And the South Side Fell Dark

Dispatch from a Tornado-Tossed City  

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published May 18, 2008
When the sun set on Mother's Day, south Macon slipped on a shawl of tranquility. The town was under a tornado-wrought curfew. It was so quiet you could hear the breeze. The sky was clear. The wind, steady and at times gusting from the northwest, was the still-whistling tail of a cold front. Fifteen hours earlier, a thresher from the clouds had chopped Macon off at the knees. Now a city fell silent. The streets were deserted. An outer-space stillness took hold.

There was a half moon. You could see the stars. Gathered on the slope of an old Home Depot parking lot, dozens of police officers braced for the perils of urban emptiness. There was nervous chatter. Would there be looters, chaos, the darker it got?

One bluecoat broke the tension. "Remember," he said, "I need a 52-inch TV."

A woman rode up wanting to know where to go for candles. Another came searching for a place to sleep. Across Pio Nono Avenue, the Krispy Kreme, for ages an around-the-clock beacon, sat darker than an old pot of Sanka.

Even the Waffle Houses were closed. There was a serenity reminiscent of Christmas mornings before daybreak. Just with anxiety getting the better of anticipation. "You know," a policeman said, "it's a little eerie."

The evening took on the lonely aura of coastline after a hurricane, of a night in the wilderness with no campfire. Macon had been sent to bed early. Would it stay tucked in?

* * *

White rocks, pebbles and larger, were sucked off the roof of the old Westgate shopping center. Waves of rain and wind washed them up like seashells, ankle deep in places, at the eastern edge of the parking lot.

Macon police had stationed their Winnebago-like command post there, overlooking Eisenhower Parkway a dozen parking-space rows from where the city's first multiplex movie theater once sat. Twenty-five squad cars and maybe twice that many cops were ready to roll. Every hour or two, they'd return for sodas, water, snacks. Some came just for the light.

After dark, Marcus Baker, from the nearby Burlington Coat Factory, walked up. Like many managers of in-the-dark businesses, Baker had come to mind his store. Wind at his back, Baker peered into a sea of black that stretched from Lake Tobesofkee to the Ocmulgee River. Half the town was invisible.

"You're used to having people around," he said.

Baker, who is from down around Savannah, said, "If you've ever been to Tybee Island, it's like this there at this time of night."

All was calm. All wasn't bright. Mother Nature had pulled the plug.

* * *

Wendell Collier spends his days in the dark. The police patrol sergeant works midnight shifts. By choice. "It's a different world," he said.

It was late, going on Monday morning. Collier pulled into Autumn Trace Apartments near the Rocky Creek Road post office. Lots of cars. People were home, but you couldn't see so much as a candle flicker.

Collier headed toward Bloomfield. Trees were everywhere. On cars, houses, mailboxes, sheds, power lines. Around 10 o'clock, at a gas-and-grocery on Williamson Road, west of Southwest High School, Collier spotted three men at the front door.

From 50 yards, Collier recognized one of them as the store owner. "Everything all right?" the sergeant asked. It was. The owner was checking his windows.

Collier has come to know Macon's late-night rhythms in his two decades of policing. He can navigate its cut-throughs, its trash-can alleys that few besides those who live in them know.

"All these people," he said, "in the dark."

"You usually have so much artificial light," Collier said. "This, this is natural."

Collier motored through jungles of pine boughs, around chain-sawed trunks, clacking over frayed wires and cables.

Earlier, there was talk of opportunistic thieves on bicycles busting into an auto-supply mart and pedaling off with car batteries slung over their handlebars. But at this hour, in this darkness, not much moved.

Collier trained his car's spotlight on houses and shops for signs of life and low life. Everywhere was a hiding place. Then came a call.

In a backyard on the west side of town, out near Sam's Club, a man had locked himself in a tool shed and cranked up a lawn mower. He'd been inside drinking beer for about an hour. He had, in a sense, knocked his own lights out.

A paramedic laid him flat and covered him with a blanket, but the man was OK even if he was dazed. His was a look that other locals had worn earlier in the day. A look that hit them broadside when they wandered into the morning light to find their world trashed. But now they were in for the night. They'd seen enough.

"It's amazing what no power will do," Collier said. "No people."

* * *

By nightfall Monday, with the curfew lifted, main roads were busier. Side streets, many of them reduced to forest paths, remained littered with trees and hunks of houses.

Police Capt. Jimmy Barbee and Sgt. Steve Gatlin ventured out in Barbee's midnight-blue Crown Victoria, a 2003 model.

"2003 B.C.," Barbee said.

Downhill from the Pio Nono Burger King, they dipped into Macon's barely-visible bottom half.

"It's like walking in a cave with a candle," said Barbee, a 37-year veteran and homicide detective. "Makes you appreciate street lights again."

Gatlin, who was driving, said, "Your brights aren't bright enough."

