When Hurricane Matthew passed just 5 miles off the coast of Hilton Head Island in the early hours of Oct. 8, an untold number of Beaufort County residents — those who ignored Gov. Nikki Haley’s order to evacuate days earlier— experienced the storm from inside their homes, from nearby shelters, from their boats, from their cars and, in at least one case, from under the overhang of a small-town gas station.
Their reasons for staying varied, but their nights began with the same sense of adventure, fear and speculation about the unknown.
Their nights progressed with similar anxieties, similar second-guessing, a similar acceptance of circumstances.
And, as the sun rose the next morning, as that first sliver of light appeared, they all opened their doors with the same curiosity.
Oct. 7, 2016
3 p.m., National Hurricane Center, Miami
Weather update: The storm, now weakened to a Category 2 hurricane, approaches the Palm Coast in Florida, 230 miles south of Hilton Head Island. A wind gust of 86 mph is recorded in St. Augustine. Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett and Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka make one last plea: It’s not too late to leave. Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling begs the people who stayed to “please be safe. PLEASE.”
4:22 p.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
Shortly after arriving at the kennel, Natalee Desimone, a client of Bark Shack, stands outside and for 43 seconds she records the rainy, windy scene in front of her.
The storm is still hours away, but she is ready to hunker down with her three dogs, her cat, eight other people and 100 boarded pets.
Earlier that afternoon, Desimone had wondered just how many times she could possibly say “hunker down” in a single day.
5:15 p.m. Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, Ridgeland
Harold Smith wants to stay in his house. The sun is shining, Beaufort has power and his Greene Street living room is cozy and cool.
The retired carpenter moved from Arkansas four years ago and though he’s never experienced a hurricane he’s not fussed about it.
But Linda, his girlfriend, beckons. She’s at The American Red Cross shelter in Jasper County with her family. “Come be with me,” she tells him.
So Smith, 64, grabs some food and clothes, hops into his Toyota Camry and sets out for the high school 30 miles away.
6 p.m., National Hurricane Center, Miami
Weather report: Hurricane Matthew causes devastation along the Northeast coast of Florida. Maximum sustained winds are at 110 mph.
6 p.m., Wexford Plantation, Hilton Head Island
As the weather worsens, Robert “Moose” Rini has finally made up his mind: he'll stay. His wife, Lynsey, will be along for the ride. Reluctantly. But hey, it's all good at the moment. On the TV, a little Weather Channel, a little football. Later, some “Forensic Files.”
Moose, a Realtor and professional card player, is gambling the storm will shift east.
6:45 p.m., Hardeeville Pet Resort, Hardeeville
Franny Gerthoffer and her husband, Bob, finish yet another check of the 34 kennels now housing refugees from the Hilton Head Humane Association.
On the way out, to the main lobby, they check on their dogs’ bunkmates, the pets being boarded by vacationers and evacuees.
Finally, they turn to their own babies -— blind dogs Pokey, Digby and Gidget, scaredy-cat basset hound Gracie and long-haired Chihuahua Shannie.
And one cat. Tabby.
Gerthoffer, executive director of Hilton Head Humane, is on edge.
She’s hoping in the morning that everyone is still breathing.
7 p.m., Beaufort, Beaufort County Sheriff's Office
His men have been pulled in off the street and ordered to shelter at their respective posts across the county, and all they can do is plan.
And so, Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, director of the county's emergency management division and the man responsible for coordinating with the various city and state and federal officials crammed in the command center, does just that.
And will do so for the next three hours, consulting the two orange binders — the county's disaster response plan — he'd combed through and revised the previous winter.
He's planning for “reentry, response and recovery” — when he and his men can safely get back on the street.
But at the moment, they are in — and he doesn't even like to say the word — “retreat.”
And they will have to stay that way.
There will be a structure fire in Burton they won't be able to respond to.
Another reported fire, this time at a church, will frustrate his crew, until they’re able to figure out it’s just the wind and rain playing tricks with a street lamp near the building.
As the county loses electricity, home security alarms will go off — and Baxley won’t be able to respond to those, either.
So, they will wait. And stew. And plan.
Because that's about all they can do.
7 p.m., Tybee Island, 48 miles from Hilton Head Island
Weather report: A private weather station reports a sustained wind of 48 mph and a wind gust of 62 mph.
7:03 p.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
Natalee Desimone steps outside and films the scene live for Facebook.
In the night sky, only colliding treetops are visible.
“We have a lot of flooding here,” she tells viewers. “You probably can’t even see that. It’s just black, dark water.”
Over dinner — over the sound of rain, wind and constant barking — the crew at the Bark Shack talked about worst-case scenarios.
Occasionally, they joked about their situation.
On Facebook, Desimone’s friends warn her to be safe.
“Hunker down,” one of them tells her.
