S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s response to Hurricane Florence, a storm yet to make landfall on the U.S. East Coast, has created waves of confusion for local business owners who, in the past 24 hours, saw a mandatory evacuation order implemented then quickly rescinded for Beaufort County.
“It created a lot of uncertainty amongst our employees,” said Alan Wolf, director of operations for SERG Restaurant Group, a collection of 12 eateries and watering holes in the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton area.
“(I)t created a lot of confusion with the storm going north,” Wolf continued.
Florence’s track has continued to shift up the coast and away from the Lowcountry, according to projections from the National Hurricane Center. And while Wolf doesn’t fault McMaster, other merchants say the Palmetto State’s governor jumped the gun.
Still others say the state’s strategy and mixed messaging made them lose money because they were faced with staffing issues, cancellations and, generally, the dilemma of whether to close the doors or keep them open.
In a county that runs on tourism, McMaster’s flip-flop created a cascading effect. Visitors, soon to be booted from hotels, were trying to figure out when to leave, while locals and workers — guessing at the tourist traffic and the storm’s path — were doing the same.
Corner Perk, a coffee shop and eatery in Bluffton’s Promenade, stayed open, but roaster and shift supervisor Heather Telinda said the decision came at a cost.
Sales were down 20 percent Tuesday, Telinda said, and labor costs were up 40 percent — the restaurant had brought in extra workers because schools were closed and locals might be milling around town.
“We expected today to be crazy,” Telinda said. “We normally have five people working during the week ...we have seven today and it’s slower than expected.”
Further east from the town’s center, off Bluffton Parkway, Pink Polish II Nails owner Michael Nguyen said he’d suffered a $300 to $400 loss Tuesday morning after about 30 clients canceled their manicures and pedicures.
“If the evacuation was lifted,” Nguyen said just moments before the order was rescinded, “I would be upset, because why do it so early, then lift it?”
Nguyen said, with walk-ins and scheduled appointments combined, Pink Polish II usually serves about 100 customers each day. He said it could take days for his business to pick back up, and he could be out “thousands of dollars” by the time things returned to normal.
He also said two of his employees couldn’t come to work because their kids’ schools were closed, and a third evacuated.
Christine Beever guessed the evacuation order could cost her business, Air Force One Heating & Air, as much as $5,000; one of their five employees had evacuated, Beever said, and they’d already made arrangements for “voluntary” staffers — one each, on Hilton Head and in Bluffton — to handle emergency calls.
Sandy Riddle, vacationing on Hilton Head — where she used to reside — from the Florida Keys, said management had told her Monday to vacate her Spinnaker Resorts Southwind villa in Shipyard Plantation, then changed its mind Tuesday after learning McMaster had changed his.
She’ll be staying through the week, but she said “nine-tenths” of the vacationers in Southwind had already packed up and left — many the night before. (A phone call and message seeking comment, left with the resort by a reporter from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Tuesday afternoon, was not returned.)
Korenna Brown, a representative with The Best Western Ocean Breeze, said the hotel was relocating guests to the Best Western Grand, but that many had canceled their reservations.
At The Inn & Club at Harbour Town in Sea Pines, front desk representative Johanna Linck likewise said the resort had received “lots of cancellations,” but that it was “proceeding with normal hotel operations.”
Derek Vaughn, assistant front office manager at the Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa, said the hotel is again taking reservations and arrivals for today. The hotel had been evacuating guests but reversed course about two hours after the order was lifted. Still, there were “a lot of cancellations, and a lot of people checked out early yesterday,” he said.
Sage Fritschle, a front desk representative at Westin Hilton Head Resort & Spa, said the hotel is not accepting any new guests tonight and no decision is available yet for the coming days.
The confusion extended to area tourists, too.
Ruth and Steve Boyer, of West Chester, Penn., ventured into Tanger 1 Outlets in Bluffton but found an empty parking lot and sandbags lining some storefronts.
“We thought it might be open,” Ruth Boyer said.
“Last-minute shopping,” her husband quipped.
The Boyers, visiting the area for a funeral, decided to take a walk around the ghost-town complex, and stretch their legs.
Their loved-one’s funeral had been rescheduled but was still a go, they said.
SERG Group’s Wolf said he was “very glad” to have the evacuation order lifted, even though the nonevent had “caused some interruptions” with some restaurants.
Just a handful of the group’s restaurants were operating with normal business hours Tuesday, according to a news release sent by the group. Others were opening later under modified hours, and at least two — Giuseppi’s Hilton Head and Poseidon — were closed.
“We don’t find fault with the way it was handled,” Wolf said, just a couple of hours after McMaster lifted the evacuation order.
“It’s a bummer, but it is what it is.”