IN THIS STORM, FLOODING WAS WORSE THAN WIND
The Lowcountry avoided the worst-case scenario with Hurricane Irma, but many homes and businesses were hit plenty hard.
Hilton Head Island avoided Irma’s crosshairs as the storm headed for land, pushing to the west in the days after the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office warned of an even more devastating storm than Hurricane Matthew, which ravaged our coast last October. But the combination of a 4-foot storm surge brought on by tropical storm conditions on the outskirts of the most powerful Atlantic hurricane recorded in years and an 8-foot king tide covered much of the Lowcountry in floodwaters.
“I can’t overstate how fast the water rose,” said Colleton River Plantation resident Fitz McAden, noting the flooding from Sawmill Creek went from a zero depth to nearly two feet in a span of about 45 minutes. “The thought of that amount of water moving so quickly over the entire Lowcountry coast astounds me.”
That was a common experience throughout the area, as Irma dumped rain on an already saturated Lowcountry and the surge at high tide produced disturbing images of buildings engulfed in water. Thankfully, some of those images looked worse than they really were. A widely circulated photo of floodwaters creeping up the side of the iconic Hudson’s Seafood House On the Docks restaurant on Hilton Head’s north end drew massive attention on social media, but general manager Andrew Carmines said the water receded quickly and the damage was minimal.
“I am happy to report that the damage to the restaurant is nowhere close to the damage we sustained from Hurricane Matthew,” Carmines posted on Facebook. “The flooding, while slightly more severe, more closely resembles the king tides we experienced in 2015.”
Hilton Head’s beaches were barely recognizable after the storm, except perhaps to those who witnessed them in the wake of Matthew. The storm surge washed away dunes that had been replaced in the past 11 months and destroyed docks up and down the coast, including many that had recently been rebuilt. A massive navigational buoy washed up on South Forest Beach, providing a prop for photos of beachgoers that popped up all over social media.
Coming less than a year after Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc around the Lowcountry, Irma set much of the recovery effort back to square one. Less than two weeks before Irma brought tropical storm conditions, Hilton Head town manager Steve Riley announced the town had received $10.8 million in payments from FEMA, bringing the total to more than $12.5 million — though that total represented less than 30 percent of the $46 million already spent on the recovery, with another $20 million in costs still estimated.
One of the biggest projects still in progress following Matthew was the $3.8 million South Island Emergency Beach Fill project, which began Aug. 21 and focused on replacing 300,000 cubic yards of sand along two miles of beach in Sea Pines.
The project resumed Sept. 15, according Scott Liggett, the town’s chief engineer and director of public projects and facilities, and while officials are still assessing Irma’s aftermath, the result could have been much worse.
“The homes that were most susceptible to further damage have not and will not be exposed for very long,” Liggett said, noting that because the contractor already in the midst of the project, work was able to resume quickly and focus on the most pressing areas.
The other outstanding concerns relate to mitigation projects regarding storm water, which require formal vetting and permitting that had not yet been completed.
All 54 loggerhead sea turtle nests that had been identified on the island were casualties of Irma. They had been left largely unprotected after Matthew destroyed Hilton Head’s sand dunes, and were either washed away or inundated with sea water, bringing an abrupt end to the nesting season, according to Amber Kuehn, manager of the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project.
“Essentially, the net effect will not be seen for 30 years when female hatchlings from this season would be sexually mature and approaching our beach to lay their own eggs,” Kuehn said. “It is possible that when I am 73 years old, I will consider Irma to blame for contributing to a lower nesting density on Hilton Head Island in 2047.”
Thankfully, the damage from Irma isn’t nearly as widespread as Matthew. The town’s damage assessments will not be island-wide but will focus on areas most impacted by flooding, which did its share of damage. Homes and lower-level condominiums took on water, as did the cart barn at Harbour Town Golf Links, where the iconic course lost its entire fleet of carts for the second time in less than a year but was fortunate to avoid the kind of damage that kept the famed layout closed for about a month after Matthew.
