‘We were very lucky:’ Parts of Hunting Island already reopened after Hurricane Dorian damage

The sun was shining bright — a broiling heat — Tuesday as some of Hunting Island State Park’s visitors found shade under their beach umbrellas or marveled at the view from the top of the historic lighthouse.

The setting was a stark contrast to the week before, when the park was empty and bracing for Hurricane Dorian.

Hunting Island reopened its beaches Tuesday after cutting and clearing an estimated 135 trees and restoring electricity to the area, Park Manager J.W. Weatherford said. The park sustained only “minor structural damage” from Hurricane Dorian, he said, as front-loading trucks toted away stumps and chainsaws sat on the ground nearby.

It was a better scenario than Weatherford had expected.

He was happy the park had been fully closed only nine days. Its campground and trails are expected to reopen this weekend.

Hunting Island’s beaches reopened the Tuesday, Sept. 10, after Hurricane Dorian passed through Beaufort County. The campground was expected to reopen soon after. Lana Ferguson

Weatherford was eager to get back to the park because he knows the destruction a powerful storm can do.

He was named Hunting Island’s park manager in October 2017, when it was still closed from Tropical Storm Irma damage. The year before that, Hurricane Matthew had wreaked havoc on the fragile barrier island.

The goal was to get the park, which hosts more than one million visitors a year, fully operational again as soon as possible.

“It’s very strange for park rangers to not have people in the park,” Weatherford said. “That’s our job. We love serving our customers.”

Hunting Island was completely closed Sept. 2 to abide by Gov. Henry McMaster’s mandatory evacuation order before Hurricane Dorian. The storm’s worst wind and rain came through Beaufort County late Sept. 4 and early Sept. 5. Weatherford was able to return to the park the following afternoon.

At least 30 to 40 employees, both regular staff from Hunting Island and nine rangers sent from all over South Carolina, have been working “all hands on deck” to get the park back to standard.

He said the staff has learned a lot from recent storms — Matthew, Irma, Michael and Florence — and is more efficient in preparing. They learned to finish tasks such as moving fire pits and 150 picnic tables to higher ground before the storm brings flooding.

Fortunately, the park saw no flooding from Dorian.

“But it’s still a lot of work,” Weatherford said.

The team has been cutting and removing trees from the 5,000-acre park, including 15 that were on power lines. They carted away debris and pulled branches from the roads, generally clearing the park.

Hunting Island’s beaches reopened the Tuesday, Sept. 10, after Hurricane Dorian passed through Beaufort County. The campground was expected to reopen soon after. Trees and debris were still being removed. Lana Ferguson

Saturday and Sunday, 44 volunteers from Friends of Hunting Island went to the park to pick up debris and help with recovery, said the group’s vice president, Carol Corbin.

“It was hard work, but everyone was so happy to get out there and do it,” Corbin said. “We’re there to help the park. That’s our mission so we want to get out there as often as we can.

“We were very lucky in what Dorian did to us, and compared to Matthew and Irma this was a much easier one for us to handle,” Corbin said. “Of course [during a hurricane] a barrier island is always going to be the first hit and probably the hardest.”

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Lana Ferguson has reported on a smorgasbord of news for The Island Packet & Beaufort Gazette since June 2018. Before coming to the Lowcountry, she worked for publications in her home state of Virginia and graduated from the University of Mississippi, where she was editor of the college’s daily newspaper.
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