Liz Farrell

‘I tried not to look’: Beaufort Co. legislator learns just how bad a hurricane can get | Opinion

In The Wall Street Journal this past weekend, a 12-year-old Bahamian boy who lived through Hurricane Dorian likened his experience to “opening the door to hell itself.”

It’s a grizzled and war-torn description that one hopes a preteen wouldn’t have at the ready when asked about his hometown.

The hurricane that slowly steam-rolled the northern islands of the Bahamas earlier this month with 185-mph winds skipped Beaufort County, both literally and, in some cases, figuratively.

Between piloting more than a dozen relief flights to Great Abaco Island on his personal plane, South Carolina Rep. Bill Herbkersman, found that some county residents simply didn’t know — or didn’t fully grasp — just how much devastation this storm caused in a land not so far from here.

Before Sept. 7, he had no idea, either.

Over the years, he has helped run food, water and medical supplies to the Caribbean in the aftermath of other hurricanes.

BillHerbkersman
S.C. Rep. Bill Herbkersman High, Lucas

“Once I knew it hit, I knew I needed to get down there,” he said last week. “I saw it ... I saw it was bad. But I never knew it would be that bad.”

The first day it was safe for him to fly there, Herbkersman — who represents areas of Jasper and Beaufort counties, including parts of Bluffton at the State General Assembly — loaded his plane with whatever supplies he could and headed to Treasure Cay.

The air traffic control tower wasn’t working. Instead, a network of volunteer pilots helped each other navigate to the ground, where the taxiway had been destroyed.

In his initial approach of the island, Herbkersman saw the beautiful turquoise waters off the west coast that he knew so well were now littered with palm tree trunks.

As he drew closer, he realized he had been mistaken.

What he had seen were bodies.

It took his breath away.

“I tried not to look down in the water,” he said.

On the ground, Herbkersman encountered “total devastation” and the clinging, undeniable smell of death.

“People were walking around like zombies.”

Many hadn’t eaten for days.

In just over a week, he would end up running between 8 and 10 tons of donations that included batteries, clothes, food, water purifiers and antibiotic eye drops.

Herbkersman is a local developer whose projects include the Calhoun Street Promenade in Old Town Bluffton. He has a decades-long personal and professional connection to the Bahamas, where he has also developed properties.

Each year, he ends up spending a few months there.

His ties to the Bahamas are so deep that President Donald J. Trump considered him for an ambassadorship there.

In other words, Herbkersman knew the before, and now he knows the after.

He is heartbroken for the people there.

And he is even more aware of a storm’s potential.

Hearing about his experiences should recalibrate our own grumblings about the past four years of evacuations, school makeup days and lost business.

On the 90-minute flights back, Herbkersman would spend the time reflecting on the surreality of it all.

“I can never begin to be grateful for what we have,” he said.

In the destruction, though, he found plenty of hope.

Relief workers have worked swiftly, he said. Food, water and other supplies have come in faster.

On each trip there, he’d see more and more smiles on the ground.

Locally, he has been touched by people’s generosity. Thousands of dollars raised here have helped pay for other pilots’ gas to and from the islands.

“Every step of the way someone wants to help you. Not one person has disappointed me,” he said, noting that fellow state lawmakers Weston Newton and Tom Davis covered for him on some legislative matters so he could deliver supplies.

As for the future of the islands, Herbkersman says there’s a long road ahead.

The storm, he said, “passed by and sucked it all in.”

“I don’t know that we’ll see it come back to what it was in my lifetime,” he said sadly.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Dorian

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Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”
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