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The Upside of Matthew and Irma

Bonds forged not by fire, but by wind and rain – rightfully so, there are some people on Hilton Head Island who never want to hear the names Matthew or Irma ever again.

Story by Lisa Allen

A year after Category 2 Hurricane Matthew battered Hilton Head Island, and weeks after Tropical Storm Irma passed through, a few homes still aren’t fully restored and the area doesn’t look quite the same. That’s to be expected after 11 inches of rain, 88 mph winds and storm surges pushed over thousands upon thousands of trees in Matthew, and the surge of Irma flooded many parts of the Lowcountry.

But there were instances where the storms brought the community together in surprising ways and formed alliances that likely will endure.

Few felt the urgency of Matthew cleanup more than the organizers of the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival and Concours d’Elegance, the area’s second biggest draw next to the RBC Heritage golf tournament. It was slated to begin just three weeks after the hurricane hit.

Carolyn Vanagel, president of the festival, had evacuated and awaited word of the damage.

“Greg DeLoach, the assistant town manager, called me the day after the storm and asked me what we were going to do,” recalls Vanagel. “I said, what do you mean, what are we going to do?’ He said, ‘You haven’t seen it.’”

The festival’s primary location at Port Royal Plantation‘s golf courses was buried under hundreds of downed trees. The two-weekend festival also has events at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa and Hilton Head Island Airport.

Days after the storm, officials from the festival, the town, Port Royal and the Heritage Classic Foundation walked the golf courses. They had to decide quickly whether or not to hold the event that welcomes more than 20,000 visitors.

“I was getting calls from everyone ‘are we still on?’ If we waited too long to decide, we were going to lose vendors, sponsors and exhibitors,” Vanagel said. They chose to proceed.

That’s when everyone came to the rescue. Steve Wilmot, president of the Heritage Classic Foundation, helped with the quickly revised parking plan, and crews from the town, plantation and elsewhere cleared fairways.

“Even residents whose homes had been damaged worked to clear the entrance to make it look good,” Vanagel said. “From my perspective, the fact that we held the event showed the incredible commitment the festival has from the town and the community.”

A lot was at stake. The festival has grown to a premier event not just for Hilton Head and Bluffton, but for the entire state of South Carolina. It brings $12 million to $15 million to the local economy.

Recently, the festival was awarded the Governors Cup for its outstanding effort in promoting tourism to the Palmetto State.

“As the governor said, we showed the world that the South Carolina coast was open for business just weeks after the hurricane,” Vanagel said.

The effort paid off. Attendance was down only 11 percent for the Hilton Head events and 17 percent for the Savannah Speed Classic racing weekend.

The flood of letters that came in were all complimentary, particularly of Hilton Head, Vanagel said.

While the festival didn’t exactly benefit from the hurricane, the resulting cleanup reinforced the bond between the island’s two premier events. And the same type of community bond was on display for Irma just a few weeks ago.

“What we benefitted from was the reputation of the event,” Vanagal said. “What we learned is that we can’t do it ourselves. It’s a community event, just like the RBC Heritage Golf Tournament. It made us realize how important those bookend events are.”


Another benefit of the storms is better official communication channels, regardless of the situation.

While the evacuation before Hurricane Matthew went smoothly, there were conflicting messages to residents who were extremely eager to return after the storm.

“There was a lot of miscommunication about re-entry posted on social media,” said Capt. Robert Bromage of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. “Social media got away from us.”

The confusion caused a little friction between local law enforcement agencies and a few heated exchanges at county entry points.

The upside is that the sheriff’s office, which by state law is the boss when it comes to hurricane evacuation and re-entry, developed its Nixle system where messages will fan out to phones, email, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

The system proved its worth during Tropical Storm Irma. To sign up, text your ZIP code to 888777 or go to

“Our recovery is still ongoing, but our resolve shows how special our residents and guests are,” Bromage said. “Our citizens exhibited, and continue to exhibit, great patience in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in allowing public safety, electricity, water and infrastructure to be restored in Beaufort County.”

We lived through Matthew and Irma a little worse for wear, but stronger than ever — together.

The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.