Things remained oddly quiet in the Charleston County 911 Call Center Friday evening as Hurricane Matthew finally reached South Carolina. With fewer calls trickling in than usual on the eve of a major storm, emergency personnel waited at their desks with an anxious calm. With her face lit by only a wall of screens and computer monitors, one operator worked a puzzle at her desk in the dim light, while others grabbed a few handfuls of popcorn to bring back to their stations. Then, as the sun set and the storm hit, things began to pick up.
Power lines fell and trees snapped, blocking roadways and causing massive power outages. Cut off from electricity, burglary and fire alarms rang out in the darkness that was spreading across the Lowcountry. Police scanners lit up with reports of flooded roads and people in need of medical assistance. Between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the Consolidated 911 Center received 336 calls for assistance. With sustained winds exceeding 40 mph, emergency crews were pulled from roadways to seek shelter. More than 100 roadways became blocked all across the county due to fallen trees, powerlines, and flooding.
As the brunt of the storm began to pass through Charleston, reporters and news crews camped out in the media room of the Charleston County Emergency Operations Center. Built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, the grayish slab of a building houses the 911 center and serves as a hub for emergency management personnel during times of crisis. This, clearly, was one of those times. As county officials and emergency center staff filtered into the media room, reporters bedded down on the floor to grab a few scant hours of sleep in between press briefings and weather updates. Local news crews rested in shifts. As the hours wore on, TV reporters began filming their live shots while wearing pajama bottoms just out of frame. The Salvation Army served hot dogs and coffee a little after midnight. Lying on the floor just out of view of the cameras, I rolled over at some point during the early morning to find a sleeping German news crew lying next to me. They were gone by sunrise, but Matthew was still upon us.
Before the storm
The city of Charleston began to see its first round of evacuees Tuesday evening. Following a televised warning from Gov. Nikki Haley regarding Matthew’s impending approach, motorists flooded gas stations and roadways heading out of the city. Homeowners and businesses took the following days to secure their buildings. Sheet after sheet of plywood covered shop windows along King Street as the once busy town center grew less and less populated. Those who chose to stay behind found they now had the city to themselves.
“I grew up in Florida, so I was really young during Hurricane Andrew, lived on the East Coast basically all my life, so I’ve been through hurricanes. They’re nothing to mess with, but as long as you’re safe about it and have a good place to stay, you’ll be alright,” said Jared Raynak, who’s been in Charleston for about six years.
Many of those who were here during Hurricane Hugo now use that storm as a benchmark for everything that follows. Walking down King Street Wednesday evening, I was pulled into Juanita Greenberg’s crowded bar full of locals looking to unwind and watch a game before Matthew hit. One lifelong Charleston native who asked not to be identified said he spent Hurricane Hugo on his front porch with his cat and a bottle of bourbon. Others that I spoke to had different plans as they waited for Matthew to pass.
Hurricane Matthew’s Greatest Hits
Nikki Haley’s sign language interpreter
The freelance interpreter wowed the crowd with his enthusiastic work. Some on social media called Hurdich’s dramatic facial expressions distracting, but he told Post & Courier, “The signing needs to match the intent.”
Closed for business signs
Even in the midst of hurricane anxiety, restaurants kept their sense of humor with boarded-up window signs like “86 Cheese Biscuits 4 Matthew” at Nick’s Bar-B-Que and “Shoo Matthew” at Harold’s Cabin.
Ginger rages in the wind
Instagram’s thebigguy904 got the internet’s attention when he hoisted an American flag and faced off with Matthew’s 100 mph winds to the sounds of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.”
A baseball game with Homeland Security
On Fri., Oct. 7, as the city emptied from evacuees fleeing the storm, Zach Liollio and his friends took advantage of the empty streets. They challenged the Department of Homeland Security to a baseball game on a car-less Broad Street. As Liollio reported on Facebook, “First inning, a no-hitter.”
Lauren Morgan and Lilly D’Orazio received a call from a friend who had already made his way upstate asking that they clear furniture off of his front porch before the storm hit. As a teacher, D’Orazio used the downtime to catch up on grading schoolwork. Morgan said Hurricane Matthew is the first major storm the two have experienced since moving to Charleston in 2010 for college.
“We weren’t here for Hurricane Hugo, but our parents were, and they remember it,” said Morgan. “We’re just staying because why not?”
Charleston native London Campanelli said she considered evacuating, but the process just proved to be too inconvenient compared to surrounding her building with sandbags and hoping for the best.
“I don’t see a need to evacuate. I don’t really want to spend the money to evacuate, and right now it’s easier to stay,” she said.
Campanelli, like many others, also questioned Gov. Haley’s decision to announce the possible need to evacuate so far in advance of Matthew’s arrival to the South Carolina coast. Following the governor’s initial announcement on Tuesday, many businesses found themselves facing a major loss in revenue before the first rains even started to fall.
“A lot of restaurateurs could stand to lose a lot of money,” said Mickey Bakst, GM of Charleston Grill which shutdown along with Charleston Place Hotel on Wednesday. “The hotel will lose a fortune. But the mayor said evacuate, the governor said evacuate, so for the well being of our customers and employees, my boss, Paul Stracey, decided to close.”
He added, “I know other restaurateurs that are upset that the evacuation was so early, but you can replace things. You can’t replace people.”
But like the longtime Charlestonians who weathered Hugo and all the other storms that have passed this way, some businesses were unphased by the approaching threat of Matthew.
“We did not close during Hurricane Hugo, and we haven’t closed during any of the major storms that have happened recently,” said Jennifer Bremer of Fast and French on Broad Street. “We’ve decided to stay open to feed the locals.”
Matthew makes landfall
On the eve of the storm, local law enforcement travelled door to door in some neighborhoods, making one last effort to evacuate all those still in their homes. Gov. Haley estimated that more than 350,000 coastal residents had traveled upstate. The governor’s office took those numbers from South Carolina’s Department of Transportation’s projections based on tallies from traffic counters on major arteries and an estimated number of occupants per vehicle. According to the American Red Cross, more than 6,300 evacuees were in shelters throughout the state. At least 170 medical facilities were emptied out, with patients being moved as far inland as possible.
With a guarantee of heavy rain extending beyond the coast into the Midlands, state officials grew increasingly concerned with the structural integrity of dam systems throughout the state — specifically, the more than 40 regulated dams with outstanding emergency orders still in effect following last October’s historic flooding that are located in areas expected to receive more than 4 inches of rain. These orders call on dam owners to reduce water levels and make structural repairs as soon as possible, but of the more than 60 emergency orders handed out last year, a majority remain unheeded.
Here’s how Matthew sized up to the last two significant hurricanes to rock the Holy City.
|Wind speed (mph)||135||81||69|
|Surge level||8.5 ft.||–||6 ft.|
|Days evacuated before storm||2||2||2|
Asked what lessons were learned from last year’s historic floods, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said a greater focus had been put on increasing water-rescue capabilities during the event of heavy flooding. Emergency management officials continued to plea with residents to cooperate with the evacuation order before they put their lives and the lives of emergency responders in danger.
“It’s going to get to the point where we cannot send help to anybody no matter what the situation,” said Charleston County Emergency Management Department Chief of Operations Cathy Haynes. “We’re getting requests from some agencies asking for more manpower. We’re also getting a lot of requests for resources that may be needed after the storm, once the storm has passed. Our state has pre-positioned swift water rescue units and teams that are trained to handle this water. When daylight comes, if we have people trapped in homes or whatever, there are trained groups who will go out there.”
With many residents already evacuated and 1,563 hiding out in shelters around Charleston County, the streets were already empty by the time the countywide midnight curfew took effect Friday. All through the night and into Saturday afternoon, Matthew battered South Carolina’s coast. With a storm surge maxing out at 6 feet and sheets of raining falling non-stop on Charleston, Colonial Lake welled up over its usual borders and downtown streets became a fast-moving network of rivers and streams. Trees gave way as the earth they were rooted in became unstable. Downtown, awnings were blown from shop windows and the crepe myrtles lining Meeting Street began to sag over the roadway. Emergency personnel across the tri-county area were pulled from the streets as winds exceeded 40 mph and bridges became unsafe for travel. Finally making landfall, the storm closed off access to barrier islands, trapping residents in their homes on and off the mainland.
Matthew’s Biggest Disappointments
No Jim Cantore
It’s not a real storm until the Weather Channel’s grand puba of natural disasters shows up. Plus, we really wanted to see him kick another CofCer’s ass.
Surfer shut-down on Folly
The no-fun police were out in force at the Washout curbing wannabe wave catchers from riding the big one.
Coburg Cow’s removal
It’s a sad day when the Coburg Cow comes down, but down it came in the face of udder disaster.
Ravenel Bridge closure
It may have only been for a few hours, but the website “isthecooperriverbridgeclosed.com” was fully operational.
Not buying enough booze before the storm
Don’t be stuck in the only dry place in town.
No clowns anywhere.
When all was said and done, and Matthew had finally moved beyond South Carolina’s waters, the storm had left an impression on the Lowcountry that was still felt into the coming week. Once conditions became safe, emergency crews spread out across the state to assess the damage caused by the storm. On Saturday, evacuees were told not to approach the coast until officials could clear roadways and ensure safe passage for those hoping to return home.
“We haven’t reached the point where we know the state of the damage in South Carolina,” said Sgt. Bob Beres with the South Carolina Highway Patrol as he drove past a fallen pine tree stretching into the right lane of I-26. “We’re gathering information bit by bit.”
Undeterred by local and state officials, many residents made their way back to the Lowcountry as soon as the clouds parted. Those who had been holed up for the past 24 hours during the worst of the storm took to the streets to survey the damage and see how Charleston survived. Power outages left many traffic signals non-functioning as motorists set out to see the devastation. Paying no mind to the citywide curfew, downtown residents made their way down King Street to get a hot meal and celebrate making it through another hurricane. As one of the only places downtown to grab a bite, Peking Gourmet on King Street was filled with dozens of hungry customers. Just nearby, Rarebit opened its doors and its bar. The Watch at Restoration Hotel had done their best to remain open throughout the storm and had come out on the other side. With no deliveries in days, their menu was pared down and by 7 p.m. they estimated that the kitchen had about an hour’s worth of food left. I was able to make it in time to order their last cheeseburger.
According to SCE&G, more than 110,000 customers were still without power Monday morning, mostly in Charleston, Beaufort, and Dorchester counties. More than 400 roads and bridges throughout the state remained impassable.
Now all that’s left to do is repair and rebuild. Many say that Charleston was lucky to have fared as well as it did. Learning a lesson from the fiasco that was Hurricane Floyd, South Carolina emergency agencies have continued to conduct annual training exercises in preparation of hurricane season and any pending evacuations. By successfully reversing the lanes of I-26 westward, hundreds of thousands were able to make it to higher ground, whether or not everyone agrees that a full evacuation was necessary. What remains uncertain is what lessons will be learned from Hurricane Matthew and applied to future storms. Because, rest assured, there will be another. And years from now, maybe you’ll be sitting in a bar, bragging to someone about how you spent the last big storm staring into the eye without blinking. Or maybe you’ll be one of the one’s who got out and remembers the weekend you spent in the mountains, drinking with friends to distract from the worry back home. Living in Charleston, you’re bound to walk away with a story of a hurricane. The only thing you need to decide is what kind of story you want to tell.
Hurricane Matthew phrases we never want to hear again
“Now is the time for prayer.” —Gov. Nikki Haley
“Mind the store” —Seemingly used by every City of Charleston official to comfort those who left town
“Coast Hugger” —ABC News 4 Chief Meteorologist Dave Williams’ nickname for Hurricane Matthew
“Not out of the woods yet” —Newscasters looking to fill time while they wait to cut to a live shot of a storm-drenched reporter standing outside in the rain
The Book of Matthew —Mayor John Tecklenburg (Save it for the pulpit, Teck)
“It’s wet and windy.” —Some TV weathermen. Yeah, no shit
Anything about Mark Sanford’s farm.