Hilton Head mayor David Bennett received a whirlwind of public criticism for remaining in Orlando early last October during the worst hurricane to hit the island in decades.
Recently obtained text messages, however, reveal something that wasn’t publicly known at the time: Town manager Steve Riley advised him to stay put after he had twice asked to come back to the island.
Riley, who was praised publicly — and even later received an award — for his response to Hurricane Matthew, was stationed at an emergency operations center in Hardeeville when Category 2 hurricane roared through the island during the early morning hours of Oct. 8.
Bennett was vacationing with his family in Orlando about a week before the storm hit and remained in the Disney World resort area through Oct. 11, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported at the time.
The text messages between Riley and Bennett, obtained by the newspapers this month from the town under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, show that Bennett first asked Riley to be flown back to Hilton Head four days before the storm struck the island.
Riley gave Bennett the phone number of a town employee who could arrange a flight, but followed soon after with this response:
“The more I think about it, I need to urge you to stay in Orlando,” Riley told Bennett in an Oct. 4 response. “We are expecting an evacuation order that will start Wednesday (Oct. 5) afternoon. Our policy is for all council to evacuate to separate locations. Thursday (Oct. 6) afternoon there will be little you can do but immediately leave the island.”
At 3:52 a.m. on Oct. 8, as hurricane winds and rain were battering the island, Bennett was awake and again texting Riley about returning.
“Can we find a way to get me flown back tomorrow?” he asked. “I mean today,” he said in a follow-up message.
A few hours later, after a string of messages about losing WiFi, the hurricane re-entry checkpoints, and who would be allowed back on the island first, Riley told Bennett, “Getting you back today may not be possible but we will look into it. Sunday (Oct. 9) seems more likely.”
After the Packet and Gazette reported that Bennett was not in the Hilton Head area during the hurricane, he told the newspapers he initially thought of returning to the island, but didn’t want to be “stuck somewhere in between.” He also said at the time he didn’t attempt to return until three days after the storm because his home and office were inaccessible. In addition, he noted on Facebook that he and Riley agreed he should stay in Orlando.
“The bottom line is there were a lot of people in our community who were hurting,” Bennett said Thursday when asked why he didn’t tell the public in October that he had asked Riley to return to the island before the hurricane and immediately afterward. “I didn’t want to take time away to correct a misunderstanding I did not promulgate.”
Bennett said he was “strongly urged” by Riley to remain put. He also said the town’s disaster recovery plan “indicates (Riley) has overall responsibility for all functions,” and that Town Council acts “as a supportive role” in case of a disaster.
The Town’s disaster recovery plan outlines specific roles in the case of a disaster. The mayor has the authority to, among other things, enforce a curfew, proclaim a state of emergency, authorize re-entry and call emergency Town meetings. The town manager, according to the plan, has “overall responsibility for all functions of the recovery process,” provides direction to ensure implementation of recovery policy and “apprises Town Council of the situation.”
Emotionally, the mayor said it was hard to stay away from Hilton Head during the hurricane. Logically, though, he said he thought it was better to remain in Orlando because he needed reliable internet and phone service for the disaster recovery plan to be executed.
“(Riley) has probably 22 years of experience,” Bennett said. “I had, at the time, two. I was leaning strongly on his expertise.”
Contacted Thursday, Riley said because no one was available to go pick up Bennett, “he was on his own to get back.”
“He and I had a conversation over phone, and my recollection is he couldn’t come back until Thursday (Oct. 6), and I advised him it was unlikely he would get back on Thursday,” Riley said. “My concern was he wouldn’t be able to get back, and we didn’t have the resources to get him back.”
He also cited then-Gov. Nikki Haley’s mandatory evacuation order as another reason not to bring Bennett back to the island. When asked, though, Riley said he didn’t think Bennett’s presence would have interfered with the town’s hurricane operations.
Bennett regularly published Facebook posts about the hurricane when he wasn’t on the island, including a video explaining re-entry plans. Other local leaders, including Bluffton mayor Lisa Sulka and Beaufort mayor Billy Keyserling, remained in the area during the storm.
“As many of you can see, Steve and I are not in the same location,” Bennett said in an Oct. 7 video next to a laptop screen beside him showing Riley’s face. “But we are indeed on the same team, and we’re definitely on the same page.”
Councilwoman Kim Likins, a Bennett supporter, told the Packet and Gazette on Thursday she thinks Bennett was too harshly criticized for being in Orlando.
“To be honest, (Bennett) probably just didn’t want to get into a conversation where there was any division whatsoever between he and the town manager, because they both did their jobs,” Likins, the mayor pro tem, said when asked why Bennett didn’t tell the public then that he had attempted to return. “He did the right thing, and (Riley) did the right thing.”
Councilman David Ames, an ally of Bennett, told the newspapers Thursday that “the business of the town was handled well” during the hurricane. He also said the public criticism of Bennett for being in Orlando “had a lot to do with the information the public received from The Packet and the editorial position The Packet took.”
“To be honest, it was characterized as ‘I wanted to stay away from the island so I could stay on vacation,’” Bennett said. “(My family) didn’t do any form of entertainment from Thursday (Oct. 6) mid-morning. That’s when our vacation ended. From that point on, I worked 16 to 18 hours a day.”
Asked if Riley should have supported him when he was being criticized publicly, Bennett replied that it was not his “nature to tell other people what they should or should not do.”
Likins said while she was evacuated, she spoke every day to Bennett but didn’t talk to Riley. Councilman John McCann, oppositely, said he spoke to Riley daily and heard from Bennett once when the mayor called to check in on him during the storm, which McCann added he appreciated.
Under a town policy, council members are supposed to evacuate to separate locations outside the town in the event of a disaster, Riley said. Several council members told the Packet and Gazette they were unaware of the policy, though Riley said they were informed about it in an email at the beginning of hurricane season and in another email sent before Matthew hit.
“It’s a long standing policy,” Riley said. “So if something befell one location, it wouldn’t be a complete loss of the governing body.”
In the Hurricane Matthew evacuation, Likins, Ames and McCann went to Columbia, Greenville and Aiken, respectively; while councilman Marc Grant traveled to Athens, Ga., according to those council members. Councilman Tom Lennox did not immediately respond to requests Thursday for comment.
Before the evacuation was ordered, council members were aware that Bennett was not in the area, but they didn’t know where, according to Riley, who said an email is sent to the Town Council whenever a member is away, though he added the notification includes only the dates the person will be gone.
“I originally assumed everyone was in the immediate area,” Harkins said about his fellow council members’ whereabouts during the hurricane. “I think I heard from Steve Riley the mayor was in Disneyland.”