Devastation is everywhere. Trees were toppled. Several of them smashed through public restrooms and the park store. Storm surge obliterated dunes near the campground and destroyed toilets and showers.
It will be months before the public again has full access to Hunting Island State Park, one of South Carolina’s most popular.
“In the meantime, it’s heartbreaking to see,” said S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism director Duane Parrish, who toured the park Friday with the help of a red Honda all-terrain vehicle.
Hunting Island’s nature center and fishing pier will reopen with normal hours on Wednesday, even though the end of the pier was damaged in the storm and will be blocked off.
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And the rest of the park’s 5,000 acres of beach and maritime forest will be closed through at least the end of the year as crews restore power, repair septic systems, patch some buildings and, possibly, relocate others. When the park reopens, some visitors probably won’t recognize many once-familiar spots, Parrish said.
A preliminary assessment of the destruction:
▪ Sand and salt damaged the park’s septic and electric systems.
▪ A tidal creek formed and cut up the beach, carrying away all the sand from the parking lot near the main bath house, where a sidewalk now overhangs rippling water.
▪ Long buried concrete pyramids on the beach, which supported a water tower during the 1950s, are now exposed.
▪ Trees are down throughout the park. Many were ripped from the ground along the beach.
▪ The lighthouse, visitors center and gift shop appear OK but will be inspected.
More damage could be on the way. An unusually high tide — known as a king tide — is coming Saturday. Park officials expect another round of flooding and erosion.
“We’re more exposed now than we ever have been,” state parks director Phil Gaines said. “It’s the nature of a barrier island.”
It might be a week or more before the full extent of the damage is known, and just as long to calculate the financial impact.
More than a million people visited Hunting Island this past fiscal year, second only to the 1.5 million visitors at Myrtle Beach State Park. Many of those visitors come for Memorial Day, Fourth of July or Labor Day.
“What that means for this part of the season — October, November, December — we don’t know yet,” state parks spokeswoman Dawn Dawson-House said.
Those with reservations at the park through the end of the year have been notified and their trips rescheduled or deposits refunded.
If there is a silver lining, it is that although this is a busy tourism season for Beaufort, it’s not the peak season for Hunting Island, Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce tourism director Robb Wells said. Be that as it may, the park is still on the list of must-do activities for nearly every visitor.
He added that his family, like many other local residents, still visits the park this time of year.
“It is kind of our treasure,” Wells said. “It is our public beach.”
Kim Gundler, who operates Beaufort Kayak Tours with her husband, David Gorzynski, said about half of their business comes from paddling tours of Hunting Island. She said the financial hit would have been sharper had the closure come in the summer.
Still, she worries, particularly about the integrity of the lagoon that cuts through the middle of the island’s south end. It is fed through the Fripp Inlet and is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by an ever-narrowing strip of forest and eroding beach that did not hold up well to Matthew’s surge.
Some sand began washing down from the side of the lagoon last October, but it hadn’t been cut all the way through. Gaines said water had again crested the side of the lagoon during Hurricane Matthew but had not yet cut through like the new creek at the beach.
A breach wouldn’t affect kayak trips, which are timed at low tide, Gundler said. But high tide with a breach could mean surf in the lagoon.
Visitors from Charlotte, Columbia and the Upstate have had to swap Hunting Island tours for trips elsewhere in local waters, she said. And Gundler has talked two people who heard about the closure out of canceling reservations at a vacation rental property the couple owns.
“It’s one of the things people do when they come to Beaufort,” Gundler said. “You come for two or three days, you do the historic district and you go to the beach. If we all of a sudden don’t have that piece of the tourism puzzle, it could affect some people’s choice.”
Tim Lovett, owner of Higher Ground Outfitters in Beaufort Town Center on Boundary Street, occasionally runs tours in Hunting Island and frequently recommends the park to customers who rent paddleboards from him.
Lovett said the park’s closure isn’t likely to harm his business — his rentals, like Gundler’s tours, tend to taper in the fall. However, he also expressed concerns about the integrity of the lagoon and wonders if others will be impacted by closure of the campground.
“That’s the question in my mind now — how many people who come to Beaufort to go camping aren’t going to be able to come now,” Lovett said. “What kind of impact will that have on the local economy?”
Even if the tourism impact is minimal, the closure will affect Beaufort County residents for whom the park is a popular retreat.
Denise Parsick doesn’t have a favorite area of Hunting Island’ beach, but she has a favorite activity. The president of the Friends of Hunting Island has been a member of the group since its 1993, and she was volunteering for beach sweeps and turtle patrols at the park even before that.
Parsick said the friends group, which has more than 1,000 members, is anxious to assist in clean-up and any other chores necessary to reopen the park for visitors. But for the time being, state park officials have asked them to stay clear because of serious safety concerns that professionals will need to fix.
“They’re going to take it slow, then figure out when the public can come in and lend a hand,” she said.
The storm also will delay some of the Friends of Hunting Island plans, such as a project to replace the fence surrounding the grounds of the ionic lighthouse on the island’s north end. A Paddlefest event that benefits the Friends of Hunting Island, originally scheduled for November, will likely be postponed or relocated.
“(T)here’s no other place you can really go that is going to satisfy what Hunting Island does for a person,” Parsick said. “It’s not just the Atlantic Ocean that is there. I’m sure the Sands Beach in Port Royal will pick up and maybe Hilton Head Island. But for the real Hunting Island person, I don’t think there’s a substitute.
“I think that’s why so many people are so anxious to do anything they can to help.”
Parsick is at least heartened that visitors will likely return before the sea turtles arrive again next spring.
“It seems like forever, but it’s 10 weeks,” she said.
Nearby state parks, wildlife refuges closed
Several national wildlife refuges in the path of Hurricane Matthew have been closed until further notice because of widespread storm damage, according to a news release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
- Pinckney Island NWR, near Hilton Head Island
- Savannah NWR, in Jasper County and Georgia's Chatham and Effingham
- Wassaw NWR, in Georgia's Chatham County
- Harris Neck and Blackbeard Island NWRs, in Georgia's McIntosh County
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources closed the following wildlife management areas until further notice:
- Bear Island WMA
- Botany Bay Plantation WMA
- Donnelley WMA
- Edisto River WMA
- Dungannon Plantation HP/WMA
- Great Pee Dee HP/WMA
- Hamilton Ridge WMA
- Marsh WMA
- Palachucola WMA
- Santee Cooper WMA
- Little Pee Dee Heritage Preserve
- Waccamaw River Heritage Preserve
- Wateree River Heritage Preserve WMA
- Webb WMA
- Woodbury WMA
The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism has closed the following state parks until further notice:
- Myrtle Beach State Park
- Huntington Beach State Park
- Edisto Beach State Park
- Hunting Island State Park
- Givhans Ferry State Park
- Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site
- Hampton Plantation State Historic Site
- Santee State Park
- Little Pee Dee State Park
- Lee State Park
- Rivers Bridge State Historic Site
These state parks were closed after Hurricane Matthew but have since reopened:
- Colleton State Park
- Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site
- Poinsett State Park