A day after Matthew clobbered Beaufort County, weary emergency and rescue officials turned their full focus Sunday morning to the grim task of assessing the full extent of damage and planning for what is certain to be weeks if not months of cleanup and rebuilding.
Matthew slashed the county historic fashion Friday night and Saturday, dumping more than a foot of rain while snapping thousands of trees, flooding homes and causing a staggering amount of damage that is only beginning to be assessed.
For the untold thousands of residents who refused to heed a mandatory evacuation, it also left a terrifying impression.
“It sounds like a million chainsaws going,” said Hilton Head resident Tracey Ownes of the Category 2 storm as it ripped apart the Palmetto Bay Marina near her home Friday night.
Long comforted by a sense of safety earned over 30 years without a direct hurricane hit, Matthew shattered that illusion with a devastating punch. Damage was so complete that it was impossible for responders to peel back more than the first layer of destruction that is expected to grow exponentially in the coming days.
Many barrier islands, for example, have yet to be assessed for damage by officials. That includes all of Hilton Head Island’s gated communities.
Packing winds of 88 mph hour, Matthew also set records. A tidal gauge in Fort Pulaski, Ga., the closest instrument to Beaufort County, measured an all-time record of 12.56 feet that flooded nearby marshes and rivers, which in turn flooded homes.
Adding to the surge was heavy rainfall that swamped the county: 11 inches fell in Harbour Town in Sea Pines, 12 inches at Folly Field, 13 to 15 inches on the heel and north end of the island and 10 to 12 inches in both Bluffton and Beaufort, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Neil Dixon.
The measurements, which are measured only once every 24 hours, were as of 8 a.m. Saturday, so total rainfall measurements are likely to rise.
The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office delivered one piece of good news: No reports of storm-related fatalities as of early Saturday evening.
Still, worries remain. Fallen power lines and flooded streets could prove a deadly combination.
Residents who leave Beaufort County won’t be allowed back in until it’s considered safe, warned the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
Islands see worse impact
Palmetto Bay Marina, Hilton Head’s oldest marina, is underwater, according to Capt. Bob Bromage, spokesman for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s completely gone,” he said.
The disappearance of the marina is one of what will be many losses to the island in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
The National Weather Service recorded peak wind gusts at 88 mph just five to 10 miles off Hilton Head Island, the highest of anywhere in the Palmetto State.
The Town of Hilton Head reported “thousands of trees blocking major and minor roadways.”
Barrier islands took the brunt of the storm, Bromage said, calling out Hilton Head, Fripp, Harbor, Coosaw and St. Helena islands out individually.
He reported the U.S. Coast Guard and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources have done flyovers of those islands, including Daufuskie Island, which Gov. Nikki Haley said “will be underwater,” at an earlier news conference. But an assessment of the island is yet to come.
Reports of extensive tree damage also came from Palmetto Dunes and Port Royal Plantation.
Mid-island mobile homes are in standing water.
The bridges onto Hilton Head passed a preliminary inspection, but the S.C. Department of Transportation must perform one more before the public can access the island, said Hilton Head mayor David Bennett.
Until then, Hilton Head, like many other barrier islands across the state, remain inaccessible.
With so much of the county off limits, Beaufort County School District schools will be closed Monday.
Bluffton, Beaufort damage
While the barrier islands saw the most significant damage, Bluffton was also “hit pretty hard,” said Bluffton mayor Lisa Sulka.
The Old Town neighborhood had the most fallen trees, said Sulka, who lives in the historic district and reported four trees down in her own yard.
As she drove through parts of Bluffton, Sulka noted flooding in The Farm and Westbury Park, fallen trees in the Buck Island-Simmonsville area and limited cell service throughout the town. She did not know the status of Palmetto Bluff because she didn’t drive through the area.
Rose Hill and Colleton River Plantation, two of the town’s gated communities, are among the most affected areas in Bluffton, fire officials said.
There were reports of trees toppling cars on Goethe Road and on the storage center off Bluffton Parkway.
Just outside Sun City, parking lots show extensive flooding, cars submerged up to the bumper and fallen trees strewn across the saturated ground. Some road signs were bent at 45-degree angles.
In Beaufort, downed trees and power lines were the largest issues, according to its mayor, Billy Keyserling.
Plan to hunker down until Monday
Gov. Nikki Haley spent the first part of her week urging South Carolinians to hurry up and evacuate in the face of Hurricane Matthew.
She’s now asking them to be patient.
“Now is when the frustration sets in,” Haley said at a Saturday news conference. “Between downed power lines and trees, I know you want to see your home. But in some cases, law enforcement’s not going to let you back in.”
Lane reversals aren’t planned because people returning home will be on a staggered schedule.
It’s up to local leaders and law enforcement to make the call, she said.
Given that flooding shut down the portion of I-95 between Ridgeland and Hardeeville and S.C. Department of Transportation officials could not say when the interstate would reopen, a specific timeline for Beaufort County residents remains unclear.
Palmetto Electric spokesman Tray Hunter echoed residents’ uncertainty about when they can return and the extent of damage Matthew unleashed on Beaufort County on their property.
“We know it’s bad, but we have to figure out bad and where it is,” Hunter said.
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Before you go home
The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce offered the following phone numbers for evacuees to call before they plan their drive home:
▪ Beaufort County, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island Re-Entry Hotline: 1-800-963-5023
▪ South Carolina Emergency Management Division Hotline: 1-866-246-0133
▪ South Carolina Department of Transportation/Traffic Information: 511
▪ If you live in a gated community, please check with your property owners or homeowners association for additional instructions.
To report an outage
▪ Hargray: 1-866-531-9276
▪ Palmetto Electric: 1-866-445-5551
▪ Time Warner Cable: Residential customers: 1-800-892-4357; Business Class customers: 1-866-892-4249
▪ SCE&G: Outage: 1-888-333-4465; Gas Leak: 1-800-815-0083