Evacuees from Harbor, Hunting and Fripp islands were allowed past a checkpoint Wednesday for the first time since Hurricane Matthew tore through the area four days earlier. Nonetheless, not all residents of the barrier island made it home.
Residents and property owners on Fripp Island still are not allowed to return because of safety concerns there, and it will likely be a long time before visitors are walking the beaches at storm-ravaged Hunting Island State Park again.
Harbor, Hunting and Fripp — connected by Sea Island Parkway — were the last of the areas where Beaufort County emergency-management officials were restricting re-entry for residents and property owners. Although the checkpoint was lifted, property owners associations in private communities can still keep people out if they believe conditions are unsafe.
Harbor Island residents were readmitted immediately, according to the community’s manager, Don Woelke, even though some of the island is still without electricity, and all of the island will likely be without water and sewer service for another three to five days.
However, at Fripp, 5.7 miles up the parkway from the checkpoint site, officials were uncertain when evacuees will be readmitted.
“We are working as hard as we can to restore our infrastructure so it is safe for them to return,” Fripp Island Property Owners Association president Chris Assaf said, about an hour after the checkpoint was removed.
Several side roads have yet to be cleared, Assaf said, and the sewer system lacks electricity. Island officials need to repair seriously damaged roads and fix leaks in the water system, she added. Emergency generators and pumps arrived on the island Wednesday to help make those repairs possible.
Once the island is ready, the Fripp Island Property Owners Association will announce the reopening.
The checkpoint was put in place because of damage to the roadway at either end of the Harbor Island Bridge, which connects Harbor and St. Helena islands. The bridge itself did not sustain major damage, S.C. Department of Transportation spokesman James Law has said, but washouts undermined the pavement leading to the span and made travel there perilous.
The road was opened after the sinkholes were repaired and a leaning tree near the parkway was removed, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
With the checkpoint lifted, access along Sea Island Parkway extends across Hunting Island to the bridge to Fripp Island. However, visitors to Hunting Island State Park, which has entrances off the parkway, probably won’t be allowed back in until 2017, according to a post on the Friends of Hunting Island Facebook page.
Hunting Island was one of 15 state parks to suffer damage from Hurricane Matthew, according to the South Carolina Parks website.
Harbor Island also suffered major damage, Woelke said. Only one of 15 boardwalks to the beach survived the storm, the island lost as much as 50 feet of dunes and beachfront, and 10 to 15 homes are now surrounded by water at high tide, he said.
Homeowner Ed Price could only watch in disbelief as high tide ran below his house Wednesday, lapping the slabs of broken concrete on which he stood.
“Here you have a little over a million dollar home that is now sitting in the water like a cruise ship,” he said.
Even some second-row beach homes are at serious risk, according to Woelke.
He led two Red Cross damage assessors over what is left of a boardwalk that Matthew reduced to a pile of wood scraps.
“This is the worst we have seen,” said Thomas Strong, one of the assessors, as he looked over damaged homes.
Strong said he had toured Charleston, as well as Fripp and Lady’s islands after the storm.
He sat there astounded as he looked at a mattress dangling from the side of one home, which lost an entire wall to the storm.
Just outside the community’s gates, more than a foot of water surged into Marsh Tacky’s during the hurricane.
“Everything is fried,” said Bobby Marshall, the owner of the general store and cafe on Sea Island Parkway.
The water had receded by the time he got a look at his store, which smelled of rotting fish.
He said it would take a month to reopen — maybe more — but he is determined to do so.