Beaufort County evacuees still being sent to shelters

Fly over of Windmill Harbour after Matthew

Coast Guard Air Station Savannah's aerial flight of the Lowcountry after Matthew, a category 2 hurricane, skirted the east coast. This video features Windmill Harbour as seen on Oct. 9, 2016.
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Coast Guard Air Station Savannah's aerial flight of the Lowcountry after Matthew, a category 2 hurricane, skirted the east coast. This video features Windmill Harbour as seen on Oct. 9, 2016.

Update Oct. 11, 2016:

▪ Hilton Head Island residents were allowed to return home around 3 p.m. Oct. 11, although some neighborhoods remained inaccessible and were barring homeowners from entering until they could be made safe. Harbor and Fripp islands in northern Beaufort County remain barricaded until more cleanup work is completed.

▪ More information about conditions in northern Beaufort County can be found here.

The good news: Gov. Nikki Haley lifted Beaufort County’s evacuation order Sunday evening.

The bad news for evacuees eager to return home: That doesn’t change the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office safety checkpoint system keeping them away a little longer.

As hundreds of vehicles backed up along U.S. 278, the Red Cross opened two temporary shelters to serve the northern and southern parts of the county.

Instead of holding motorists at the county line, evacuees are now being diverted to the temporary shelters at either Battery Creek High School or Bluffton High School, where food, water and other amenities are available. Pets are allowed.

It’s uncertain when county residents will be allowed to leave the shelters and return home, said Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner during a Sunday news conference.

“Re-entry for inland area residents is anticipated ahead of barrier island residents,” said a statement from the Sheriff’s Office.

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Tanner also hinted that certain allowances could be made for residents who could contribute to cleanup and recovery efforts. He did not offer details.

Residents who live on Hilton Head Island, Lady’s Island and the county’s barrier islands are guaranteed no entry at this time, according to Bob Bromage, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

The system is infuriating many evacuees, including Josh Gibson and his family, who started their drive back home to Beaufort on Saturday.

They were stopped that day at a checkpoint while trying to get into the county and had to make arrangements at a hotel in Savannah. They were there with other evacuees from coastal Georgia and other parts of South Carolina, all of whom returned home Sunday.

Gibson watched Tanner’s news conference Sunday, learned about the two shelters being set up and decided not to even attempt to drive to Beaufort.

He was confused.

“What I can’t understand is what we’re supposed to do, those of us who are stuck outside, with the information that, when we get to the checkpoint ... that we may or may not be able to get back into our homes.”

“(Other counties in South Carolina) seem to want to get their people back as fast as they could,” he continued. “Every other municipality and county has managed to find a way to work with their utilities and citizens in a way that works for everybody.”

He said he felt like someone who’d traveled abroad without a passport who would be forced to talk his way in.

The “fiasco” that has been re-entry will factor into his decision to evacuate for a future hurricane, he added.

“I’m not getting burned again,” he said, “and I’m not going to have to answer again to the whims of these county officials.”

Gibson said others will likely be thinking the same thing, and that, next time, evacuation numbers will “plummet.”

“And that’s going to cost people’s lives,” he said. “Guaranteed.”

Tanner urged patience Sunday, adding that it is not known when a return for all will be possible.

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

The best thing people can do right now is stay put — wherever they are, Tanner said, adding that the county hoped to have a “trickle effect” of people returning home.

The less traffic on the road, the better work crews are able to do their jobs, he said, adding that “three times” as many power line workers were on Beaufort County’s streets Sunday compared to the day before.

Staff reporter Kelly Meyerhoffer contributed to this article.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston

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Josh Mitelman reports from U.S. 278 in Bluffton as traffic backs up Sunday evening.

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