Getting thousands of Beaufort County residents home after Hurricane Matthew was a difficult process made more frustrating by several layers of leadership fighting for control over re-entry decisions.
There were mixed messages — and in some cases reports of outright resistance — among county, municipal and community association leaders.
The power battles led to confusion in the days after the Category 2 hurricane hit the county, when evacuees were looking for a simple answer to their most pressing concern: When can I come home?
Sheriff: Municipalities undermined county plan
In the county’s disaster-response plan, the county Emergency Management Division, a part of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, is assigned to oversee re-entry.
But when faced with the division’s on-the-fly re-entry procedures the day after the Oct. 8 storm, leaders in Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal defied county plans, Sheriff P.J. Tanner told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
The division announced a re-entry plan about noon on Oct. 9 to filter returning residents stopped at county-line checkpoints through two high schools, one in Bluffton and the other near Beaufort. At each location, officers would tell people whether it was safe to go home.
But Tanner said the Bluffton Police Department decided to deviate from the county plan. Once the re-entry shelter was put into place at Bluffton High School, Tanner said Bluffton police failed to direct traffic to the shelter to ensure that residents living south of the Broad River went to the school first.
“It just unraveled in Bluffton after that,” he said.
An hour after the county announced its plan to screen all residents through the two schools, the Bluffton Police Department put out a message on social media telling residents west of Buckwalter Parkway that they would be able to go directly home.
The message contradicted county messages to the public at the time; those advised that all county residents were to be screened through the schools.
The Facebook announcement was shared more than 1,220 times, but many of the more than 260 comments expressed confusion over the conflicting instructions. Some of the comments included:
▪ “I hope to God there is never another reason to evacuate, but I sure hope officials are taking note of how to disseminate information more clearly next time.”
▪ “These people are so backwards. Get together before you make an announcement.”
▪ “Clear info is needed or mayhem will ensue.”
▪ “Do we listen to y’all or BCSO?”
Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds declined to be interviewed for this story, though a police spokesman said the department never went against county instructions after the storm. Police spokeswoman Joy Nelson told the newspapers that her department’s instructions regarding residents west of Buckwalter Parkway came directly from the county — a claim Tanner disputes.
The next morning, at 8:40 a.m. on Oct. 10, the Bluffton Police Department posted on Facebook that the entire town of Bluffton was open and everyone could return home. Thirty minutes later, the sheriff’s office announced on Facebook they would stop directing all returning evacuees to the two schools, though the locations would remain open as shelters.
In Beaufort and Port Royal, similar power struggles created tension, according to the sheriff’s office and some city leaders.
“Ten minutes before we got ready to pull the trigger on using the schools and pulling these roadblocks (Beaufort) Mayor (Billy) Keyserling wanted to do it his way,” Tanner said. “He wanted all the people that lived in the city of Beaufort be allowed to go onto Highway 21 to the city because they were open and clear and had no problems.”
Keyserling told the newspapers he pushed the county for earlier re-entry in response to the needs of his constituents.
“I was under a lot of pressure to get people home,” Keyserling said. “People couldn’t afford to be away any longer, and we already had our streets cleared.”
When it came to setting up the high school re-entry shelters, the sheriff’s office filtered residents through Battery Creek High School and into northern Beaufort County. But the county got push-back for its plan to seal off Lady’s Island the day after the storm, after the county’s emergency management had deemed all barrier islands unsafe for re-entry.
Beaufort and Port Royal claimed they didn’t have the resources to block the Richard V. Woods Memorial and J.E. McTeer bridges to the island, according to Tanner and Beaufort city leaders.
But Beaufort City Manager Bill Prokop told the newspapers the city also disagreed with the county’s plan to completely shut off the island, part of which is located in the city.
“The only open grocery store, the Publix, was on Lady’s Island,” Prokop said. “People needed somewhere to get groceries, so we weren’t going to shut down the bridge.”
Beaufort leaders also argued that keeping Lady’s Island open would allow home access to some city employees who were important to the area’s recovery efforts. Tanner contended his department was forced to re-open Lady’s Island before it was completely safe for people to return because Beaufort and Port Royal did not supply the resources to shut off the bridges.
Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy said the city’s decision on the bridges wasn’t a move to oppose the county’s plan, but rather was a matter of resources.
“We simply didn’t have the manpower,” Clancy said.
Some private communities fought Hilton Head return date
While most Beaufort and Bluffton residents were able to return home the day after the hurricane, re-entry to Hilton Head Island was delayed. But island residents wanted to know — for how long?
It seemed, initially at least, that the decision fell on the Town of Hilton Head Island. But some managers of the town’s private communities — which cover 70 percent of the island’s land mass — said they were not ready for residents to come home. The disagreement put the town in a precarious position of power, one that town officials didn’t necessarily want.
Of 10 Hilton Head Island private communities surveyed by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, two — Hilton Head Plantation and Sea Pines — said they asked the town to delay re-entry for at least another day. Three others expressed similar positions in correspondence, obtained by the newspapers, with residents or town officials.
Instead of delaying, the town offered private communities an out: Close your own gates for as long as you need.
Making that call could have positioned private community leaders as “the bad guys” at a time when many residents were anxious to return and assess the damage to their property.
So no gated communities used this strategy, though some considered it.
“We didn’t want to create a situation at the gates where people were turned away,” said Peter Kristian, Hilton Head Plantation’s general manager.
Instead, most gated communities encouraged residents to hold off another day or two before returning. Sea Pines, Hilton Head Plantation, Palmetto Dunes, Palmetto Hall and Long Cove all communicated this message to members.
The suggestion, however, lacked the clear-cut answer that some confused residents sought. Some residents listened to their plantation officials. Others did not.
“(Crews) had to work around cars,” Kristian said. “We had to have traffic control. It did slow the (recovery) process.”
In addition, widespread power outages coupled with premature flushing from residents prompted sewage overflows in Hilton Head Plantation on Oct. 12, the day after the island reopened to the public.
Steve Riley, Hilton Head Island’s town manager, acknowledged some areas may not have been completely ready for re-entry. But he defended the town’s decision.
“Having all water restored, having all powered restored ... having all the flooding gone, it was never realistic to think everything was going to be perfect,” Riley said. “What was the right time? I don’t know. It was not a simple call.”