Hurricane thrashes Hilton Head Plantation’s Oyster Reef — or was it a tornado?

Crews work to clean up a vacant lot in Oyster Reef. Many trees were downed in that part of Hilton Head Plantation during Hurricane Matthew’s Oct. 7-8 passage near Hilton Head Island.
Crews work to clean up a vacant lot in Oyster Reef. Many trees were downed in that part of Hilton Head Plantation during Hurricane Matthew’s Oct. 7-8 passage near Hilton Head Island. The Island Packet

Paul McDermott peered out his window and saw trees sheared off, his crushed greenhouse, and other debris in his yard.

The neighborhood where he and his wife, Penny, live — the Oyster Reef community in Hilton Head Plantation — was one of the hardest-hit during Hurricane Matthew.

He, along with many other neighbors in the area, have an explanation.

“This isn’t hurricane damage that we have,” he said. “This is tornado damage. It’s that simple.”

This isn’t hurricane damage that we have. This is tornado damage. It’s that simple.

Paul McDermott, Oyster Reef resident

A path of destruction is visible from the Palmetto Hall Plantation, through the Big Woods/Bear Creek area of Hilton Head Plantation, and through to the Oyster Reef and Hickory Forest areas, residents say. In that area, trees have not only fallen, but some have snapped in half.

In Alan and JoAnne Cudahy’s backyard, off of Hickory Forest Drive, massive trees lay uprooted and snapped in different directions. The Cudahys think their house acted as a shear during the storm.

“The wind came down off the creek, off the pond and it just obliterated (the trees),” Alan Cudahy said. “We’ve taken out 12 trees in the backyard.”

Only a few houses to the west, it’s difficult to see much, if any, damage to homes.

Residents across the island reported tornadoes during Hurricane Matthew, but the National Weather Service in Charleston has yet to confirm actual tornado damage.

Because the bulk of Matthew occurred during the middle of the night and few residents were still on the island to witness it, it is difficult for meteorologists to differentiate between damage caused by high winds from the hurricane and damage that may have been caused by a hurricane-spawned tornado.

“That certainly doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” said Blair Holloway, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston. “That may be an area that we need to go out and do an actual damage survey. ... Up until now, we have not been out and done any damage surveys.”

Path of destruction

Marsha Rabun shook her head in front of the nearly 10-foot-tall stack of fallen tree limbs in front of her Oyster Reef home.

“It’s going to change the whole face of the neighborhood,” she said of the damage to the area. “We used to have a lot of nice tree canopy going down the street. We couldn’t grow grass in our front yard because we had so many trees.”

It’s going to change the whole face of the neighborhood.

Marsha Rabun, Oyster Reef resident

Now nearly everyone on Wild Laurel Lane has a pile of those tree limbs and other detritus stacked many feet high in front of their homes.

It was not uncommon for residents in Oyster Reef to have multiple trees come to rest on their roofs in the wake of the Category 2 hurricane.

Debbie Scharold came home to eight trees on her Oyster Reef house. The rain from the storm damaged seven separate rooms in her home, she said.

She described the damage as “a definite act of God that it was allowed to happen ... more serious here than in other places.”

“I think everybody realizes they’re grateful that they’re OK,” Scharold said. “We know it’s only stuff, but it’s still hard. It’s very hard. We’ve had a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, but people have been helping each other.”

On Tuesday, crews were out with chainsaws, still trying to clear trees from the Oyster Reef Golf Club. Cranes were spotted at a few homes in the area, lifting trees off of roofs. In some cases — just as at the McDermott house — the trees would slip out as they were being lifted and fall again on the afflicted home.

If there is official confirmation of tornado damage, some residents seemed convinced that could have some impact on insurance filings, though that impact was unclear.

“A tornado spun from a hurricane is a hurricane, which we were disappointed to find out,” Paul McDermott said.

McDermott said, though the hurricane cleanup is expected to continue for months, it’s “going to take years before the island gets back to some sense of normalcy.”

“In the neighborhood, I mean, we’re talking about so much debris and trees that have to be dealt with — it’s going to be a long time,” he said.

“Hey — Hilton Head strong,” he added, as an Island Packet reporter was leaving. “Hilton Head strong.”

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