Resilient to the core, Lowcountry folks didn't let a little (okay, HUGE) pre-Christmas hurricane ruin their holiday spirit. In fact, the destruction left behind by 2016's Hurricane Matthew made that celebratory season one to never be forgotten.
The Gift on No One's List
Hilton Head's long tradition of avoiding hurricanes ended abruptly just a few weeks before Christmas that year. On October 8, 2016 a Category 2 storm hit the island head-on, the eye just 20 miles offshore. With 87 mph winds and 16.5 inches of rain on Hilton Head, plus a 6-foot storm surge, Hurricane Matthew was undeniably a doozy. While most residents had evacuated to the mainland in the previous days, they began returning home on October 11--many not knowing whether or not they would actually have a home awaiting them. As thousands of islanders drove across the bridge on William Hilton Parkway, they all passed a makeshift plywood sign beside the roadway. Propped against fallen trees and other storm debris, the hand-painted sign cheerfully proclaimed, "Welcome Home!"
Locals soon learned that more than 120,000 trees had been downed on the island, causing power outages and extensive damage to residences and businesses. The hurricane led to nearly $250 million in damages in the state of South Carolina, with more than 2.1 million cubic yards of vegetative debris generated by the hurricane collected on Hilton Head alone over the coming weeks. By Halloween, nearly every road on Hilton Head was lined with six-foot-high berms of that "vegetative debris", as if everyone had private fences around their yards. (The beloved FEMA trucks wouldn't arrive to clear the piles until the new year.) But in the midst of buzzing chainsaws, scraping lawn rakes, whirring leaf blowers, and pounding hammers, Lowcountry folks turned lemons into lemonade (or yard waste into sweet tea, as the case may be) as they embraced their usual enthusiasm for the upcoming holiday season.
'Tis the Season!
If you've been to the Lowcountry at Christmas time, you know we don't hold back on decorating. We sure weren't going to let Hurricane Matthew hamper our holiday spirit! Although you might not be able to see your neighbor's front yard displays this year, soon residents were draping colorful strings of lights across the berms surrounding their homes and business. Not to be outdone, others hung festive wreaths on their own debris piles. Next came fully-adorned Christmas trees, and even giant inflatable Santas. Those were the prettiest wood piles you'd ever hope to see!
Even our indoor decorating began to take on a "post-Matthew" ambience. Inspired by inspirational signs and t-shirts sported throughout the island in the weeks after the hurricane, local crafters created tree ornaments emblazoned with the saying, "Hilton Head Strong!" Some artisans crafted ornaments using driftwood found on the beach after the storm surge, or painted holiday scenes on slabs of fallen tree trunks. Everyone had a "Hurricane Matthew story" (not to be outdone until 2020's "Covid Lockdown" stories), and we all wanted something to hang on the tree to prove that we had, in fact, survived it.
Home for the Holidays
At our house, we took the storm and its aftermath in stride. My family and I were newcomers, having moved to the island full-time just weeks prior to Matthew's arrival. The cleanup effort was actually a great incentive for us to meet all the neighbors we hadn't found time to befriend yet. (It didn't hurt that my husband owned the only chainsaw on our street!) By Christmas time, we had loads of new friends to treat with holiday goodies. Inspired by the sense of unity we survivors all felt, my family agreed we'd made the absolutely right decision moving to the Sea Islands.
Hurricanes be damned, we hung our "Hilton Head Strong" ornaments on the tree, sang our favorite carols, and cheerfully tackled our annual gingerbread house. We didn't even become discouraged when the sweet-scented confection collapsed mid-construction. My daughters simply scattered candy sprinkles on the resulting mess, like so many fallen leaves, and declared it the "Post-Matthew Gingerbread House." We proudly displayed that art piece until New Year's Day, when we proudly ate it. As I said, yard waste into sweet tea!