Despite downgrade, Beryl still soaks Memorial Day

Published May 28, 2012

| Associated Press

Joyce Connolly and her daughters left their home in Hurricane, W.Va., to head south for a Memorial Day beach vacation — and ended up in the center of Tropical Storm Beryl.

While it left little damage after sweeping ashore with 70 mph winds around midnight Sunday at Jacksonville, Fla., the storm still wrecked much of Connolly's trip. She skipped a graduation ceremony because powerful winds kept her and her daughters from venturing past the beach boardwalk when the storm approached Sunday. She also postponed their drive home Monday as Beryl, downgraded to a tropical depression, continued to dump rain near the Georgia-Florida state line.

"It definitely changed our vacation to unfortunate circumstances that we're not happy with. But you just have to live with it," said Connolly, who at least found the irony of her hometown's name "pretty funny."

Beach trips, backyard barbecues and graveside Memorial Day observances got a good soaking in southeastern Georgia and northern Florida.

Beach lifeguards turned swimmers away from the ocean because of dangerous rip currents from Jacksonville to Tybee Island, Georgia's largest public beach 140 miles to the north. Skip Sasser, who oversees the island's lifeguards as its fire chief, said beach traffic was unusually thin for a holiday. The ocean was declared off-limits to swimmers for a second day in a row.

"It's been raining intermittently, so it's chased a lot of them off," Sasser said. "There was a lot of traffic this morning heading westbound out of Tybee."

Veterans groups, meanwhile, carried out outdoor Memorial Day ceremonies despite the grim forecast.

At Savannah's historic Bonaventure Cemetery — made famous by the book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" — American Legion members worked through a downpour to make sure its plot for veterans had a small American flag planted by each headstone.

"When we were setting up, I had a different shirt on and I got soaked to the skin. My socks and my underwear probably are, too," said Jim Grismer, commander of American Legion Post 135 in Savannah. "I had so many people trying to talk me into moving it inside. But I said then you can't have the live firing salute and the flag raising."

The rain paused just as a crowd of about 100 people began arriving. Robert Schulz, an 80-year-old who served in the Marines in the Korean War, held a folded umbrella in one hand as he saluted with the other during the service. Schulz said he and his wife briefly considered skipping the ceremony for the first time in 10 years.

"I said it would be terrible if nobody showed up," Barbara Schulz said. "We had to come for our veterans."

Aside from ruining holiday plans, the rain was welcome on the Georgia coast for bringing some relief from persistent drought. According to the state climatologist's office, as of May 1, rainfall in Savannah was 15 inches below normal for the past 12 months.

Emergency officials said minor flooding was reported near the coast, but the ground was quickly soaking up the water. And the winds had died down considerably.

"We've needed it for a long time," said Ray Parker, emergency management director for coastal McIntosh County south of Savannah, who said the worst damage came by trees falling on two homes overnight. "We were lucky that we didn't get 3 to 4 inches in 30 minutes. Most of it soaked right in before it had a chance to run off. It fell on an empty sponge."

The rainfall stopped in Savannah and other northern parts of the Georgia coast Monday afternoon, but more was expected through Tuesday. A frontal system moving south from the Great Lakes is expected to cause the storm do a U-turn and push it back out to sea.

Streets in Jacksonville Beach were unusually vacant. Bands of blinding rain alternated with dry conditions.

Taylor Anderson, captain of Jacksonville Beaches' American Red Cross Volunteer Lifesaving Corps, said he was coordinating safety procedures with local government officials. The beach was closed, but before it was on Sunday, lifeguards over and over again had to warn people to get out of the water, he said.

"Now that the storm's finally onshore and people can see that it's so dangerous and the winds and the current are up, people are lot more hesitant to go in, more so than yesterday," Anderson said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said much progress was made repairing Beryl's damage, including removing trees and restoring power to homes and businesses.

"We're very fortunate this did not become a hurricane," he said. "If it had been a couple of months later, we could have had a Category 3 hurricane."

In northeast Florida, several Memorial Day events were canceled, including one honoring veterans at the St. Augustine National Cemetery and a parade in Palatka.

"I don't mean to sound mushy, but today is Memorial Day and I hate that it ruined some plans," said Glynn County, Ga., emergency management director Jay Wiggins. "But that's just the nature of the weather."

Beryl was expected to bring 5 to 10 inches of rain to parts of northern Florida and southeastern Georgia, with some areas getting as much as a foot and a half of rain, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said late Monday night. Forecasters said Beryl could produce up to six inches of rain in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina.

As they left the Savannah cemetery, 76-year-old Army veteran Byron Stephens and his wife, Marilyn, said they were determined to attend the Memorial Day ceremony regardless of the weather.

"It didn't stop people from fighting in inclement weather," Marilyn Stephens said. "This is what Memorial Day is all about."

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay from Miami and Kate Brumback from Atlanta contributed to this report.

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