Beaufort County’s early Hurricane Matthew road recovery was a well-oiled machine

Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Department firefighters Arvell Graham, left, and Gary Guldner work to remove a fallen tree from the corner of Madrid Avenue and 16th Street in Port Royal on Oct. 8, 2016, after Hurricane Matthew blew through the area earlier in the day.
Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Department firefighters Arvell Graham, left, and Gary Guldner work to remove a fallen tree from the corner of Madrid Avenue and 16th Street in Port Royal on Oct. 8, 2016, after Hurricane Matthew blew through the area earlier in the day.

Parts of Beaufort County were unrecognizable in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.

After the hurricane hit on Oct. 8, roadways were a maze of tree damage, fallen power lines and flooding, especially on barrier islands hardest hit by the storm.

But within days, the county became livable again, thanks to crews that quickly cleared roadways of a massive amount of damage.

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Plans put into place by local officials years before Hurricane Matthew and decisions to call for reinforcements were key to that work, local leaders say.

“Every morning I would drive the county, and it would be a world better,” Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. “You have got to give those people credit. They were able to do an incredible amount of work.”

Here’s what went right to allow crews to clear most of the county roads in a short period of time:

Plans in place long before the storm

County leaders had detailed plans for debris removal after a hurricane, including keeping companies on retainer to manage the task.

On Hilton Head Island, for example, the town’s current debris management plan, adopted in 2012, includes detailed procedures that were closely followed after the storm.

The plan was crucial in recovery after Matthew, Hilton Head Town Manager Steve Riley said, including keeping a contractor, CrowderGulf, on retainer to handle debris after a natural disaster.

Riley said the town activated provisions in the plan before the storm, placing five debris crews at southern Beaufort County’s Emergency Operations Center in Hardeeville so that they could begin work immediately after the storm.

When the first teams of first responders were dispatched after the storm, each had a debris-removal crew with them to help clear paths to essential facilities.

Plans before the storm also established detailed procedures for town personnel, set up debris management sites at Honey Horn and Chaplin Community Park, and clarified road-clearing priorities.

As of Nov. 17, more than 721,003 cubic yards of vegetative debris had been collected on the island. In total, there is expected to be more than 1 million cubic yards of debris that will take months of work to clear, CrowderGulf project manager Wilber Ledet told the The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

The county had a similar debris plan with a contractor, Ceres Environmental Services, in place that helped clear the rest of Beaufort County, apart from Hilton Head, after the storm.

In total, the county has removed a total of 578,689 cubic yards of debris as of Nov. 17, according to county officials.

Calling for reinforcements

But even with detailed plans in place, Beaufort County didn’t have enough resources on hand to manage the damage from Matthew.

Calls for additional help helped manage the task.

Almost 400 National Guard members were stationed in the area before the storm with equipment that out-matched any tools available to the private contractors.

“We quickly figured out a lot of trees were bigger than the equipment we had, even after doubling our order to the contractor,” Riley said. “At the end of the day, the only thing that got (U.S.) 278 completely clear was the National Guard. It was only their equipment that was big enough to handle it.”

Within two days, National Guard crews worked to clear U.S. 278 eastbound all the way from Bluffton through Hilton Head, as well as helped clear paths to the Hilton Head hospital and airport, Staff Sgt. Randy Gibson told the newspapers on Oct. 9.

Clearing those roadways were major steps in allowing the island to re-open to the public by Oct. 11, a little more than three days after the storm.

Utility companies also sent large crews from across the country to aid in the recovery.

In the three days after the storm, more than 800 linemen entered Beaufort County, Tanner said.

Power company SCE&G reported replacing 612 broken poles, 653 transformers and 4,000 spans of wire system-wide, mostly in the Beaufort and Bluffton areas.

The utility companies also helped clear both public and private roads in order to access their equipment, Tanner said.

Neighbors doing their part

County leaders also praise another group that stepped up to speed recovery: regular citizens.

Many neighborhoods with people who stayed behind after the storm went into action on their own to clear roadways to allow for quicker restoration of utilities and other services, Tanner said.

With the county overwhelmed with clearing public roads, many people used chainsaws to cut paths through their neighborhoods and worked to clear debris.

“People stepped up,” Tanner said. “And it made a big difference.”


Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh