About this series: In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in Beaufort County, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette asked local leaders and others to weigh in on what went well and what could have gone better. Lessons emerged that may better prepare us for when the next hurricane hits.
Oct. 8, 2016, 6:55 a.m.
“So let me tell you what’s going on …”
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, her hair drenched, looks back at the screen as she gives her update. In the predawn hours, only darkness is visible behind her.
More than three days had passed since Gov. Nikki Haley ordered an evacuation of coastal counties in advance of the hurricane. Thousands had packed up what they could and left the region, not certain when they would be able to return — or in what shape their homes would be when they did.
After a sleepless night for many, especially those who stayed behind, Hurricane Matthew finally passed Beaufort County’s coast en route to Myrtle Beach.
But how did the Lowcountry fare?
“We have made it through the night,” Sulka says during her Facebook Live broadcast, “but we have no idea what is outside of Buckwalter Place. ... If you’re in town, stay in your house.”
She was one of the first voices heard after the worst of Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc on the South Carolina coast. And she shared her words in real time, easily accessible to anyone with a Facebook account.
Within seconds came instant feedback from those watching:
“Thank you, Lisa. We so appreciate your updates.”
“Thanks Lisa! Be safe out there.”
“Thanks for your updates — you’re the best!”
In all, the video has been seen 30,000 times — easily more views than Bluffton’s entire population.
Beaufort County is no stranger to hurricanes or evacuations. But this time, its residents had a new tool at their disposal: social media.
Within hours, as the first images of damage in the Lowcountry emerged, social media became the hub for those desperate for information. At the touch of a button, those who evacuated could reach out and communicate with people still in the closed-off county — complete strangers in most cases — to see how things were back home.
On a single day, Oct. 8, the day Matthew did its worst on the Lowcountry, the Facebook following of The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette grew by more than 5,000 as people searched for the latest information and asked those still in the area to tell them how their homes held up.
In the days that followed, Facebook Live — a social media streaming-video technology still in its infancy — became the go-to option for elected officials, emergency responders and the media to share their messages.
Embedded reporters used it as they updated readers from the latest news conference or about the condition of sites such as Old Town Bluffton, Hudson’s Seafood and Beaufort National Cemetery. Want to see how bad the traffic is on U.S. 278 heading back into town? A reporter was there, smartphone in hand. Need an aerial view of the damage on Hilton Head? Newsroom staffers captured it in real time from a National Guard helicopter.
And then there were those who filled the role of citizen journalist.
David Vincent Young rode around Hilton Head Island, pulled out his phone and captured live video to update his Facebook friends. Soon, his following grew into the tens of thousands.
“Before long, it was ‘Go here. Go there.’… They wanted to know how the island fared,” Young previously said. “All of a sudden, The Weather Channel contacted me wanting to use my live feed.”
The need for updates quickly spread across other online communities as well. Local Facebook groups formed, while existing groups swelled with new members.
One of those groups created by Matthew’s path was “Hilton Head and Bluffton v/s Hurricane Matthew.” To date, the group boasts more than 7,000 members. Much of the conversation currently surrounds residential cleanup needs and questions. But in the immediate wake of Matthew, it was largely focused around the big question everyone wanted answered: How is my house?
Hilton Head Island’s Camille Copeland created the group.
“People just came out of the woodwork helping each other,” Copeland said of the online community in the weeks following Matthew. “They didn’t even know each other. You would see all these people make friends with one another. I’ve really been impressed with all the help, camaraderie and love.”
But it’s another benefit, Copeland said, that may have done the most immediate good. Folks stuck hundreds of miles away could learn about the condition of their homes and neighborhoods and had people to turn to with questions. There would be fewer surprises waiting for them when the evacuation finally lifted.
“One of the biggest things you can put no value on is peace of mind,” Copeland said.