The surest sign of spring on Hilton Head Island comes in mid-March, when the island gathers on Pope Avenue for the Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
This year’s 34th annual edition of the parade is set for 3 p.m. Sunday, March 12, and offers a chance for residents to forget about the struggles of Hurricane Matthew recovery for a while and celebrate the sense of camaraderie that makes Hilton Head so special — all while having a fantastic time.
A RELUCTANT HERO
This year’s grand marshal is Steve Riley, who has been Hilton Head’s town manager since 1994. According to the parade committee, it was a pretty easy decision. “We were pretty unanimous,” said committee co-chairman Alan Perry. “Everybody in the room wanted it to happen.”
Riley has a reputation as a humble, unassuming fellow who admits a preference for being in the background. “It’s a little embarrassing I guess,” he said, “but in this job sometimes you’ve got to be out in front.” And that’s where he was during those harrowing days in October when Hurricane Matthew slowly churned its way up the coast. Many Lowcountry residents had hoped it would turn and miss the island completely, but it didn’t. In the days leading up to the storm and as it made landfall, Riley kept in contact with the National Weather Service to track the storm and prepare for its arrival.
Riley coordinated the preparation and recovery efforts of town and county services and offices, including the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Division, Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue, the Bluffton Township Fire District, local utilities and public service districts, the National Guard and Crowder Gulf. He helped organize evacuations of island residents and every fire company on the island before the story, and in the aftermath, took charge of the most pressing and immediate task: clearing enough roads so that recovery teams could re-enter and restore water and power, making neighborhoods safe for residents to return home.
Once that work was done came the emotionally charged effort to smooth the way for thousands of stranded evacuees who desperately wanted to come home. Although there were a few hiccups due to mixed messages from state, county and local officials, not to mention sometimes conflicting and erroneous reports from citizens via social media, eventually all residents were allowed back onto the island — where they were greeted by the now famous homemade “Welcome Home” sign at the base of the bridge.
Though the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce awarded Riley the John Curry Tourism Award for his efforts, Riley is slow to take credit for his role in helping the area recover from the storm.
“I really just consider myself a symbol representing all of the people who did so much to get us through the storm,” he said of being honored as the St. Patrick’s Day parade grand marshal.
On March 12, instead of leading first responders and disaster relief efforts, Riley will be leading marching bands, floats and other parade participants up Pope Avenue during the 34th annual Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Organizers say that this year’s parade may be the biggest in years, featuring marching bands from five high schools and five pipe and drum bands from as far away as Boston. The Marine Corps Band from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island will also make a return appearance.
Special features include the Planters Nutmobile and Planters “spokesnut,” Mr. Peanut, and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Additionally, the Express Clydesdales of Yukon, Oklahoma, will make their Hilton Head parade debut. The team travels around the country promoting staffing company Express Employment Professionals and raising millions of dollars for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. They’ll join the usual collection of colorful floats and marching groups from local businesses and nonprofit organizations, as well as a procession of local dignitaries.
The parade will follow its usual route, beginning at the south end of Pope Avenue near Coligny Circle and marching north to Office Park Road — the site of the reviewing stand — where it will make a left turn and proceed to its end in front of Park Plaza and The Courtyard Building.
“It’ll be a celebration of our home and community as always,” said committee co-chairwoman Gabrielle Muething, “but this year, it is also a celebration of our victory over Hurricane Matthew. We are Hilton Head Strong and we are Lowcountry Strong.”
IF YOU GO
What: The 34th annual Hilton Head Island St. Patrick's Day Parade
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 12, rain or shine
Where: Pope Avenue to Office Park Road
Details: To join the parade, go to www.hiltonheadireland.org and click "Entries." Entry fees are $325 for businesses and $150 for nonprofit organizations.