Storm surge from Irma also hit areas of Bluffton hard, destroying docks along the May River and flooding homes in several areas, including the Alljoy neighborhood. At Amedisys Home Health in Sheridan Park, flooding complicated things when workers returned, as ServPro had to come in and pull away baseboards and clean up the flood damage.
“We all moved to the center of the building and worked in different places wherever we could,” employee Beverly Parrish said. “But everything is fine now. They did a great job and got rid of the smell and eveything.”
For many Lowcountry residents, though, Irma turned out to be a mere inconvenience. Those who evacuated were met with excruciating travel delays as millions left Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina and attempted re-entry on the same schedule. Travel from Charlotte back to Beaufort County took up to eight hours — twice the usual time. The interstates were clogged, and traffic backed up on two-lane highways as travelers searched for alternate routes.
About 1,500 Palmetto Electric customers on Hilton Head remained without power when the evacuation order for the barrier islands was lifted at 10 a.m. Sept. 12, but the area did not experience the same widespread outages that continued for several days after Matthew.
Others grumbled about the Beaufort County School District’s decision to return to normal operation Sept. 13, as well as the move to make up missed class time on two Saturdays in November.
“There is no way to make a scheduling decision like this one and make everyone happy,” the district said Sept. 11 in a Facebook post. “Some of the families of our 22,000 students will find a Wednesday restart difficult. But we’re confident that the majority of students — many of whom didn’t evacuate — will be able to attend. The school facilities themselves are in good shape, and power is rapidly being restored. Our best assessment is that this is the best decision for most families.”
Most in the Lowcountry agree that we were fortunate after the storm passed to find things weren’t as bad as we had feared.
“It is always worse than it seems, and in this case that is certainly true,” Carmines said. “We will, all of us, bounce back and be stronger as a result.”
DEALING WITH DAMAGE
Before hiring a company or contractor, AAA recommends these tips:
- Call your insurance adjuster to get an estimate of the damage and probable repairs.
- Be cautious companies leaving flyers or business cards at your property.
- Get more than one cost estimate for repair work.
- Get references and check into the business license, if possible.
- Check the company’s website to see if it has set up a catastrophic claims center in your area. This information should be available on your insurance company website.
- Never let a contractor interpret insurance language.
- Keep an inventory of any damaged goods you discard, using a cell phone camera to take pictures of the items.
- If you have lost power, find out where the Red Cross, FEMA and other charity organizations are setting up relief areas. They can normally supply water, meals, showers and washing machines.
- Drive carefully. Remember, if standing water is on the road, turn around and don’t drown.
- Don’t touch any downed utility lines.
Source: AAA Carolinas
BE ON ALERT FOR FRAUD
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is warning residents in areas hit by Hurricane Irma to be alert for false rumors, scams, identity theft, and fraud. Here are a few guidelines to protect yourself, or someone you care about, from disaster fraud:
- Federal and state workers do not ask for — or accept — money. FEMA staff will never charge applicants for disaster assistance, home inspections or help filling out applications. Stay alert for false promises to speed up the insurance, disaster assistance or building permit process.
- Always ask to see FEMA employees’ ID badges. FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance teams may be in impacted communities providing information and assisting survivors with the registration process or their applicant files.
- A FEMA shirt or jacket is not proof of identity. All FEMA representatives, including contracted inspectors, will have a laminated photo ID. All National Flood Insurance Program adjusters will have a NFIP Authorized Adjuster Card with their name and the types of claims they may adjust.
- If you are unsure or uncomfortable with anyone you encounter claiming to be an emergency management official, do not give out personal information. Contact local law enforcement.
If you suspect fraud, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud’s hotline at 1-866-720-5721, or email the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also report fraud to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. Learn more about the National Center for Disaster Fraud at justice.gov/disaster-fraud.