Hurricane Florence is an uninvited wedding guest for two Hilton Head weddings

Garrett and Haley Hunter exchange vows on Friday, Sept. 14 in the backyard of their rental home in Sea Pines. The couple lost their reservation at a reception hall on the island due to Hurricane Florence, so family and friends helped improvise a backyard wedding.
Garrett and Haley Hunter exchange vows on Friday, Sept. 14 in the backyard of their rental home in Sea Pines. The couple lost their reservation at a reception hall on the island due to Hurricane Florence, so family and friends helped improvise a backyard wedding. Hunter family, submitted

A sunrise wedding at Coligny Beach Park is all Shannon Crockett has daydreamed about for the last seven months.

She and her fiance, Brian Cooper, who live in Monticello, Georgia, couldn’t wait to return to the stretch of beach on Saturday where he proposed back in February.

Meanwhile, an intimate ceremony at Folly Field Beach Park was the talk of the family members of Garrett Hunter and Haley Burgess.

The couple planned to come from their Texas homes along with 50 guests and celebrate in Sea Pines after their Saturday wedding in the paradise Hunter promised his fiancee.

Hurricane Florence ruined those plans.

Last Saturday morning, Crockett awoke to texts from her matron of honor and frantically flipped on every radar image she could find that covered her favorite stretch of S.C. beach. Hurricane Florence was coming, and as of that moment, a barefoot, sunrise wedding with bubbles and fairy lights was not a good idea.

“Everything happened in steps,” Crockett said about the following hours. “One person would cancel, then another... It was so overwhelming.”

On Saturday, Sept. 8, one week before Crockett and Cooper were supposed to get married, she started making calls to cancel the whole thing. They moved the wedding to Jacksonville Beach, Florida, which was safely out of the latest cone estimates.

Hunter and Burgess arrived on Hilton Head on Monday only to be evacuated two hours later along with the rest of the island. After the evacuation order was lifted, the couple returned to the island to decide how to reschedule a wedding that included dozens of plane tickets, rental homes and family traditions.

The week of uncertainty led the young couple to decide Thursday afternoon to have a wedding the following day — without a DJ, a firm guest count, a reception hall or even a marriage license since Beaufort County offices are closed.

Hurricane Florence has thrown Hilton Head Island for a loop this week. The entire county was issued a mandatory evacuation order on Monday, which was lifted Tuesday. Schools in the county are closed until Monday, and the hospitality industry is trying to balance low sales with even lower staff availability.

Meet the (almost) newlyweds

Crockett and Cooper, both in their 40s, met online in April 2016. She said the two instantly bonded over their love of the outdoors, parenting styles, spirituality and the fantasy drama show, “Outlander.

Brian and Shannon _fitted.jpeg
Brian Cooper and Shannon Crockett pose for engagement photos. The pair was supposed to get married in Hilton Head Saturday, Sept. 16- the same day Hurricane Florence was set to dump several inches of rain on the island. Shannon Crockett- released

Crockett, who now works in an evaluation unit at Central State Hospital in Georgia, sold her court services business in South Carolina and relocated to Monticello to be closer to Cooper later that year. When they visited Hilton Head Island together in February, a “message in a bottle” for Crockett washed up on Coligny Beach, and Cooper proposed.

Hunter and Burgess, both in their 20s, met on Padre Island in Texas, where they went on their first date around sunset at a seafood restaurant that they say now bears a striking resemblance to Hilton Head Island.

Garrett and Hale_fitted.jpeg
Garrett Hunter and Haley Burgess pose at Big Bamboo Cafe in Hilton Head. The pair was supposed to get married in Hilton Head Saturday, Sept. 16- the same day Hurricane Florence was set to dump several inches of rain on the island.

Hunter, who works as a technician for Great Southwestern Construction in Dallas, suggested getting married on the island after visiting in December 2017 to celebrate Christmas and the couple’s engagement. Burgess vacationed on Hilton Head growing up, and was enthralled with the idea of getting married on “the first beach she’d ever been to.”

A new wedding budget

When the future Coopers were forced to cancel the wedding, Crockett began by making calls to Players Club Resort, where the guests would stay, and Publix, which was providing a portion of the catering. The couple canceled the band and dinner that was set for the Tiki Hut, and Crockett said she was surprised by the overwhelming support.

