November 2016

Hurricane Matthew: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Author: Becca Edwards

The hours following Governor Nikki Haley’s mandatory evacuation on Tuesday, October 4 felt like a spaghetti western. People circled around, contemplating whether to pull the trigger and evacuate or not. Everywhere you went, people talked about the evacuation and one by one declared their stance. We, however, remained undecided and attended a hurricane party that evening. Our contribution to the night’s festivities: Rainstorm wine and dark and stormy ingredients, of course.

By Wednesday morning, I internally heard the haunting music of Ennio Morricone. “Whah-a-whah. Wah. Wah. Wah.” The island quietly and steadily became bare as everyday sights and sounds like traffic were replaced with an unsettling void. An exodus of birds flew by my home-office window as a foretelling sign. Late Wednesday afternoon, with national guardsmen posted in strategic places and my favorite hangouts boarded up, Hilton Head reminded me of the famous duel scene between Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco in The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. The landscape felt expansive and desolate due to the lack people occupying it. There was tension in the air. It was time to exact our plan.

We decided to evacuate. Anticipating the long drive to Highlands, North Carolina, my husband Lee and I each exercised our legs. He ran along our vacant streets. I biked. We packed both cars and, by Thursday afternoon, we left not knowing if Hilton Head would be the same once we returned.

And then Saturday came.

The good
Blondie: You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.

Starting early Saturday morning, my husband and I were inundated with texts, calls, and Facebook posts. As reports flooded in, I realized Hilton Head suddenly consisted of two very distinct populations: one comprised of the few people who stayed and weathered the storm; the other, people like me who nail bitingly watched from their televisions. The former had all the power, and they shared it with the rest of us via their words, videos and actions.

This was the good side of hurricane Matthew.

Our neighbor Chuck Strauch, who must be in his 70s, did not evacuate. He created a group e-mail for all the neighbors and updated us from 12 a.m. onward. Once the storm finally passed, he left the sanctity of his home to climb over elephantine trees and through mangled forts of debris to each of our houses. He took pictures. He wrote detailed descriptions. Some of us had bad news. Some of us good news. But either way it was news, and he gave us peace of mind by putting us there virtually.

This sense of camaraderie continued and even blossomed as the hours wore on and Saturday receded into Sunday. As more images of the devastation circulated, I was struck by the juxtaposition between the fallen trees—which for me have always taken on almost a human form—and the people rising to action. My nanny Merlie Windley and her husband Keith who live near Palmetto Bay Marina biked through flooded and treacherous streets—often having to dismount and sling their bikes over their shoulders to pass through impassable sections—to visit my home, my parent’s home and my in-laws home, among others. They wore down their phone batteries capturing what was now our reality.

My husband and I knew we needed to return ASAP, and though our reasons were seemingly different, they were actually the same. As president of The Greenery, he felt honor-bound to return to our island and start leading the charge toward cleanup. As a mother and all that comes with maternal instincts, I felt compelled to do everything in my power to return to our nest and fortify not just my home, but everyone’s—because suddenly we all had one place of residence: the Lowcountry, and it needed love.

The bad
Angel Eyes: Oh I almost forgot. He gave me a thousand. I think his idea was that I kill you.
We headed home Sunday morning with a tenuous plan. Lee had a first responder pass waiting for him in Hardeeville. There we would consolidate to one car and, much like the Muppet bus, load way too many objects, both animate and inanimate, into one car. This is when Hurricane Matthew became bad—but in a funny way.

We drove the back way home through towns that had been deserted long before Matthew (as in decades ago) and I thought about Southern industries that had once fed now starving towns. Lee had two dogs, one child and groceries as co-pilots. I had two cats, two kids, and one smelly litter box as co-pilots. (We divided the luggage.) Lee pulled a Clark Griswold and attempted a family pit stop/picnic. I learned I had not properly taught my daughters how to urinate in the wild and put that on my growing to-do list. We ate bland sandwiches and tried to firm up our plan.

Once we reached Hardeeville, my pulse was steady but my heart seemed to beat wildly. How were we going to get two dogs, two cats, three kids and two adults in one car under one first responder pass? And if we got into Bluffton and then Hilton Head, where were we going to stay? Our street, along with most of Sea Pines, was inaccessible at the time. If we could make it before closing time, there was a pet lodging place in Bluffton, The Bark Shack, that had stayed open and would take our animals. Our 60-foot sailboat in Windmill Harbor was rumored to be okay. These were our only options. And both were a gamble.

