From The Blog

Inside the Storm: Hurricane Matthew’s Impact on Kiawah

As we usher in 2017, it’s hard to believe that Kiawah is only several months removed from a hurricane having made landfall. There is much to be thankful for: Matthew arrived at low tide, Kiawah’s dunes did their job, most members had evacuated, property damage was minimal and there was no loss of life or serious injury on the island. Once the hurricane passed, work crews were immediately out in force, ensuring safe and quick re-entry to the island.

Tropical storms and hurricanes are a fact of life living on the East Coast, but good fortune has mostly spared Kiawah since Hurricane Hugo ravaged the Lowcountry in 1989. While KICA and other island entities plan for these events, there’s nothing that can simulate the real thing and the responsibility of securing a 10,000 acre island; communicating with property owners, guests, and employees; coordinating with regional and state emergency management centers; and managing the clean-up once the storm has passed. On Kiawah, emergency management authority rests with the Town of Kiawah Island, and executing on that authority is a collaborative effort.

Just five weeks before Matthew, Tropical Storm Hermine resulted in heavy wind and rain, and served as a good “wet run” for our community’s emergency management procedures. Island entities
participated in conference calls with the Charleston County Emergency Management Center and worked through the operational rhythm of an approaching storm. “While Tropical Storm Hermine posed only a minimal threat, it provided a real time event to test emergency plans, affirm roles and responsibilities and, most importantly, to ensure our communications across multiple entities and to the community worked as we hoped they would,” said KICA Chief Operating Officer Jimmy Bailey. “In an emergency event, it’s critical that the town and KICA communicate with one voice, and that we don’t cause confusion with differing or inconsistent messages. There’s no doubt in my mind that we collaborated and communicated better during Hurricane Matthew due to the learning opportunity of Tropical Storm Hermine.”

After several days of clean up, Hermine became a memory and the end of hurricane season was in sight. Typically, hurricane activity picks up in late August and peaks in September, so it’s tempting to think you’re out of the woods when October approaches. On Friday, Sept. 30, Tropical Storm Matthew became a hurricane in the southern Caribbean Sea and quickly intensified to Category 5 – one the fastest intensifying storms on record. While we never ignore reports from the tropics ,Matthew wasn’t yet considered a threat to the Carolinas, and Kiawah was bustling with property owners and visitors who were gearing up for a nice weekend. Temperatures were in the mid to upper 80’s with a few scattered clouds.

Over the weekend, however, the storm made a northward turn and was projected to make an initial landfall over Haiti early in the week. By Monday, Oct. 3, Matthew had the attention of the entire
southeastern United States, including emergency preparedness officials in Charleston. KICA staff began to ready the island for the possibility of a significant weather event, while the town activated its Municipal Emergency Operations Center (MEOC)and invited the Emergency Operations Team to participate in a noon Tri-County conference call with various agencies across the region. During that call, Charleston County officials indicated that the region was in the cone of vulnerability and did not expect that forecast to change any time soon. They stated that a worst case scenario would suggest an evacuation order for Wednesday.

While the storm wobbled slowly on a track toward Haiti, KICA preparations continued. Equipment and vehicles were readied and fueled, ponds were at maximum drainage, facilities were prepared, systems readied for shutdown, contractors notified to secure job sites, and literally hundreds of check list items were worked round the clock in anticipation of a possible evacuation. KICA also activated its emergency contracts, signaling to our team of road clearing and debris contractors that they were to be on Kiawah immediately following the storm and get to work without delay. Costs for these services are negotiated annually and months in advance of hurricane season. Like insurance, we hope we’ll never need them, but the emergency contractors (too many to name) paid off in a big way and are a big reason roads were cleared in such short order.

On Tuesday, Oct. 4, the MEOC participated in the noon Tri-County conference call. During this call, officials indicated that an evacuation order from Governor Nikki Haley was probable, and that she’d likely close all schools in South Carolina the next day, and until the threat of the storm had passed. Later that afternoon, Governor Haley made it official, stating, “With winds this high and surge this high, this is not something we want to play with. I don’t want to sit there and think about fatalities.”

While Governor Haley’s order was to be activated the following day, Kiawah Mayor Charlie Lipuma issued a statement encouraging people to leave early. “Safety is our greatest concern,” stated Mayor Lipuma. “I am encouraging property owners to leave prior to the official evacuation time.”

By Wednesday, Oct. 5, forecasters were predicting a Charleston area landfall as a Category 2 or 3 storm, with wind speeds of up to 100 mph and a 5 to 7-foot storm surge. Mayor Lipuma signed a proclamation placing Kiawah Island under a state of emergency. Town officials also announced plans to relocate its MEOC to a location outside the area (Augusta, Georgia). The reversal of the interstate was activated and hundreds of thousands of coastal residents headed inland.

On Thursday, Oct. 6, Chief Colleen Walz of the St. Johns Fire District(SJFD) informed Kiawah officials that SJFD personnel would ride the streets of Kiawah, Seabrook and the other locations in their service area to look for those who had stayed behind and encourage them to evacuate. She further indicated that SJFD would remove its apparatus and personnel from the island in advance of the storm, most likely Friday afternoon. She stressed that people needed to leave, because once her team and EMS were gone, there’d be no one to respond to emergencies until after the storm. At noon, KICA Security barricaded the incoming lane to Kiawah and evacuated.

