Portraits of the storm


Early on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 8, Hurricane Matthew roared ashore Hilton Head Island as a Category 2 storm. It was the first devastating storm to hit the island in years, and it caused devastation in the Lowcountry and as it worked its way up the East Coast.

Tornadoes, torrential rain, storm surges and strong winds ripped the island apart for more than 12 hours before the storm moved on. Forty-six people — 26 in North Carolina, 12 in Florida, four in South Carolina, three in Georgia, and one in Virginia — died in Hurricane Matthew. Hilton Head was lucky.

Matthew uprooted live oaks, snapped tall pine trees, and severed piers, shipwrecking hundreds of boats — including the 73-foot Lady Bernice docked at the Hudson Seafood Market. Fallen power lines and hundreds of downed trees blocked roadways, shutting down critical rescue routes and isolating neighborhoods. Some islanders lost everything. Others suffered only minor roof damage. The key denominators for all: fallen trees and tall piles of debris. 

Monthly sat down with islanders to hear their hurricane stories. Community spirit, initiative, willingness to help, humor, and unending patience dominated the conversations.  

Island Teen Reflects on Matthew

Phillip Evans“I really had to rely on my Buddhist faith throughout the hurricane,” said Phillip Evans, 17, and a student at Hilton Head Island High School. “One of the biggest tenets of Buddhism is the relinquishment of control — trying to control things outside of yourself. Buddhism teaches is that all suffering is trying to control what you do not possess. Hurricane Matthew’s path was set, and no matter what, none of my actions could prevent it. … Enlightenment is accepting that you can only control what you can control.”

“The hurricane also reminded me how much we value normalcy. I think we often take for granted how relaxing having an everyday routine can be. I truly missed getting up at 8:10 every morning, having to get to class on time, running out the door, not eating breakfast, and then sitting in Chinese class. Normalcy can sometimes have a negative connotation — it’s boring, it’s monotonous — but really, normalcy is something we all thrive on. We do appreciate it. The hurricane is how we see that.”

On the aftermath of the storm, Evans said, “We live in a place that so many people work so hard to keep so pristine, so beautiful and so protected. The ruins had an immediate shock value to me. But that shock was immediately overturned when I saw the community going to work, cleaning up, doing their part and helping their neighbors. Savannah Brown contacted the entire cross country team and posted on Facebook that she would ride her bike across the island taking photos of people’s homes after the hurricane. Just to see her going around to all of the neighborhoods on the island inspired me … I started texting my friends and we all agreed that we would go around the community and help.”

Evans and his friend Chris Geiger helped clean up Legendary Golf after he saw the damage to the miniature golf course caused by extensive flooding.

“I knew how much the owners, Ed and Lori Berry — salt of the earth, two of the kindest, most compassionate souls I’ve ever met — poured their hearts into that golf course. To see how much damaged they incurred, my heart just dropped because I knew how much it meant to them, so I reached out to them.”

“This is a horrible event, but it really did rally our community and bring out the best in all of us. … Hilton Head was truly lucky; no one died. I think the first thing we need to do is acknowledge that it could’ve been worse. And it’s temporary.”

Evans believes the island means so much to everyone who lives here.

“It’s truly a part of everyone’s soul. I believe there’s this intense communal bond binding us together to overcome adversity. I have the upmost faith and conviction that within a few months will be up and back to normal, if not better, and our community is going to be a tighter knit group of people.”

Riding Out Palmetto Bay Marina’s Destruction

Tracy OwensThose who stayed on the island told clock-stopping stories of where they were and what they were doing at in the early hours of Oct. 8 as the eye of the storm edged closer to Hilton Head.

Tracy Owens, 50 a resident of Palmetto Bay Marina and owner of Pure Natural Market, decided to ride out the storm on the island with her husband, Brinsley. “Around 3:45 a.m., the storm just became unbearable… it sounded like a million chainsaws outside. That and the incessant blaring of fire alarms were the absolute worst. The windows shook in their frames. The patio doors opened and shut like they were going to bust off,” Owens said. “In the midst of it, I realized I had put my life at risk by staying. But my husband’s from Jamaica and they ride out storms all the time. He wasn’t going to leave and I wasn’t going to leave without him. When the eyewall hit, the barometric pressure made me feel like I was on another planet. The pressure was the most surreal part of the whole storm.”  

As soon as the sun came up, Owens looked outside the patio door and saw that the marina was gone. “It was very shocking. I felt like I was the only person on earth.”  

Only the pilings of the docks remained as Matthew’s surge up the Harbor River took its toll. A dozen sailboats lay on top of each other, shipwrecked at the marina.

Like an Atomic Bomb Went Off

“The devastation on Hilton Head is primarily about the canopy,” said Glenn Klepchick, 51, who lives in Oyster Reef, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods of Hilton Head Plantation. “We’ve lost a lot of the canopy that makes Hilton Head unique. We didn’t have widespread structural damage.”

Oyster Reef residents say that a tornado tore down the Savannah Trail in their neighborhood. It didn’t take out any homes, but it toppled hundreds of trees. Heavy rainfall contributed to the devastation.

