Hilton Head bridges open as fire and rescue return to island after worst of Dorian
Just as Hurricane Dorian was wrapping up its visit to Beaufort County early Thursday afternoon, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster lifted his evacuation order for Beaufort, Jasper and Colleton counties, allowing those who left ahead of the storm to return home starting at 3 p.m.
“Team South Carolina is still working,” McMaster said in a news conference at 1:30 p.m. “Here we are. That’s why we are here. That’s why we have troops, we have assets placed in the state and we will be concentrating in re-entry and those counties but we are still battening down the hatches in the other five counties and want everyone to be alert.”
Immediately after the governor’s announcement, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office gave its OK for residents to return to the county, cautioning drivers to be alert for possible debris on the roads.
A curfew remained in place from 10 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday in all of Beaufort County, except Bluffton.
The sheriff’s office said Thursday the curfew was necessary to protect the properties of residents who had not yet returned from evacuating and to give public utilities and medical facilities time to assess infrastructure damage.
“We are not inflexible. Those with valid reasons to be out during curfew hours — for example, airline and travel reservations, returning to their homes after evacuation, etc. — will certainly be allowed to proceed,” the sheriff’s office posted in a release Thursday afternoon.
Despite the evacuation order, no checkpoints were set up at the county’s borders. Residents were free to travel into and out of the county but urged by the sheriff’s office to stay off the roads if possible.
Beaufort County schools will remain closed Friday while buildings are inspected and storm-related debris is removed from campuses, according to school district spokesman Jim Foster.
The district has not yet said when schools will reopen.
South Carolina Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall confirmed Thursday that all the bridges in Beaufort County had been inspected and were safe to cross.
On Thursday morning, the sheriff’s office had posted checkpoints at Harbor Island bridge and J.E. McTeer Bridge in Beaufort, blocking travel during high gusts of wind. Both bridges were reopened Thursday afternoon.
In Savannah, the Talmadge Bridge reopened Thursday.
Hilton Head Island Airport will reopen at 6 a.m. Friday with flights resuming, according to a post on its Facebook page.
Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport reopened with a limited schedule Thursday and will resume its regular flight schedule Friday afternoon.
SLED and National Guard started patrols in Beaufort County at 9:30 a.m. Thursday and planned to continue patrols until local authorities said otherwise, SLED chief Mark Keel said at the governor’s press briefing.
The Town of Hilton Head Island said Thursday afternoon there was not enough storm-related damage on the island to do a town-wide assessment. The town will resume regular business hours Monday.
The Town of Bluffton will open some offices from 9 a.m. to noon Friday.
Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority reported that the water is safe to drink.
At the height of the storm Thursday morning, there were 25,000 power failures reported across the county. By 4:25 p.m., there were around 11,000 homes without power, most of them Dominion Energy customers.
Few in Beaufort County appear to have evacuated
Evacuations were still in effect for Charleston, Horry, Georgetown, Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
Just four hours after telling residents it was too early to talk about evacuations on Sunday, McMaster issued the order that evening for Beaufort County starting at noon the next day.
McMaster also ordered that lanes be reversed on U.S. 278 coming off Hilton Head Island.
The number of people who evacuated from Beaufort County before Hurricane Dorian was low, according to the Beaufort County Emergency Management Division in a press conference Wednesday morning, during which local officials, including Sheriff P.J. Tanner, urged residents to leave if they had not yet done so.
“It’s only an estimate on our part, but percentage-wise is very low. We’ve got a lot of people that did not evacuate. I think that’s what we’re hearing on the entire coast,” Tanner said.
While there is no official count of how many people evacuated from Beaufort County, a look at the S.C. Department of Transportation’s vehicles-per-day data of cars going to and from Hilton Head Island on Monday and Tuesday was telling.
On those days, just 17,594 vehicles crossed the bridges from the island onto the mainland, which is less than half the traffic typical of those days, according to the data.
During those same days, 7,503 vehicles drove onto the island, less than one-fifth the typical vehicle count typical of Mondays and Tuesdays.
