A mighty howling in the heavens: riding out Hurricane Matthew in South Carolina

We locals on Daufuskie Island rejected the governor’s warnings to evacuate. Hurricane Matthew left utter destruction – and brought the community together

To go or not to go, that is the question.

This ain’t Iowa, y’all, where you can jump in the Chevy, pop the clutch, speed-shift and outrun a tornado. I’ve done it a time or two but you can’t do it here, in this gentle crescent of coast, this exquisite filigree of creeks, inlets and islands between Canaveral and Hatteras. Some islands have bridges but many do not, and if you’re on an island with no bridge, you don’t make many sudden moves.

And this is the way it is on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, where a trip for liquor, lightbulbs and toilet paper might eat up most of a day.

Hermine had just thundered through, power out three days, when Hurricane Matthew bore down. It had already killed 900 and was hardly done.

Daufuskie, three by five miles, 14 miles by water from the nearest traffic light. No yoga, no yogurt and the fast food has fins or fur or feathers. It’s about halfway between New York and Miami and the real estate wizards figured to make it the Martha’s Vineyard of the south. Lord knows they tried but $350m was not nearly enough. So today we have a bizarre island stewpot: our culturally shellshocked northern brethren who have relocated among us; the Gullah descendants of enslaved west Africans here now some three hundred years; and local white folks, the shrimpers, potters and poets who blew ashore here for reasons about which you do not casually inquire.

When the governor said leave, most of the transplants left. Most of the locals, black and white, stuck.

I rode out Gracie in ’59 when I was about half grown. Gusts to 160, a class 4, they’d peg it today. Mammy stood at the back window and cried with every pine that went down. Pappy built the house himself and he built it right.

Nobody ever thought of evacuating. No power for two weeks, no phones for two months. The wind blew river sand so hard it etched the window glass and drove rainwater around the sashes but we only lost a single shingle from the roof.

I took note and built my own house accordingly. And when the governor ordered a mandatory evacuation, we would not be moved and we made the national news for staying through the storm, even the international news.

Daufuskie beach houses after Hurricane Matthew.
‘You might have thought the Day of Judgment was upon us.’ Photograph: Roger Pinckney

The governor was not pleased and she sent the cops door to door. If you would not get on the ferry, they asked for your next of kin. When that had no effect, she called a special news conference and addressed us directly. “You are all going to die. Daufuskie will be covered by 8ft of seawater.” She ordered up one final ferry run and deployed national guard helicopters to fly us out. But she must have known we would not go. There were one hundred holdouts and the ferry only held forty. And by then, conditions were too bad for the choppers to fly.

Friday 7 October. You might have thought the Day of Judgment was upon us, a mighty howling in the heavens and a shaking of the firmament, the thunder of falling trees. Or rather the Night of Judgment, as the storm blew ashore around midnight with gusts to 130. The children huddled in the pantry, the strongest room in the house. Sweet wife and I in our marital bed, a 90lb yellow dog stretched full length between us while the house vibrated like a cello with some lunatic musician at the bow. I slept fitfully, the wife whimpered softly, her head wrapped in a quilt to save her eyes from shattering glass. The dog, happily close to the people he loved, slept through the whole ordeal.

Saturday 8 October, 2.17am. Suddenly quiet. Oh thank you, Jesus, maybe I can get some sleep. But nay, it was the eye of the storm, the middle of the hurricane, and within minutes the fury resumed, winds from the opposite direction and everything sheltered that previously survived was kindling.

We staggered outside at daybreak to utter destruction, a jackstraw of fallen timber, a snarl of electrical wires and the marshes all around littered with the remains of derelict boats and shattered docks but the howl of the wind and the thunder of falling trees had been replaced by the clatter of generators and the whine of chainsaws. Neighbors helped neighbors, restaurants held great community feeds for free. In two days, every island road was passable and volunteers cut oaks and pines off the utility lines, ready for the power crews to get to work. The elders gathered at the First Union African Baptist, surviving every blow since 1886, and cut the trees off the graves.

I emailed the governor, told her we were all fine.

No response, not yet.

Roger Pinckney in Daufuskie, South Carolina

The GuardianTramp

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