Glenn Klepchick

“We had 15-plus inches of rain that soaked the root balls. When the trees came down, the root balls had two to three feet of water underneath. They were so soggy that they just fell right over,” Klepchick said. “I ended up under the staircase when the storm really got interesting between 3 and 5 o’clock. I had a warm 105-pound golden retriever in my arms hugging me. You would hear the incessant rain, cracking of the trees and then kaboom. Trees would hit the ground. We have five 60-foot pine trees in the backyard that are perfectly stacked and twisted together. I don’t know how they missed the house. It really is bizarre. We lost 16 of the 19 trees on the property. Oyster Reef just got pummeled. It looks like an atomic bomb went off.”

“The next morning, I couldn’t get out. Fallen trees and debris blocked the roadway. Water was everywhere. I was pinned in, imprisoned. Then I realized I have a kayak. I kayaked out of my front yard and took pictures and posted them on Facebook to help people understand the aftermath and show neighbors how their homes fared. It was great to give some people peace of mind. The next day, I took my son’s motorbike and went deeper into the plantation. The one regret I have is that my wife, Caroline, was worried while I stayed behind with the storm. If I hadn’t gone through Hurricane Hugo, I probably wouldn’t have stayed.”

When reflecting on the role social media played during the hurricane, Klepchick, one of the early pioneers of AOL, said, “The reality of what we’ve become is a neural network of people. And that’s really what social media is all about. It gets a black eye because of how it can be used negatively, but Matthew is a perfect example of how it can be used positively. We were connected; we were sharing because we cared. It was amazing to me the amount of information shared and how quickly … it helped people be more adaptive on the fly. Before it was gut instinct, now it’s informed decision-making.”

9/11 Survivor Compares Matthew Experience

Tracy Dayton

“It’s still difficult to grasp the immensity of what happened here, but we were lucky to have early warnings,” said Tracy Dayton, a Realtor with Charter One Realty who relocated to Hilton Head from New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Although Matthew left a war zone, at least we knew it was coming and could evacuate, saving lives. We had no warning, no way to prepare or protect ourselves from the 9/11 hijackers.”  

When asked about lessons learned from the hurricane, Dayton said, “Take down more trees.”

A Little Faith and Great Insurance

Surviving dire circumstances or drastic changes that impact our routines often challenges people to consider what’s really important. Arthur Segal, a retired surgeon who became a rabbi and has authored best-selling books on spiritual renewal, prepared for the hurricane the same way he prepares for any day: He asked God to show him how he can be of maximum use to his fellow human beings. And he acknowledged that the universe is his.

“I also remind myself that I am only in control of my behaviors, not of people, places or things,” Segal said. “During the evacuation and hurricane, my wife, Ellen, and I had no fears. We learned a long time ago that when fear knocks on the door, if you answer it with faith, the fear vanishes. It also helped that we have great insurance.”

When asked if he prayed during the hurricane, Segal referred to a passage in the Jewish Talmud that instructs us to pray during a storm: “Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose power fills the world.”

Segal said that islanders impacted by the devastation of the hurricane must practice patience, love and kindness and share resources. “If someone has a broken sewer line or damaged home, it affects all of us. We’re not in competition with one another. God said to Moses when faced by the pharaoh’s army, ‘Now is not the time for prayer, but action,’” he said. “I don’t think God causes disasters, and I do believe God shows us mercy when they happen. He gave us a ‘yetzer ha tov’ — his divine spark — so that we’ll pitch in and help our neighbors.” 

Army Ranger’s View of the Disaster

As a veteran who served in the 75th Ranger Regiment and 1st Special Forces Command, and a former member of Hilton Head Fire Rescue, Ken Robinson has seen his fair share of tough situations.

“To prepare for a storm is also to prepare for what you might come back to,” he said. “I lived in places for months without tap water, without refrigeration, and without taking a shower. It’s the little things you might have to deal with. Calmness and humor make a big difference.”

Army RangerRobinson did three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has witnessed firsthand the chaos of war-torn countries. He said Americans take for granted conveniences like fresh, clean water.

“Being deployed to third-world countries, I’m used to that level of service. You may not have a toilet. I’ve lived in places where we had to burn our waste. And since we couldn’t take a shower, we had to think about what clothes to wear.”

That helped him manage his expectations after Hurricane Matthew.

“When returning to the island, be prepared: You’re going to see a place hit by a Category 2 hurricane or a place hit by a bomb. The normalcy of your life is going to be different for months. And with all the recovery activity going on, expect gas shortages.”

“I’ve been surprised how well our community has pulled together, even though we’re a segmented community. From what I’ve seen, the majority of people have gone out of their way to help.”

One thing Robinson noted with concern is that some people complained about not being able to get back on the island right after the storm. “I’ve seen it happen in military crises — people complain. Part of it’s naivety, part of it’s personality … I don’t think people know that it took first responders all day just to get their fire trucks and ambulances into the fire stations; they had to cut through all the debris and fallen trees. Look outside yourself to see what is best for all. Ask yourself, ‘What am I doing to impact the overall situation?’”  

