Most evacuation-weary Beaufort Countians were allowed to return to their homes Monday, free of the checkpoints and traffic jams that hampered re-entry a day earlier in Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath.
But the wait continued for those hoping to reach Hilton Head, Harbor and Fripp islands, where county officials deemed the roads too debris-strewn or structurally unsafe.
The causeways on either side of the Harbor River bridge have been undermined and are among the roadways the S.C. Department of Transportation is working to repair. Until they are fixed, no one will be allowed to pass to reach Harbor, Hunting or Fripp islands, according to Beaufort County Emergency Management Division commander Neil Baxley.
Evacuees also were turned away on one of the bridges to Hilton Head, despite some progress toward preparing for their return. Hilton Head Hospital reopened at about noon. Public roads have been cleared, town manager Steve Riley said Monday afternoon, and about 500 commercial buildings have been inspected, with 440 undamaged.
Mayor David Bennett hopes to have the town suitable for re-entry by Tuesday, Riley noted.
“We are going to try and hit that, but at this point in time I can’t say,” Riley said, explaining roads in many of the island’s gated communities are still too cluttered for safe passage. Managers there are worried homeowners, unable to reach their properties, will park and walk in, thereby blocking access for utility vehicles.
So for now, only those with a preapproved Beaufort County re-entry pass will be admitted, according to Bromage, adding that contractors helping with cleanup could also pass through the checkpoint. He said he did not know how many meeting that description had been allowed through checkpoints Monday. In one 10-minute span Monday evening, 17 vehicles were turned away at the bridge to Hilton Head Island, while 13 were allowed to pass.
Red Cross shelters have been set up to accommodate those not allowed to return — at Battery Creek High School in northern Beaufort County and at Bluffton High School in southern Beaufort County. People on Hilton Head who did not evacuate can also go to a shelter at the Hilton Head schools complex on Wilborn Road.
At Battery Creek High early Monday, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies set up in a vending machine room near the gymnasium, where one person tried to sleep on one of the several cots placed there.
Hundreds more evacuees were to arrive by bus from Jasper County. An earlier wave from a Jasper County shelter arrived at Battery Creek by Palmetto Breeze bus. Many waited there on another bus ride to take them home.
Among them was Joe Pinckney, 80, who lives on Sams Point Road. He had been at the Ridgeland shelter since Thursday — first in the school’s gymnasium, then moving to a hallway during the worst of the storm. People were packed together, he said, either sitting in the floor or in chairs.
Also at the shelter trying to get home to St. Helena Island was Sharon Brown, who arrived at Battery Creek by bus Sunday night. Brown’s family had evacuated to Atlanta. Her sister had been evacuated from a nursing home to Ridgeland, Brown said.
She was waiting to hear from her family before deciding whether to go home.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get in touch with them,” she said.
As at Battery Creek, the Red Cross provided shelter, food, water and bathrooms at Bluffton High School. Even those who were not registering to stay at the shelter — many slept outside in their cars, a volunteer said — could duck in for water or a meal.
Many of the 100 people there had sat for hours on the side of the road Sunday trying to enter Beaufort County after Gov. Nikki Haley lifted an evacuation order. Some tried on Monday to reach Hilton Head, only to be turned away.
Chanel Cohen was among them. She cradled her son in a blanket outside and explained how her family left Hilton Head Island for Atlanta on Wednesday. They were stuck for about seven hours in the traffic jam re-entering the county Sunday, she said.
“We are just ready to go home,” Cohen said. “They won’t let us go to Hilton Head.”
Vicki Oliveira missed Sunday’s traffic jam but was met with frustration Monday.
The Hilton Head Hospital employee wanted to get to the island to help get the hospital running again. Nonetheless, officers at the Hilton Head bridge turned her back, saying she needed to get a pass from the shelter. When she arrived at the shelter, she was told the shelter was not providing passes to get on the island.
“We are going to try again,” Oliveira said. “I know they are wanting to get the hospital open by noon, and if I can get there to help — I will help.”
At about that time, 15 miles away, approximately 40 cars made it over the first bridge to Hilton Head, only to get turned around at the foot of the bridge, at the entrance to Pinckney National Wildlife Refuge. Although the traffic extended about halfway up the bridge, most waited no more than 10 minutes to get rerouted. Motorist seemed patient with deputies and troopers, who were polite in return.
A man in a white Toyota Rav 4 showed a green-colored pass, which deputies and troopers believed to have been falsified. He was directed to turn around, and a trooper took down his information and sent him away.
Hilton Head resident Billy Martini sat in his truck on the bridge around 11 a.m. In the passenger seat was a chain saw.
Martini, a construction worker and member of a local band, hoped that chain saw might be his ticket to getting home. He’d evacuated Wednesday to Chapin, and he said he wanted to help with the cleanup efforts. He’d seen a picture of his apartment complex, Tabby Walk. A tree had fallen on the building that housed his unit, he said, but he had no idea about the shape of his home.
He said re-entry was confusing because of conflicting information online from various agencies. He was caught in Sunday’s bottleneck at the county line on U.S. 278, before finally being allowed through around 6:45 p.m.
“It’s chaos right now,” he said. “But that’s to be expected. It’s a hurricane — they don’t happen that often.”