What a week, huh?
Whether you stayed or not, Hurricane Dorian was definitely one for the history books.
Before I had kids, owned a house and all that goes with being an adult, hurricanes were actually fun. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, nobody really considered evacuating Hilton Head Island. Instead, we would gather together and hunker down in probably the worst place you could possibly be — the oceanfront hotel called the William Hilton Inn, where Marriott’s Grande Ocean Resort now stands on South Forest Beach Drive.
Granted, weather predictions were primitive back then. But it still makes me chuckle that my folks would risk all five kids in a place not 50 yards from the beach. Even during the height of a storm, they would often let us go body-surfing! One ride on a wave and you were easily a quarter mile down the beach from where you started.
If my memory serves me correctly, the only time I evacuated was during Hurricane David in 1979. Along with many of my family members we ended up on one of the top floors at the Desoto Hilton Hotel in Savannah. Wouldn’t you know that David came right up the Savannah River? The large plate glass windows in our rooms were bending in and out like they were made of cardboard. That was spooky.
Most major storms skirted the coast and it was party central for islanders. Tourists were long gone and we would set up barbecue grills in the middle of U.S. 278.
It was always thought that because we were tucked in along the coastline, the chances of a direct hit were minuscule. That is, until Sept. 22, 1989, when Hurricane Hugo came along. Now that was one big storm and we were the bullseye. Literally at the last possible second it wobbled to the east and smashed into the Charleston area.
Having attended boarding school in Charleston, I just had to check on all my friends. With a borrowed truck from Espy Lumber, I procured ice, batteries, baby diapers and canned goods and headed to Charleston the day after the storm passed.
It was surreal.
Church steeples lay across streets, traffic lights, power lines and debris clogged the road, and the only way in was to smash through it all. Driving through people’s yards and zig-zagging to avoid obstacles, I finally made it into the downtown area. Hopping out, the entire top of the borrowed truck was wrapped with electrical wires along with several battered stoplights. As soon as I handed out all my supplies, I headed back to Hilton Head for another load.
Using a local radio station, I became known as “Robin Hood” and used their facilities to ask for donations. The response was incredible.
Every day I would load up with necessities and back to Charleston I would go.
One bit of humor happened when I went to Savannah with my sister Grace to buy palettes of beef stew. It was raining and with a flatbed stacked high with palettes, one slid off as I turned a corner on Abercorn Street. Grace and I scrambled to gather up cans of stew rolling across this major road and drivers never once slowed down. Dodging cars, we would hear loud “pops!” as cars hit cans and beef stew shot out like they had been in a cannon. Stew flew everywhere and, covered head to toe, we finally gave up. In hindsight, it really was funny and had there been YouTube, the video would have gone viral.
I think it was around Day Four that people up there became desperate. I was in a less affluent part of town when I was mobbed. National Guard soldiers with guns had to protect me from the horde and it was then that I decided that Charleston proper would make it and instead I would concentrate just north of Charleston, which actually was Hugo’s ground zero.
Oh, my God. It looked very much like what you are currently seeing in the Abaco Islands. Some homes had moved a good quarter of a mile by the tidal surge. It was then that I saw an elderly woman holding an old orange crate. I learned her name was Mary Jane Manigault, a noted sweetgrass basket weaver.
That crate held the only possessions she could salvage. She and her granddaughter had to claw through the ceiling of her house just so they could breath. The water was that high. The remains of her home had mud a foot thick on the floor along with hundreds of dead fish.
‘Oprah Winfrey Show’
I felt so helpless and, really without thinking, said, “If you weave me a basket, I’ll build you a home.” That was the start of my year-long “Home For The Holidays” campaign.
In all I was able to raise the money and labor force to build four homes for people that had lost everything, including Mary Jane, who appeared alongside me on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
One home for a girl and her siblings who had just lost her parents in a car accident was built here by Technical College of the Lowcountry students. The problem was it had to be moved to Charleston via the then-two-lane U.S. 17. The house was wider than the road and I was personally responsible for a 100-mile traffic gridlock. Luckily, I had police escorts because two or three times tractor trailer rigs were forced to back up two to three miles to let me by.
I was consumed with helping those who were left with nothing, risking my marriage and my business. But it was worth it. I can only assume the feeling I got was better than any drug ever made.
Then came Hurricane Mathew. Though I live in Bluffton, I chose to ride it out on Hilton Head. As Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” It wasn’t my best decision. It took a cup of “Cowboy Coffee” to get a guy on heavy equipment to push trees out of the way so I could once again zigzag through yards with water up to the hood of my car to finally get home. I’ll leave it that.
So now that Dorian is history, that bug has me itching again. All I want to do is solicit a fleet of big boats, load them down with necessities and head to the Bahamas.
Until you have witnessed firsthand the devastation these events can wreak, it might be difficult to understand how our own everyday problems can seem so insignificant in comparison.
All I can say is, should you accept such a challenge, you will forever come away a changed person for the better.