Want to get home to Beaufort County? Depends on who you are

Beaufort County was the first in the state to be hit by Hurricane Matthew, but its residents will likely be some of the last to return home and tally the damage Hurricane Matthew unleashed on their properties.

Those trying to return home will be directed to one of two checkpoints —Bluffton High School for those living south of the Broad and Whale Branch Elementary for those living north of the Broad — where people will be evaluated, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said Sunday.

However, if you live on Hilton Head or one of the other barrier islands, you will not be allowed to return home, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release just after 5 p.m. Sunday.

Those who either have had their home cleared for safety or are in a profession considered valuable to the recovery effort will be allowed to head home. Others must stay at the school temporarily.

Pets will be allowed. Food and water will be available.

The two stations will reduce current chokepoints at the county line, Tanner said.

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The checkpoints will begin sometime Sunday, Tanner said, but not until getting approved by Gov. Nikki Haley.

In terms of a specific time and date when all residents can come home, the news was not encouraging.

“I wish we had a timeframe, but we don’t,” Tanner said.

Long lines of existing cars near the blocked roads mean the school shelters will fill up quickly, so local officials encourage those farther away to stay put, especially islanders.

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Re-entry is not open to residents living on Hilton Head, Fripp, Harbor, St. Helena or Lady's islands, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, posted on Facebook just after 2 p.m. Sunday.

Asked about when everyone might come home, Tanner said, “Probably another day or two (away) is not a bad plan,” Tanner said. “It’s going to a lot better for them and a lot better for us.”

Berkeley, Colleton, Charleston and Dorchester counties — all who were hit by the storm after Beaufort County — had their evacuations lifted at 10 a.m. Sunday. In Georgia, Chatham County’s evacuation will lift at 5 p.m. Sunday.

During a Sunday morning news conference, Haley asked for “patience, patience, patience” as the re-entry process begins.

How Beaufort County’s re-entry strategy fares could determine how many evacuate before the next major storm.

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“We don’t want to make the re-entry experience bad enough that next time there’s an evacuation order given, it becomes a key factor in whether they decide to leave,” Davis said.

Communication issues over the checkpoints have already arisen.

Town of Bluffton spokeswoman Debbie Szpanka incorrectly wrote on Facebook that Bluffton residents can go directly home.

Not true, said Capt. Bob Bromage of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.

All Beaufort County residents must report to a checkpoint.

‘Mammoth’ recovery project begins

The hard, grim work already began, and it will last weeks, maybe months.

Beaufort County officials are coordinating a cleanup and rebuilding plan after Hurricane Matthew slashed the county in historic fashion Friday night and Saturday. The storm dumped more than a foot of rain on the area while snapping thousands of trees, flooding homes and causing a staggering amount of property damage.

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“It’s just a mammoth project. Everyone is working around the clock,” Davis said. “But we’re only talking about 24 hours out. Today will tell the tale in a lot of respects.”

Hospitals and power

Contrary to Haley’s remarks at the Sunday news conference, Beaufort Memorial Hospital had only minor leaks, which have already been repaired, spokeswoman Courtney McDermott said.

Emergency services will resume Sunday at noon with plans to re-open outpatient testing and services on Tuesday, she said.

Hilton Head Hospital is accessible, and Hilton Head Public Service District is working to restore water service to the building, but that might not happen until tomorrow, town mayor David Bennett posted on Facebook.

Palmetto Electric Cooperative reported 38,600 outages in Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties as of noon Sunday. That’s down from more than 61,000 during the storm.

SCE&G, which serves north of the broad, reported roughly 46,800 outages in Beaufort County as of noon Sunday. That’s about the same as the reported 47,000 outages Saturday.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner reported 173 linemen doing nothing but cutting trees, a task that must be completed before power is restored.

Damage assessment already extensive

While roads and essentials buildings are being addressed quickly, issues for individual properties and barrier islands abound.

The Town of Hilton Head reported “thousands of trees blocking major and minor roadways.”

The barrier islands took the brunt of the storm, said Capt. Bob Bromage of the Beaufort County’s Sheriff’s Office, citing Hilton Head, Fripp, Harbor, Coosaw and St. Helena islands individually.

The 100 residents on Daufuskie Island who did not evacuate managed to weather the storm, despite Haley’s remarks in a Friday news conference that the island would be “underwater.”

SCDOT engineers confirmed the structural soundness of Hilton Head Island’s bridges Sunday morning.

Crews are still working to re-establish operations at the last Fire Station in Sea Pines, one of the hardest-hit areas on the island.

An emergency drinking water operation is set up at the Hilton Head Library Branch.

Beaufort and Bluffton weren’t spared by the storm.

Rose Hill and Colleton River Plantation, two of the town’s gated communities, are among the most affected areas in Bluffton, fire officials said.

In Beaufort, downed trees and power lines were the largest issues, according to its mayor, Billy Keyserling.

With so much of the county off limits, Beaufort County School District schools will be closed Monday. Schools in Jasper County will be closed as well.

St. John Paul II Catholic School in Ridgeland announced it would be closed Tuesday, too. That includes athletics and other extracurriculars.

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

▪  Jasper County: 1-866-246-0133

▪  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 prove residency, Sun City Property Owners Association will require residents to provide one of the following: your activity card, a valid driver’s license listing your Sun City address, or a copy of your tax bill.

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

Wade Livingston and Caitlin Turner contributed to this report.

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