Bluffton’s community spirit stronger than the winds of Hurricane Matthew

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Good job, Bluffton. Your actions during the evacuation for Hurricane Matthew and after the storm had passed made us more proud to live in this beloved town. Bluffton is blessed that Mother Nature didn’t do the damage here that our Hilton Head Island neighbors experienced with this Category 2 storm. There were countless examples of when a tree fell, it chose to fall on the ground, not on a person or a house. And though not all were unscathed, speaking for the town as a whole, Hurricane Matthew could have been much worse.

For a county that hasn’t experienced the wrath of this type of hurricane since Hurricane Gracie in 1959, we should be proud to be a part of this regional family of neighbors. Please hear our applause and gratitude. We helped each other as we were all under the stress of this storm. As with any incident, there will be many who will question the calls during this ordeal and that’s perfectly reasonable. As always, your suggestions, comments and questions are welcome. You can reach me at lsulka@townofbluffton.com. As a government entity whose mission is to serve and protect, we will be refining plans as we go forward.

I am especially proud of our state leadership. Gov. Nikki Haley ordered a quick and swift evacuation of coastal counties, erring on the side of safety. Haley’s calm demeanor and leadership shone through this entire incident. We are thankful for her foresight. There were no deaths in Beaufort County; that alone is a huge accomplishment. As mayor, my role was to be accessible to sign emergency documents and authorize funds for storm response. I was at Bluffton’s Emergency Operations Center, which was located in the Bluffton Police Department, during the entire storm. I was privileged to witness how planning our work and working our plan provided the infrastructure of an organized operation. Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds and town manager Marc Orlando led their troops throughout the hurricane. These two men never left their staff — working, sleeping and eating besides them as we all responded to the needs of our residents. They led by example and were able to prioritize responsibilities for themselves and others around the clock for nearly 10 days. If you see Reynolds or Orlando soon, please thank them for their dedicated leadership. 

As part of emergency operations pre-planning, the town established a partnership with eviCore (formerly known as CareCore National). The two eviCore buildings at Buckwalter Place were where town staff, police officers, firefighters and some media representatives slept. These buildings were built to withstand a Category 4 storm, so all who stayed behind to work were safe. All staff were provided with food, shelter, showers and occasionally sleep. Thanks to all the residents and restaurants who donated food to these teams. It was much appreciated. Your caring for us helped us care for others.  

Not getting much sleep on Friday eve, I decided to sit in the break room with two other officers and one of our chaplains. At 3 a.m. Saturday, I watched the storm hit our area on The Weather Channel and from the eviCore windows as the winds and rain furiously raged outside. We heard trees crash and mysterious items hit the roof, but we knew it could have been so much worse.

The next morning, Bluffton police officers, firefighters and National Guard members started clearing streets, assessing damage and ensuring residents were safe. The number of dangling power lines and fallen trees on Bluffton’s roadways was heartbreaking. Old Town Bluffton took a beating as debris and downed trees cluttered the once-charming streets. Riding the streets reminded me of the morning after a snow storm, except the snow was replaced by pine needles and branches. It was eerily quiet, with no traffic whatsoever. That Saturday morning, I wasn’t sure how we were going to return to the town we know and love.

 As the storm cleared, the community spirit started to rally as residents checked on their neighbors, organized storm debris removal teams complete with chainsaws, and restaurants and catering owners cooked their food for first responders and displaced neighbors.

The list of selfless acts are too numerous to list; however, please know the collective support and spirit of the Bluffton community is a treasure that no one takes for granted. If you ever doubt if humanity is still good, I am here to tell you: It is alive and well. Each small and large act of kindness proves this world still cares about their fellow human and we are honored that many of those people live in our corner of the world.

As life begins to return to normal, the town was focused on three top priorities: First, to restore power for all residents; second, to make all Bluffton roads, streets and public spaces accessible; and third, to assess the damage. Thank you for your patience as we continue to work down the to-do list and get all services back to a normal schedule.

We haven’t been through this type of storm for nearly 60 years, so not all is perfect; however, we will get through it together.

Please also know the town has parameters and that municipalities work under the state and the county during times like these. Decisions about evacuations, re-entry and other macro-decisions are the responsibility of the county and the state. The town of Bluffton is responsible for the accessibility of its streets and public buildings, assessment of damage, public safety and coordinating services (i.e., utilities, trash, recycling, etc.) for its residents. 

Thank you Bluffton warriors for your strength, your generosity and your actions to help your neighbors through Hurricane Matthew. It is my honor to serve this incredible community and to personally read more than 1,000 emails, texts and social media posts from people contributing to our community’s recovery. I am proud to be your mayor.    

As we grow from this experience, please stay connected to your town through Facebook (Town of Bluffton Government and Bluffton Police Department), Twitter (@TownofBluffton and @BlufftonPolice) and the Bluffton Police Department app (My PD/Bluffton Police Department).

While posting on Facebook and other social media, you will see I consistently used hashtags that say it all for our residents, and I hope you will do the same: #loveblufftonsc  #blufftonstrong  #weareinthistogether