“Everyone in Hilton Head was so accommodating,” she said about sharing the news with vendors. “It’s almost like they [would have been] as excited as we were to be celebrating with us.”

Hunter and Burgess decided not to cancel their wedding, but spent “the week with the phone to [their] ears” rearranging flights for family members who were coming in around the country.

Their reception location, the Palmetto Hall Plantation Golf and Country Club, called just two days before the celebration to cancel. The venue has so far only offered to refund $300 of the couple’s $1,500 down payment, in hopes that they reschedule, according to Hunter.

Hunter and Burgess abandoned their beach wedding ceremony and were married in their Sea Pines rental home on Friday. Hunter said the home is beautiful and that the couple and their remaining guests were able to fix up the atmosphere for a charming wedding.

Crockett and Cooper said they got their money back and doubled the points they would have received from Players Club Resort, which has announced it is now closed entirely for the storm. Crockett said she “must have had 10 calls” from Publix to confirm the wedding would be canceled and asking how the caterers there could help.

Beaufort County is no longer under an evacuation order, which means that hotels like the Marriott and Sea Pines are accepting guest check-ins. Before the order was lifted though, many hotels were evacuating all guests and staff to comply.

Although relocating a wedding is expensive, Crockett said it could have “been a $10,000 disaster if people weren’t as kind as they were.” She estimates the couple ultimately lost $3,000.

Hunter and Burgess, who have repeatedly canceled and re-booked rental properties for guests and family, said they’ve lost at least $5,000 because of Hurricane Florence. However, Hunter added that some rental owners and wedding photographer, island-based Amy Miller, have been empathetic and understanding of their unique situation.

Missing guests of honor

But the monetary loss of the wedding isn’t the hardest part to overcome for either couple. Even though Crockett and Cooper have relocated their nuptials to Florida, Crockett said most of her family is still stuck in South Carolina.

What was once supposed to be a 58-person celebration now will include the couple, their four teenage and adult children and the six guests who can get out of the path of Hurricane Florence and down to Jacksonville Beach.

“Everyone is trapped in South Carolina. ... It’s kind of devastating,” Crockett said. “The environment that I was trying to create will be altered.”

Another heartbreaking absence from the Florida wedding will be Crockett’s father, who uses portable oxygen and is still living in South Carolina. Crockett said “a traffic jam like the ones with evacuations could kill him,” and that the southward drive to the wedding could be unpredictably slow.

Crockett is concerned for her home state, which she has had to leave behind in order to stay safe. The storm’s path has changed dozens of times in recent days, and Hilton Head Island is now forecast to see just 2 inches of concentrated rain this weekend.

Hunter and Burgess also had some unexpected absences at their vows. Although all of their parents attended, none of Hunter’s three siblings could bring their families to Hilton Head for the wedding. His grandmother, who was to be the ring bearer of her late husband’s wedding ring, also could not make the trip to see her first-born grandchild get married.

To add to the chaos Hunter and Burgess will not technically be married when they leave the island, although their minister flew in Friday morning to perform the ceremony. The couple’s appointment to apply for a marriage license with the Beaufort County satellite office on Tuesday morning was canceled as part of the countywide shut down.

Hunter said he won’t worry about the paperwork, which the couple now plans to fill out after the offices reopen.

“I’m leaving Hilton Head Island as a married man,” Hunter said. “I’m going to be more optimistic because I have to be.”

Although both weddings took a turn as unexpected as Florence’s this week, Crockett and Cooper said they can look back at the experience for bigger lessons. The sunrise wedding will still happen, just 200 miles south of where they got engaged.

“God is in charge. He is going to teach us lessons from this,” Crockett said. “If nothing else, we’re going to come out of this with a beautiful family portrait,” she said about having all of her and Cooper’s children at the ceremony.

Hunter and Burgess look at the unexpected wedding as a tale where they refused to give up.

“We have compromised so much to make this happen,” Hunter said. But Burgess said they had to ask themselves, “What do we want our story to be?”

The couple spent the weekend after their wedding celebrating with those who could stay on the island. On Monday, they will fly back to Texas with an incredible story to tell.

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