Also at noon, the town’s MEOC opened in Augusta, Georgia and officials participated in the Tri-County conference call. KICACOO Jimmy Bailey relocated to Augusta with the town, while other
key KICA personnel were strategically positioned in places where they could respond to issues during and after the storm. For example, communications personnel were far enough from the threat of severe weather to secure continuous availability of phone and internet connectivity throughout, ensuring KICA’s ability to provide uninterrupted communications to members. Others, such as security leadership and initial assessment teams, were closer to Kiawah for the earliest return. The town had a representative onsite at the Charleston County Emergency Operations Center who reported to the MEOC in Augusta, and was available to make resource requests as needed to Emergency Management Officials.

By Friday, Oct. 7, most residents had evacuated and the storm was forecast to hit later that afternoon and into the evening. Forecasts continued to point toward storm surge as a significant threat. Late that morning, Berkeley Electric Cooperative (BEC) announced that it was evaluating the possibility of cutting power to the island. BEC engineers explained that if the storm surge produced significant flooding and important equipment was submerged, the resultant damage could cause power outages island-wide for 4-6 weeks, whereas a preventive shut down would likely allow them to restore power in about a week. Within a few hours, BEC confirmed its plans to cut power. This decision was made entirely by BEC as they sought to protect their equipment and minimize the chances of extended outages. Neither the town nor KICA has the authority to cut power to the island.

By Friday afternoon, and particularly into the evening, Matthew’s winds began to pick up as the storm churned toward the Lowcountry. Fortunately, as the worst of it came ashore early Saturday morning (Oct. 8), Kiawah was experiencing low tide. Still, the storm surge was significant enough to destroy or seriously damage most of the island’s beach boardwalks and reshape Kiawah’s dune system. While coastal scientists expect the dunes to naturally repair themselves over a period of years, the beach will look and function differently for a while. As an example, boardwalks will need to be rebuilt to the current contours of the dunes, which means there are locations where the only possible solution will be stairs as opposed to the preferred ramps. KICA always defaults to a ramp solution if the dune contours allow, but environmental regulations are strict as to what can and can’t be constructed. Again, KICA prefers ramps, but the regulations have served us well as Kiawah’s healthy dune system served as a natural shock absorber of the storm and protected the island from damage that could have been much worse.

Elsewhere on the island, docks along the Kiawah River were destroyed or seriously damaged, including KICA’s dock at Rhett’s Bluff. A dock builder has been hired to make initial repairs to Rhett’s Bluff so that convenient and safe boat launch activity can resume. In addition to repairing the community dock at Rhett’s Bluff, a collaborative effort among property owners has been established to accelerate the repairs to private docks. All across the island, there were downed trees and significant debris. KICA’s emergency contractors and others, including those hired by the town, were among the first to return to the island on the afternoon of Oct. 8, and work began immediately to open the roadways. KICA’s full complement of land management personnel, supported by more than 50 contract employees hired for debris work, were out in force on Sunday, Oct. 9, and worked 11-hour shifts throughout the week. Remarkably, less than 48 hours after the winds died down, all 59 miles of KICA0owned roads were open for traffic by the time Mayor Lipuma authorized re-entry to the island at noon on Monday, Oct. 10.

After weeks of clean up and evaluation, KICA estimated its recovery costs would total approximately $1.3 million. While a lot of money, it is considerably less than original estimates, which were between $2 and $3 million. It is expected that property owners will be assessed approximately $300 per improved property, as KICA reserves are not slated for storm repairs. No one likes unexpected expenses, and we’ve worked hard to minimize the amount of money needed for Hurricane Matthew clean up and recovery.

Some have understandably asked why a storm reserve is not maintained. There are philosophical and practical reasons why KICA has historically chosen not to reserve for significant storm damage. First, some believe that storms should be paid for by those who are here at the time of an event. Right or wrong, some believe that if you are lucky enough to be here during a time without a major storm, then you shouldn’t have to pay for those who aren’t as lucky. (Nearly 30 years ago, KICA assessed each property owner $988 for Hurricane Hugo, and there hasn’t been a major storm assessment since.) Second, how much do you set aside? It’s a nearly impossible question to answer as you don’t know when the storms will come, their severity, etc. Finally, there is nothing
that ensures the money will be spent just on storms. Well-meaning boards could continuously fund a storm reserve for years, only to have a future board see a different use for that stockpile of cash. Finally, insurance is either not available or cost prohibitive on infrastructure such as boardwalks, roads, bridges and docks. Further, community associations are not eligible to apply for FEMA aid which means most costs to restore our private community must be borne by our members. KICA participates in a nation-wide lobbying effort to change FEMA regulations, which is beginning to get the attention of members of Congress.

As we continue our recovery efforts, we proudly reflect back on the extraordinary job done by our entire team. The most visible were those in the field – such as security and land management team members, and there were many behind the scenes heroes, too. KICA’s phone lines were forwarded to Senior Member Services Representative Nancy Root’s home since we didn’t have power on the island. She cheerfully responded to member inquiries as if she were sitting at her desk, and communicated relevant information to personnel in the field. Recreation Director Kay Narmour and her team made sure that law enforcement, land management staff, and others working to restore the island had lunches. Our engineering team worked to assess infrastructure, our communications team continually disseminated timely information, and many, many others focused on Kiawah before dealing with their own personal property. We also want to thank the Town of Kiawah Island, and Town Administrator Stephanie Tillerson in particular, for being an extraordinary partner before, during and after the storm, and working collaboratively toward a common goal like never before.