Barbee and Gatlin, a crime-lab specialist with a vice-squad pedigree and 24 years on the force, had teamed up to put two more sets of eyes on the streets.

They were there to patrol shopping centers and swarm all inklings of trouble, from smash-and-grabbers to cat burglars.

"When's the last time a police captain was out on a prowler call?" Gatlin said.

Around 9 o'clock, they headed across Houston Avenue to check on an elderly woman who lives on Capitol Avenue. The street is notorious for its over-the-top Christmas-light displays. Decorations, wreaths and icicle strands left up year round, hung in the shadows. During the holidays, Barbee said, "You could ride in here at 2 in the morning and need sunglasses."

Noting the darkness now, Gatlin said, "It's almost a helpless feeling riding down the road knowing that as dark as it is you're probably missing something and knowing you can't do anything about it."

At the woman's house, Gatlin, flashlight in hand, knocked on the door. From the steps, he and Barbee called the woman's name. No one answered. They knocked again. A minute or so later, the woman opened the door. She had a weak-beamed flashlight.

"Everything OK?" Barbee asked.

The lady assured him it was. "I do appreciate it."

Gatlin noticed her dying flashlight. "You need some batteries?" he said. "Here, let me just give you the ones out of my flashlight."

While he unscrewed his light, the woman asked, "When's the power supposed to be back on."

"They're talking about tomorrow," Gatlin said.

"But," Barbee said, "it might be where they'll get them on tonight."

Just then, the woman's house lit up. It seemed every bulb in her house was beaming.
Blackout over. A Christmas miracle.

"All right," Barbee said, heading back to the car, "who else wants some batteries?"

* * *

Most everywhere else it remained, as Barbee put it, "dark as a dungeon."

He and Gatlin, both a tad punchy as they pulled their second lights-out all-nighter, seemed to relish their fill-in roles as beat cops.

"Last night we were jamming down Houston Avenue playing bluegrass over the [cruiser's] P.A. system," Barbee said "That'll make the burglars go back in the house."

As they toured the town, the duo supplied a running commentary.

Up on Pio Nono near the command post, a jumbo American flag flapped over a burger hut.

"I tell you what, boys," Barbee said. "Old Glory is flying high and proud over Checkers. Everything else might have got blowed away, but not it."

Down the road, they whipped into the Piggly Wiggly at Rocky Creek. The store is in Fall Line Plaza.

Barbee: "Came close to being the Fall Down Plaza."

Later, across town at the intersection of Eisenhower and Houston, a man and woman strolled arm in arm.

Gatlin: "We have two people walking at 1:24 a.m. But we are in America and they are doing nothing wrong."

Further down Houston, the Church's chicken had reopened.

Gatlin: "All the chicken wings that didn't fly off."

Out on the west side, Gatlin zigzagged through a labyrinth of limbs on Nisbet Drive.

Barbee: "Looks like something from 'Lord of the Rings,' except I don't think they had power lines in 'Lord of the Rings.'''

* * *

Near the north end of Nisbet, not far from Interstate 475 and Chambers Road, Gatlin and Barbee rolled up on a power-company crew and some tree cutters. The workers had been untangling snarls of wood and wire all night. Barbee leaned out his window. "Y'all need some Gatorade?"

They did. Half an hour later, after swinging by the command post, the officers returned. In their trunk: a case of bottled water and a 12-pack of Gatorade.

"Y'all thought we was kidding, didn't you?" Barbee told the men.

"We appreciate it," one guy said.

The folks who were supposed to be out were.
The ones who weren't were not. But it was still dark. So dark that south of downtown, in the dimness of Second Street, a streetwalker's eyes had apparently yet to adjust.

She almost propositioned two officers in a midnight-blue Crown Vic. Gatlin had hit the brakes upon hearing a telltale "heeeeey" from somewhere beyond the sidewalk. He locked the doors and, for fun, rolled Barbee's window down. From nowhere, a scrawny young woman's face materialized.

A police radio chattered. She paused a beat. Then it registered. Cops.

"Uh, um, where the Salvation Army?" she said.

"Where it always is," Barbee replied.

On they rolled. To a burglar-alarm call. Barbee ribbed Gatlin for not stepping on the gas. They were doing 45 down Houston Avenue, headed south. "We're going fast enough to be the fifth backup," Barbee said.

And he was right. With so many police sitting on go, when he and Gatlin pulled onto the scene at Grady Street three minutes later, they were car No. 5. But it was a false alarm. That or the crooks had been spooked by half a dozen squad cars splitting the night.

Barbee looked pleased. He spied a church next door, its street-side sign declaring, "Holy Fire Revival."

"Well," Barbee said, pondering Macon's meteorological luck back to the Flood of '94, "we've had everything but fire."

He and his partner then cruised off behind a curtain of darkness that, one flashlight battery at a time, had already begun to lift.

"You know," Barbee said, "if I turn on anymore lights tonight, I'm gonna get me some bottled water and turn it into wine."

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