canada-born, Savannah-based writer.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan