Hurricane Matthew: No Power, Empowered
Author: Kitty Bartell
While the hatches were battened down, windows boarded up, and belongings secured; vehicles packed for evacuation, and cupboards and ice chests stocked for riding it out; in truth, it was concern for the people and love of this Lowcountry place that most impacted emotion and action as the waters receded and the dust settled in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. A common thread emerged with the telling of each story—a common thread of generosity and gratitude.
“The first thing I remember was Adam [Turri] saying when the storm rolled out was, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do. We’re going to your restaurant, we’re going to get some food, we’re going to get some Sterno, and we’re going to set up a cook station in the back of your Jeep,” recalled Daisy Bobinchuck, co-owner of Catch 22 restaurant, who like so many other area restaurant owners knew they could use the food that would ultimately spoil as time passed without electricity, to feed the first responders and those working non-stop to prop up the Lowcountry in the wake of Matthew.
Riding out the storm in Bobinchuck’s South Forest Beach apartment, the couple’s first thoughts were that there were going to be a lot of people in need of help. After checking on neighbors, they set out in her Jeep with a tow rope and a tank of gas on what would become a four-day odyssey of feeding grateful workers, clearing trees, salvaging fishing gear and docks from Skull Creek, setting up a fishermen’s lost and found, and going anywhere they could be of benefit. “We kept saying, we can do it, so we should,” Bobinchuck said.
Fishermen themselves, one of their priorities as the cleanup went on was to get the storm debris out of the area’s waters to get those whose livelihoods dependent on the ocean, back in safe, clean waters as soon as possible. “Polluting the ocean; that was important for us to get that out of there,” Turri said.
“I wish the lights would go out more often,” he said. Not wishing the devastation of another hurricane on anyone, Turri, appreciated what the storm brought out in people. “When the lights were out, everybody was so respectful of each other.” A sentiment echoed by nearly everyone interviewed for this article.
“No power, empowered people,” Bobinchuck said, and generosity seemed to come from unexpected places. One of her restaurant customers who lives in Atlanta and saw Bobinchuck’s Facebook posts contacted her after the storm and offered $1,000 to help in the couple’s efforts. “I knew we didn’t want to take any money, so we connected her with Dave Martin [owner of Piggly Wiggly in Coligny Plaza], who had opened the day after the storm even without power, and allowed people who didn’t have cash money, to take groceries and necessities on credit. He took her credit card number and she bought $1,000 worth of gift certificates, which will be distributed to people in need.”
Local restaurant owners Nick Bergelt and Andrea Roberts rode out the storm with their dog Duce in the their boarded-up Long Cove home with a kayak tied to a tree outside—just in case. It was a good thing, because following the storm, they were surrounded by water, and the trio used that kayak to navigate the impassible streets of the plantation. “It was like Jumanji or Jurassic Park,” Nick said. “The first day we went through the range of emotions—first shock then surrealism, kayaking through the streets of Long Cove. Then we got into help and assist mode.” The couple received over 300 requests from neighbors hoping to get pictures of their home’s condition; they kept as many people as possible informed.
Finding powerlines blocking their exit from the community, they were eventually able to get out on bikes. “The water was still about two feet deep. We literally had to throw our bikes over the powerlines and crawl under them, which was not the best thing to be doing, but we were determined to get out,” Bergelf said.
After speaking with first responders who were sleeping in their trucks and receiving one bottle of water and one sandwich a day or were eating MREs, the owners of CharBar and Holy Tequila had some proteins in a freezer with a generator and knew they could help. “I got with Russell Keane and Clayton Rollison [owners of restaurants NEO and Lucky Rooster, respectively]. We coordinated our resources and started setting up base camps to feed these guys around the clock,” Bergelf said. Keane served crews from his restaurant in Bluffton, while Bergelf and Rollison served three shifts of workers from Lucky Rooster.
“Hurricane Matthew put a stress test on the community where it could have gone one of two ways,” Bergelf said. “The generosity of the entire community really did shock me. It was a breath of fresh air to see everyone completely selfless, with no agenda, acting purely out a desire to help Hilton Head. And it wasn’t just us.”
After helping to cut and clear All Joy Road and the surrounding streets where he lives in Bluffton, Okatie Construction team member, Matt DiMuzio was one of the early first responders to enter Sea Pines Resort. “Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday I was on the island,” he said. “We were the first in Sea Pines cutting and clearing and getting all the roads open. I wanted to be one of the first people here to help people any way I could to put things back together. As we were clearing, the people that stayed in Sea Pines that we had helped, and everybody down All Joy Road were waiving and screaming thank you to us. It made me feel good inside, helping people who couldn’t help themselves.
“It amazed me the way the community came together; everybody came together to help each other. You take a page from our book and see how to react after a disaster. I wouldn’t trade anything that I have today to live anywhere else. It made me proud of where I lived.”
Hilton Head Plantation resident and interior renovation contractor, James Filippone evacuated his family from the island, and stayed behind at a friend’s home on Calibogue Cay Road in Sea Pines to help mitigate the potential damage anticipated with Hurricane Matthew bearing down. “He wanted some help in case things got crazy,” Filippone said.
“He also had a large yacht in Harbour Town. We went back and forth throughout the night checking on it. It was about 1:30 a.m. when we left Harbour Town for the last time. At that time, the docks were already floating higher than the walkway around the marina. When we stepped off the dock it was into a foot of water in the grass; we were actually stepping down.
“In the morning I walked out to the dock in front of his house. The end of the dock was gone, the bulkhead was gone, there were no docks to my right, no docks to my left. There were just pilings sticking up. I understood that we got crushed.”
Realizing he wasn’t going to be getting out with any vehicle other than a bicycle, Filippone collected his Siberian Husky Zev and his chain saw, and started pedaling for Harbour Town, where friends from Bluffton picked him up by boat and transported him to Palmetto Bay Marina—a closer ride to check on his mom’s home in the Sea Pines Club Course community backing up to Palmetto Bay Road. Posting videos and pictures throughout his trek via social media, he had over 10,000 views and 1,000 shares. “I think people were so desperate to see what happened.” He found nine or 10 trees down in his mom’s yard, three on her home, with one inside it. “My mind couldn’t accept what I was looking at.”
Like a video first responder, Filippone and Zev provided live feeds and still pictures of homes, offering messages of comfort and information to his fellow islanders, “It was an emotional rollercoaster, from the sadness I was feeling about how bad everybody was hurt by this, but at the same time coming across all these examples of beautiful human instinct—people helping others regardless of their own situation. It’s humbled me a lot. I am so amazed and so proud to live here, to grow up here. In my opinion, Hilton Head is going to be more beautiful than ever.”
This Thanksgiving, Hilton Head High School junior Savannah Ford knows what she will be thankful for: “Our house and each other and the fact that we were able to bring Juno into our lives because of Hurricane Matthew.” Emerging from their Hilton Head Planation home after riding out the storm with her parents and sister, Ford said, “I’ll never be able to describe in words what I saw.”
With the downed trees, flooding, and destruction, the next couple of days were occupied with checking on neighbors who stayed, communicating with neighbors who evacuated, and checking on and feeding pets who were left behind. Able to leave HHP on day two, Ford was on Marshland Road on her way to Spanish Wells to check on friends, when she found Juno, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, who appeared to have been left outside to weather the storm. “It was awful. She was just wandering. She was so bone skinny, you could see her ribs and her hips and her spine.” Rescuing another abandoned puppy at the same location, who has since found a forever home, Ford said Hurricane Matthew has forever changed her. “Before I looked out for people. I wasn’t really a selfish person, but now I would go out of my way to help.” The storm brought Ford and Juno together, and she said, “Juno has brought the family together.”
Stories of generosity were not limited to those who stayed behind. Heather Barbalich and Shawn Arvidson were to be married at the Sonesta Resort on Sunday, October 9. “We had a whole week of activities planned because this was a destination wedding for everybody,” said Resa Barbalich, mother of the bride. By Tuesday evening, the Thursday bridal shower, the Friday family reunion at Poseidon, the Saturday rehearsal dinner pig roast, and the Sunday wedding and reception had all been cancelled, and on Wednesday the remaining party of 20 checked into the Home2 Suites in Augusta, Georgia.
The hotel’s sales manager, Laura Kitchen, connected Barbalich with Edward Mendoza, owner of Cucina 503, a local Italian restaurant where she experienced generosity and kindness at every turn, enabling her to put together a wedding celebration for which she is ever so grateful. While Mendoza provided the venue and menu, connected her with a florist and The Mad Batter Bakery, who donated a wedding cake, a wedding dress was found, the staff at Sephora provided some pampering, the marriage license was secured. “In less than 48 hours we went from despair to joy,” she said. “It was less about all the stuff you worry about with a wedding and it was all about the joy. It was about family and friends and laughter and love. You realize that’s what counts.”
For most, the stories told about the big dose of chaos called Hurricane Matthew put into perspective and bring into clear focus what is ultimately important. It isn’t about the things that were battened down or packed up. It is about gratitude for the spirit of generosity that was left behind.