Hilton Head mayor in Orlando while his town grapples with recovery

Hilton Head Island mayor David Bennett was in Orlando, Fla. — and not in the town he leads — during the lead-up and aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, the storm that brought widespread damage to the island Oct. 8.

Bennett’s family was vacationing to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. beginning Oct. 2 or Oct. 3 and he stayed with his family there for more than eight days, Bennett said. He did not attempt to return to the island until today.

First reports that a hurricane was forming in the Atlantic and could make landfall near the South Carolina coast surfaced Oct. 3, the first or second day Bennett arrived in Orlando. Gov. Nikki Haley called for the evacuation of all coastal areas Oct. 4 and the evacuation began at 3 p.m. Oct. 5, including Hilton Head.

Flights were still flying into the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport until Thursday Oct. 6.

“I initially thought of coming back out,” Bennett said Tuesday. “But we didn’t want to have me stuck somewhere in between.”

Bennett said he decided to stay in Orlando so that he would have access to power and Internet. Town manager Steve Riley stayed in the area during the storm at the Emergency Operations Center in Hardeeville, which temporarily lost power the night of the storm. Other local mayors, including Bluffton mayor Lisa Sulka and Beaufort mayor Billy Keyserling, also remained in the area.

Bennett is making his first attempt to return today and is driving from Orlando after announcing that residents could re-enter the island today at 3 p.m., he said. From Orlando, he has been in contact with town staff and other local officials and made the decision of when to reopen the island based on their advice, Bennett said.

Bennett said he did not return to the island during the three days after the storm because his house and office were inaccessible. When asked why he did not operate out of the Hilton Head emergency operations center set up by first respondents Saturday he said: “ I could have. But I have been in constant communication with EOC. It’s been a blessing to have power and Internet here so I could communicate with the island.”

Hilton Head EOC had generator power until Sunday when it had electricity restored. It had limited Internet access for the first few days after the storm.

Bennett has published regular social media posts on his Facebook page about the recovery from Orlando, including a video explaining re-entry plans Oct. 10.

After The Island Packet reported on its website Tuesday that Bennett had not yet returned to the island, the mayor published a post on Facebook, further explaining his decision.

Bennett wrote that taking into consideration travel time, communications, paperwork and the evacuation order, he and town manager Riley agreed he should stay in Orlando.

""I am grateful to him for keeping me safe and in return I wholeheartedly supported him in decision-making and communicating information to you, our citizens," Bennett wrote.

Some on the island are criticizing the fact that the mayor made no effort to return to the town until three days after the hurricane, while he was tasked with making the decision of allowing residents to return.

“How can the leader of the town make major decisions about when people can return and he’s not even here to see it for himself?,” said Toby McSwain, director of security at Sea Pines, Hilton Head’s largest neighborhood and the area hardest hit in the storm. “That really says something.”

When asked to respond to critics who say he should have returned to Hilton Head to be a presence during the recovery effort, Bennett said: “I don’t know how to answer that.”

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh