The storm made heroes of so many, and reminded us all of the power of community.
You may not think this is your story, but it is. We all have our own answers to the question, “Where were you during Hurricane Matthew?” But the story of Hurricane Matthew is one we all share.
In that sense, this is your story. Among the hundreds of stories created by this storm, these are but a handful. Matthew stories are legion, and giving them all their proper due could fill 1,000 pages. Instead, we seek out the stories we can tell in this space in the hope that they reflect some small part of your own.
And while each is different, they share a common thread: Each belongs to a member of this community. Our community. The community now telling its story as a people who came together when the mightiest force on earth tried to tear us apart.
We are the Lowcountry. This is our story.
THE DAYS BEFORE
Everyone had been watching the storm to see what it would do. Around here, we tend to shelter ourselves with the comforting thought of every storm that has turned east at the last minute, or veered out after colliding with Florida, or burned itself out in the Caribbean.
But this one was different. And everyone felt it.
But no one knew exactly what was coming. Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka felt it, too. “It was in the back of my head that this doesn’t feel right… But like 90 percent of residents, I felt like it was going to turn east,” she said.
On Hilton Head Island, Spanish Wells residents Angela and Brad Ellis were watching the news with mixed emotions, like so many others. “My husband and I both evacuated during Hugo and, of course, that made a turn,” Angela Ellis said. “Between sitting on Interstate 16 for 10 hours for that and sitting in traffic for Floyd, we decided we weren’t leaving.”
Heather Nicole Price, who manages the Bluffton/Hilton Head Ask & Answer Facebook page, never had a doubt where she’d be should the storm hit. “I have an emergency management background. So I’ve never evacuated. I’ve always worked,” she said.
And with questions still churning like the wind itself, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley held a press conference on Tuesday afternoon. Evacuation would begin the next day.
As Haley was addressing the state, WSAV reporter Holly Bounds was picking her daughter up from daycare. The teacher happened to have the press conference on TV, and right away Bounds knew that her role as a mother and her role as a reporter were about to collide. “I told my daughter, ‘Let’s just get through ballet,’” she said. The next day she would send her family off, including her 5-month-old daughter, and remain behind to cover the storm. “I was a mess… having to talk to my children about why I wasn’t going with them. When I signed up for this job, I always knew that was part of the deal, but in 11 years I’ve never had to go through with it.”
Across town, Capt. Derek Franks of the Bluffton Township Fire District watched the approaching storm with more trepidation than most. In addition to the usual worries — for his family and friends’ safety, for his own — the approaching storm would be the first test of a post-disaster readiness and recovery plan he’d been creating for nearly five years. “The old plan has never been tested,” he said. “Of course, no plan has really ever been tested in Bluffton or Beaufort County.”
His plan drew on his expertise with the state’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, where he assisted in rescues after hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. But there was one giant difference for Franks between Matthew and those infamous super storms: “I’ve always been there after the fact. I haven’t lived through the hurricane to see the outcome.”
The days before Matthew made landfall in McClellanville saw the populations of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton gradually dwindle as the increasingly perilous track of the storm made it clear that something terrible was coming. Sulka, along with public information officers and patrolmen, traversed mostly empty streets, letting people know what was coming. “It really hit me Friday at around 8 a.m.,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me leave the town, and I was signing a check to our finance department for $15,000 to use for emergencies.”
“Once I knew my family was out safe, I made the decision to quit feeling bad about that and focus on the job. From then on out, we were going nonstop,” Bounds said. She pulled in WSAV’s sports director to serve as a news photographer and secured an embedded spot with the fire district. Her reports and her Facebook live updates showed those who had evacuated the increasing peril of their hometown as Matthew howled up the Florida coast.
As night fell on Friday, it brought with it a future shrouded with uncertainty. Those who evacuated tried desperately to get information from national news sources that treated the area between Savannah and Charleston as a footnote. Thankfully, Price’s Facebook page was already ramping up its new role as the de facto information source for the Lowcountry’s refugees. “I’d sit at home with WSAV on, watching updates, and I’d see that there was different information on a town website,” she said. Right up until the power blinked out, she was keeping followers informed. “We were thinking about leaving right up until we couldn’t.”
With the light fading, town of Bluffton personnel were pulled back to the EviCore building, which was designed to withstand Category 4 winds.
“EviCore opened their doors for us and I will be forever appreciative,” Sulka said. “I looked out the window and saw trees turned sideways and just felt for everyone outside of this.”
Realtor Chip Collins was like a lot of us, stuck miles away from home watching the storm unfold with a sense of helplessness. Through his email database of around 35,000 clients, he had been sifting through information and misinformation to try and keep his fellow evacuees informed. “I was just hanging out in my hotel watching this thing. I was up until 1:40 a.m. texting my dad, who lives on the May River,” he said. “I went to bed and woke up finding out about the horror that had happened.”
For those who stayed, those hours in the deepest part of the night were some of the most terrifying of the entire ordeal.
“By around 2:30 to 3 a.m., I was clinging to the back of my sofa because it was the only place I felt safe,” Ellis said. With her mind on the three massive specimen live oaks on her property, Ellis waited out the storm as the winds battered her home. “Think of the loudest gust of wind you’ve ever heard and having that as a constant all night. Then when the power went out, you had no background noise from the fridge or the air conditioner. Just the wind roaring and the pitch blackness.”
Over the river, Price opened her doors to see the storm and quickly changed her mind. “I told myself, ‘Oh, that’s not happening.’” At the EviCore building, Bounds wrapped up hourly broadcast and “completely crashed” by 3 a.m.
But throughout the night, while the winds howled, Franks continued to check and double check his well-laid plans for after the storm. Every new report brought some change, planning for storm surge or finding ways to secure water rescue assets due to heavier rains than anticipated.
“I didn’t sleep one minute that night,” he said.
THE STORM PASSES
At first light, a call rang out through the EviCore building. It was Bluffton Township Fire District’s Randy Hunter, hollering, “News media, let’s get out of here.” It was the first thing Bounds heard after the storm.
“The officers were like the horses at the gate of the Kentucky Derby,” Sulka said. “They were all up at 5 a.m. and no one would let them go until daylight.”
Bounds was able to get out with her first responders, and was among the first to see what Matthew had done. “I remember passing by Bojangles and thinking, ‘OK, the Bojangles is still there, and it’s only partially constructed.’ But then the more we drove, the more we started seeing trees down everywhere.”
On the other side of Bluffton, Franks was shoving trees off of S.C. 170 with a 40-horsepower tractor and thinking to himself, “What in the world just happened to my town?” One of the first anxious horses out of the gate, Franks had seen his five years of planning executed with precision, and was now clearing a path for crews from University of South Carolina Beaufort to make their way down to McGarvey’s Corner. The storm had been worse than he had anticipated, but not as bad as he’d prepared for. “If we had that much rain in that small amount of time without a hurricane, it would have been a big deal. If we’d had a windstorm knock down thousands of trees, it would have been a big deal,” he said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around how big this was.”
And so, trying not to think of his father, who’d stayed behind in Bluffton and how he still wasn’t able to reach him on the phone, Franks continued that morning to dutifully clear the road so others could be protected.
On the island, Ellis stirred from a few fitful hours of sleep to the first rays of day on an island still being hammered by the storm. “I opened the back door and the winds were still howling at 7:30 a.m.,” she said. “I got some clothes on, headed out and was just awestruck by the devastation.”
She didn’t get too far before she found her way blocked by some of the thousands of trees that went down that night. It would take her husband, Brad, and their neighbors — Mark Staff, Gary Blackwell and others — the better part of that day to cut their way off of their street with chainsaws. By then, the calls and Facebook requests had begun to arrive. First asking if she was OK, then asking if she could see how bad different homes had been hit. “I can’t remember who asked first, but that took on a life of its own.”
Her Facebook feed would evolve over the next few days into “The Hurricane Chronicles,” a blur of photos of other peoples’ houses, sent to help ease worried minds.
The hunger for news was sharp among those who evacuated. Jeff West, self-described as “one of the crazies who stayed,” found out how ravenous we all were when he decided to try Facebook Live for the first time while assessing damage on the island. “I’d never used it before, so I figured I’d flip it on while I was in my car,” he said. “I looked down and there was a text from my sister saying, ‘You know there’s like 34,000 people watching you right now, right?’” The director of operations for Sunset Rentals, West began by checking on his clients’ properties, but soon some 19,000 requests had arrived well outside his client base. And thus, a 30-minute venture out turned into a 14-hour marathon of live broadcasts. “I don’t need to go to the gym for a few months,” he said with a laugh.
A few days later, when he was able to return to the Lowcountry, Collins joined in on the Facebook Live broadcasts of the devastation. “Monday morning I boated over from Bluffton and docked at my Calibogue Cay dock. It was a war zone,” he said. Along the May and up the Calibogue, he saw docks twisted by the winds and boats either submerged or resting on the marsh. “Among all that ugliness, a dolphin came up beside the boat. It really gave us a sense of hope.” After cutting trees off his garage to free his Jeep, Collins began traversing Sea Pines, which saw horrible flooding and massive damage from falling trees. This, despite extensive flooding and damage to his own home. For his friends, family and clients, Collins logged into Facebook Live and kept filming.
Collins, Ellis and West joined a handful of fellow islanders who stayed behind and made their first priority getting out there and telling the rest of us how our homes fared. If space allowed, we would tell all of their stories.
But one story deserves a moment to itself. And like most stories worth telling, it starts with a bowl of steamed shrimp.
“I travel a lot. Whenever I come home, my mom had a bowl of steamed shrimp waiting for me,” said island native Byron Sewell. “It always made me feel welcome.” After waiting out the storm in a friend’s home in Wexford, Sewell was among the first to head out and start checking on houses. Along with his friend Tucker Brubaker and some chainsaws, Sewell estimates he checked 50 to 60 houses in the days after the storm. But his greatest contributions were more important than peace of mind. They restored our sense of place.
It started when he saw the American flag at the Sea Pines Circle in tatters. “That circle means everything to me. When I was a kid, they’d have Santa there, and the island was small enough back then that all the kids would go there to the Christmas tree and have that moment. I thought, ‘We gotta change that flag,’” he said. A Facebook call to action later, Sewell had the code to Chuck Padgett’s garage, where a replacement awaited. Sea Pines security showed up with the key, and a new Old Glory was quickly raised. It was a stirring symbol. But there are symbols, and then there are signs.
Signs that welcome you home like a bowl of mom’s steamed shrimp.
“I was pulling down plywood from my mom’s house, and said ‘Mom, we should make a sign,’” Sewell said. “I sat on the back porch and right there I could see some of the first cars making their way back over the bridge. I wrote it up, put some hearts on it and welcomed people home.”
That sign, a simple “Welcome Home” spray-painted in white Kilz on taupe plywood, became one of the single most powerful symbols of the island’s emotional optimism during this entire ordeal.
THE HEALING BEGINS
On that first day, crisscrossing Bluffton and documenting everything with her crew, Bounds witnessed no end of beauty behind the tragedy. Restaurants like Bluffton BBQ giving out food to anyone who had stayed. The owner at Katie O’Donalds opening his restaurant to Bounds and her crew and letting them prepare whatever they wanted in the kitchen. And one woman on Confederate Street who may just have this whole life thing figured out.
“She was just in this happy mood as she and her husband were cleaning up. This was just hours after the storm,” said Bounds. “I had to ask her, ‘Why are you smiling?’ and she said, ‘It’s a great day. I’m alive.’”
The rest of the story we all know, because we all lived it together.
During the mad rush that precipitated our return, Price’s Ask & Answer page became the fourth estate of the Lowcountry, cutting through static and delivering the facts. Whether taking notes on paper plates during one of Sheriff P.J. Tanner’s press conferences (“They’re saying you can’t come back until we have a working hospital. While they were holding that conference, one of the hospitals opened. I put on my page, ‘Does anyone know P.J. Tanner enough to message him?’”) or looking out for those who had wound up stuck at the barricades (“People were camping out for 15 hours in their cars with no water or food. They were keeping it very quiet. Me, I’m all over it. I messaged the mayor that we’re going to have a crisis here.”) Price barely stopped in the days that followed.
But eventually we were all allowed back home. And thanks to the efforts of Collins, West, Sewell, Ellis and countless others, we came back with the black cloud of uncertainty scattered like the hurricane that had caused it.
In Bluffton, Franks was able to get in touch with his father, who had weathered the storm just fine. Sulka worked feverishly to restore communications and manage a sudden crush of returning evacuees. Bounds held her daughters in her arms after doing her final live shot at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Price’s Ask & Answer page pivoted its focus from spreading information to spreading resources, fostering the Laundry for Linesman initiative and helping restock the pantries at Bluffton Self Help.
Those of us returning to the island saw Sewell’s handmade sign and for a moment, our hearts lifted. We came back and began digging out, bolstered by a renewed sense of community.
“I’ve never been more proud to live on this island,” West said. “People coming together with chainsaws or whatever they have, it’s been incredible.”
“It made me feel a lot closer to my neighbors,” Ellis said.
“…it’s a whole new vibe,” Sewell added. “It changed everything for me and how I see the island… It’s pretty emotional to see my island changed so much.”
But maybe that change can mean something great. Maybe after something so devastating, our community can change into something better. It’s always been Hilton Head and Bluffton. It’s always been this gated community and that gated community.
We share a story now. We share a community. Maybe out of all this, we can find out what else we share.