More than 440,000 people left from the eight counties that were evacuated, according to the state’s secretary of transportation.
Damage from Hurricane Dorian
Beaufort County was largely spared the wrath of Hurricane Dorian, which passed by the area early Thursday morning.
Emergency responders in northern Beaufort County worked more than 100 storm-related calls, mostly for trees down on roadways, power lines and some homes. Of those, firefighters on Lady’s Island and St. Helena Island handled the bulk as Dorian’s winds thrashed the Sea Islands.
High winds periodically closed bridges to the islands Thursday and helped fuel an early-morning house fire near Shell Point. As Burton firefighters worked to control the blaze, a tree fell nearby and affected logistics at the site.
Trees fell on multiple homes in Beaufort, Lady’s Island and St. Helena Island. Crews were still working to clear roads Thursday afternoon.
But residents escaped the fire and the trees largely unscathed, perhaps the most serious known injury was a woman who broke her leg falling on stairs in the dark on Lady’s Island.
Residents in Mossy Oaks, Lady’s Island, Sheldon, Seabrook and Shell Point lost power Thursday morning.
More than 80 downed trees were reported on Hilton Head on Thursday afternoon, according to town engineer Scott Liggett.
Around 5,000 mid-island residents lost power early Thursday until mid-morning.
Pine straw, leaves and branches littered roads, yards and driveways throughout the Spanish Wells development.
A pair of basketball goals had been knocked down. Contractors had finished sawing apart one tree that blocked a neighborhood road. South Carolina and American flags in one yard were left hanging upside down after their poles were dislodged by the storm. But that was the extent of the storm’s damage.
“The anxiety leading up to it was worse than the actual storm,” said Arlene Williams, who has lived in the private Spanish Wells community for more than 20 years.
Terrance Williams, who has lived nearby off and on for 13 years, said Dorian felt no different from any other spring shower.
“Never came by,” Williams said, as five free range chickens and a cat roamed the driveway behind him. “It never hit.”
Williams evacuated in 2016 before Hurricane Matthew but said he didn’t put much stock in McMaster’s evacuation order this time around because later forecasts showed the storm wouldn’t directly hit the island. Unlike in 2016, Williams said he didn’t sense the storm would be life-threatening.
“If you believe the Lord is your personal protector, you fear no evil,” Williams said.
Neighborhoods on the north side of Hilton Head were also spared the brunt of Hurricane Dorian’s damage.
Secondary roads throughout the island were covered with a thin layer of pine needles and leaves Thursday morning. Residents who left their homes to survey the damage occasionally had to slalom around tree branches, but only a handful of roads were blocked by fallen trees.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s deputies, town employees and some residents could be seen stopping their cars toss the largest branches aside.
In the Squire Pope neighborhood, a trampoline had blown on top of one house, while a tree had snapped and toppled in the next-door neighbor’s yard. At least two trees were down and blocking roads in historic Mitchelville.
Residents who stayed on the island despite McMaster’s evacuation order were relieved when they first stepped outside.
“A little wind, a little water,” said 45-year-old Bolivar Ramos, a carpenter who has lived on Julia Drive in the middle of the island for 12 years. “Everything is normal except leaves are everywhere.”
In Bluffton, no major incidents or flooding were reported, though there were several instances of downed trees.
The highest gust of wind from the storm county-wide was 67 mph and reported at 1:35 a.m. Thursday at Hilton Head Airport, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston.
In Beaufort, the highest gust of wind was 61 mph and reported at 9:42 a.m.
Rain and wind gusts from the storm were expected to continue through the afternoon in Beaufort County, drastically increasing the risk of falling trees and power lines, Neil Dixon, National Weather Service meteorologist, said Thursday.
The storm, now a strong Category 2, was 45 miles south-southeast of Myrtle Beach, according to the 5 p.m. National Hurricane Center update.
Reporters Lana Ferguson and Kacen Bayless contributed to this report.