Sailors and Their Boats

“The storm damage at Skull Creek could’ve been a lot worse than the fuel dock breaking apart and crashing into a line of boats,” said Marty Slagowitz, 75, a longtime resident and sailor.  

Marty Slagowitz“Docks float and ride up and down on pilings. When the storm surge hit at high tide, the docks at Skull Creek came within a foot or two of floating off their pilings with boats attached.”

“Everyone I knew and came to know via finding each other and sharing what we learned regarding our boats became a virtual community. We all were sick with worry not knowing. Someone I virtually met by sharing a satellite picture of the marina was so genuinely thankful that it was touching. People who first saw their damaged boat expressed feeling sick over it. I was one of them. People and their horses and dogs and sailors and their boats.”

First Video of the Day After

David Vincent YoungNative islander David Vincent Young, 45, known as “Chef David,” stayed behind during the hurricane. After it was over, he posted video of the early destruction on Facebook. The Weather Channel used his footage showing flooding, fallen trees and debris that blocked familiar roadways the day after the hurricane.

“After the rains stopped and I could see, I drove onto the island. I wanted to see what happened, see Ruby Lee’s, the restaurant where I work, and let my friends know what happened. I ended up having over 80,000 Facebook views,” he said. “People in London, L.A. and New York watched it. I broadcasted live as I drove every road I could get to, to show people’s homes and give people peace of mind.”

“The palms survived because they have a very deep root system and a fibrous structure,” he said. “They are flexible. They used palms to build warships in the 1800s because cannon balls would bounce off them.”

Nothing But the Crows and Alligators

The Boyer family — Mark, Magen, Lulu and Max — remained on the island at their home in Leamington during the storm. “We made sure we had a generator and gas, flashlights, extra ice and water, lighters, pre-cooked meals, a boom box, movies, plywood, tools, tarp, ropes, chains and a chainsaw,” said Mark Boyer, 49, a Marine veteran and local builder.

Boyer family

“Mark had every measurement of every window just in case one blew out,” said Magen, 49, a Realtor with the Alliance Group. “If he had to patch something, he knew he could. It helps that he’s a builder. Mark did all the survival preparations; I tried to keep up the rituals that deeply ground kids. We had music on, we cooked; I wanted it to smell like home for the kids. I made sure all the sheets were clean and the laundry was done because I knew we might not have water. The preparations were more exhausting than waiting out the storm.”

“I had a total of three friends who stayed behind,” said Lulu, 16. “On Friday morning, they started to leave and I realized that I was the only one in my friend group who stayed behind on the island. It made me think what do they know that I don’t know… but my dad, he builds homes. He knows how hurricane-proof our house is.”

“At one point we realized we were without help, so we only did what we needed to do,” Mark said. “No one got up on a ladder.”

“The only things that were outside right before the storm were black crows and alligators,” Lulu said. “Crows aren’t afraid of anything.”

“It was not so scary the night of the storm. The devastation is what’s so incredible. But we also saw amazing grace — tiny flowers that survived. Butterflies. The birds chirping,” Magen said.

“Saturday morning, I found a lone sandpiper in the driveway like it had been blown off the beach. He was out there for hours. It was just heartbreaking,” Lulu said.

“A lot of wildlife was displaced,” Mark said. “We have a mother deer and her two babies that frequent our yard. One is a piebald deer, white with dark spots. We call her ‘Lammy.’”

“But ever since the storm, we’ve only seen the piebald deer sitting on top of debris. We haven’t seen her mother or her sibling,” Magen added.

“At 11:30 p.m., the WSAV broadcaster said the hurricane had turned and wouldn’t be greater than a tropical storm,” Mark said. “But I sat outside and monitored the weather. Around 2:15 a.m., I saw everything getting worse and went back inside and turned on WSAV just when the broadcaster said the storm didn’t turn.”

“A little bit later, all hell broke loose. The roar of the storm was deafening. It sounded like a giant washing machine,” Magen said.

“It was the wind. The loudest was the wind. It was like being in a train tunnel,” added Lulu.

“I slept through it all,” said Max, 14.

“And it was pitch dark. We lost power at 3:45 a.m.,” said Magen. “The sound of it … to see it and hear would’ve probably been too much. We worried a lot of people, and for that, I apologize. I can’t even tell you how inundated we were with texts and calls the next morning.”

“The purple sky and the untouched sand on the beach were amazing the morning after,” said Lulu.

“In the end, we lost three shingles.” Mark said. “I guess we did something right by removing trees close to the house. At daybreak Saturday, we checked on so many houses in Leamington and other plantations. We had to cut through the debris. Magen drove the truck while I chainsawed the trees blocking our path and guided the chains dragging the debris away. We cleared a path around every road we could. On Sunday, first responders returned and the National Guard arrived. It was bone-chilling to see their military vehicles on the island.”

“It was a very emotional time to see them come in,” said Magen.