One check point closed and we entered Bluffton before the second really formulated. Lady Luck was on our side. We dropped off the animals at The Bark Shack, encountered an established checkpoint, hid the children under luggage with some choice words and minutes to spare, made it through and then headed toward Windmill Harbor.

Approaching the marina and yacht club, trees laid strewn like discarded clothes in a teenager’s messy bedroom. It felt inappropriate but then it dawned on me that it was severely appropriate. This was Hilton Head now. I looked down at my watch. It was 7:28 p.m. I looked up and there was a faint light coming from the South Carolina Yacht Club, despite the fact that it was shrouded in protective boards. It beckoned us like a lighthouse.

If you have ever met Lee Lucier, the GM for SCYC, you know he has an indelible spirit. If you have ever hung out with him in the aftermath of a hurricane, you know he has a “let’s-rock-this” attitude. I discovered this as I entered SCYC’s restaurant/bar. Where normally members wine and dine, refugees—meaning sailors seeking a safe port—intermingled with a select and comical assortment of storm-weary Windmill Harbor homeowners. My daughters, who did not notice the difference between business as usual and a quasi-apocalyptic world, asked Lucier for Shirley Temples. They wanted “normal,” and Lucier gave it to them, along with a glass of delicious wine for me. My middle daughter, Ruth Love—with a deceivingly vegetarian sounding name—devoured the steak and duck, as did my husband and other children. However, because I don’t normally eat meat, I went the poor-planning, you’re-going-to-regret-this-tomorrow route and decided to eat minimally and drink maximally.

When we finally stumbled to the boat, I realized I had just washed all the linens and they were in the laundry room of my now buried-by-trees home in Sea (of Fallen) Pines. I returned to SCYC, asked Lucier if he had any blankets or towels, and he provided me with freshly laundered table clothes. I proceeded to wrap my daughters up like mummies.

Monday morning, we awoke to find out the boat was infested with cockroaches and I texted my new favorite wine drinking buddy Ann Carroll (whom I met the night before). She invited us for coffee. It was the best cup of joe I’ve ever had.

The ugly
Tuco: You never had a rope around your neck. Well, I’m going to tell you something. When that rope starts to pull tight, you can feel the devil bite your ass.

Mid-morning Monday, my husband and I dropped our daughters off with our nanny and began assessing the damage to the different plantations. This is when the gravity of hurricane Matthew set in—and it was ugly.

Communities I have ridden through for over two decades were now unrecognizable. Palmetto Bay Marina—where my husband I went on our first date and we used to keep our sailboat—was destroyed. Rumors of looting and price gouging started to seep into our community. Two men claiming to be part of the relief effort stole a wayward boat from our backyard (and subsequently were caught and the boat was returned to the rightful owner). Walking through our neighborhood, I found several dead wild animals and buried each with a heavy heart. No one could give the community a straight answer about when the water would be safe to drink, when we would have power, if FEMA would help, or how best to start to rebuild.

And then we started learning more about insurance. Like so many people, we have a high deductible which means tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. Also, for many, it’s hard to say if wind or rain caused their damage, putting people in insurance claim limbo. Many people also had fallen trees on their property but not on their houses, so homeowner’s insurance would not help with the removal. Because flood insurance has a cap, people with severe water damage will never recoup the true value of their house. And for people living on the water, what about the immense amount of debris and chunks of docks in their backyards? Insurance doesn’t cover that type of clean up.

It’s all truly a mess.

In response, all I can say is that like any good western, the hero triumphs through adversity, and this town is full of heroes. The natural aesthetic of the island has been ravaged, but the intrinsic nature of our residents has not. Take, for example, David Martin of the Piggly Wiggly in Coligny. He did everything in his power to keep the lights on and supply people with food and water and, following his lead, people volunteered to work the counters and help him. Then there are the restaurants and chefs who prepared meals for the first responders and relief workers. And the outpouring of people offering to help my family has been emotionally rejuvenating.

Each of these people and sentiments gives us something to stand by and believe in. The next months to follow will be difficult. We all know this. But we also know we will thrive if we continue to support local businesses and each other—through the good, the bad and the ugly. 

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