7:30 p.m., Keith Funeral Home, Hilton Head Island
Jim Keith is working late again. He tends to do this.
On an average night he likes to keep an eye on things, to make sure everything is in order with the bodies left in his care.
Tonight there is extra anxiety. There is still one client in his cooler.
All government offices had closed Wednesday, which meant he couldn’t get the death certificate needed to cremate the body before the storm was scheduled to hit.
So he and his wife, Susan, have to stay.
7:30 p.m., Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, Ridgeland
People mill about outside. They smoke. They breathe in final gulps of fresh air before the doors are locked for the night, as law enforcement tells them will happen soon.
Harold Smith is with them.
So far, this shelter is not working for him. He’s told he won’t have a cot and standing around with dozens of evacuees is making him claustrophobic.
He’s not going to get locked inside with them.
His car is looking roomy.
7:40 p.m., Hardeeville Pet Resort, Hardeeville
Gerthoffer doesn’t expect to sleep tonight, which is good, because she doesn’t have a mattress, blanket or pillow.
Just some dog beds from home, soft and familiar to ease her pets’ anxiety.
She plops down on them now to ease her own.
The five dogs surround her in an instant.
8 p.m., Haig Point Equestrian Center, Daufuskie Island
Rachel and Chase Allen’s guests open a bottle of wine to go with the spread in the barn’s lounge.
Red, which pairs well with the dishes the Allens had brought — cold pizza, venison stew and a soup made from a chicken one of their black labs had just killed.
Their fellow Daufuskie holdouts, Rich and Gayle Silver and Gerri Howe, use one bowl as a ladle.
Rachel and Chase will eat a bit later. He’s sleeping. She’s checking on the horses, one of whom is on stall rest for a torn tendon. The black mare’s legs sport leopard-print wraps.
Rachel has stacked cinder blocks on either side of the barn doors and nailed them shut.
And the others chat about the storm. They’re annoyed the governor told national news the island would be underwater, and begged the 100 people left to evacuate.
Haig Point is high ground. Most of Daufuskie is high ground.
Gayle Silver’s daughter, who lives in California, was particularly angry after watching the news, and made Gayle cry on the phone earlier that day, after the last ferry had left.
“What’s wrong with you?” she’d asked. “Why are you doing this?”
8:15 p.m, Beaufort
Weather report: The outgoing tide hits its lowest point.
8:30 p.m., Village Creek, St. Helena Island
On the Palmetto Pride, with the game playing in the background, veteran fishermen swap stories, as men do when their wives are out of town.
The time Laten and Craig Reaves, the father and son behind Sea Eagle Market, rode out Hugo on a shrimp boat in North Carolina, tied to a bridge.
That turned out alright.
How fellow crew member David King rode out Hugo in a river and dragged his anchor all the way to dry land.
That didn’t turn out so well.
Cameron, Laten’s younger son, just listens and laughs. Matthew will be his first storm story.
Earlier that evening, Craig had snapped a photo of Cameron grinning over a pan of fried chicken and pork chops fresh out of the oil, and posts it online.
“Roughin it,” he wrote.
The Reaveses were teasing evacuees.
They and King are staying in town to protect their trawlers, which they tethered to the dock between Pine and St. Helena islands after building new joists and triple-tying the rigging to the dock’s double pilings.
For now, it’s time to relax with football and family.
9 p.m., Hilton Head Island Airport
Weather report: A wind gust of 63 mph is reported. The storm, now of the coast of Georgia, is 165 miles from Hilton Head.
10:20 p.m., Wexford Plantation, Hilton Head Plantation
It’s almost bedtime in the Rini household, and Moose is walking on the hardwood floors down the hallway toward the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face.
WHAM! Slip-and-fall! Hard. Water on the floor. Near the dogs’ bowls.
The culprits, German shepherds Rafa and Duke — the sloppy drinkers — are nowhere to be found.
Moose checks himself for damage. None.
I wish I would have left, he thinks to himself, knowing it could have been worse, realizing the island’s first-responders and doctors have evacuated, its hospital closed.
He walks to the kitchen where Lynsey is straightening up.
The dogs are with her. He tells her about his accident.
“This is why we should have left,” she says.
“I know, dear.”
10:29 p.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” ends and someone puts in the vampire series “True Blood.”
Natalee Desimone and Maddie Conner, whose mother, Karen Just, owns Bark Shack, decide it’s time to try to get some sleep.
Desimone grabs Bella, her Chihuahua. Conner takes Bonita, a rescue Chihuahua that stays at the kennel and is Bella’s buddy.
The four head out the back door to Just’s RV, which sits about 100 feet behind the kennel.
Water is up past their ankles now, and the rain drenches both.
“I honestly didn’t think of it as not being safe,” Desimone said later of the camper.
In the pitch black, she could not see the trees behind it.
10:45 p.m., Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, Ridgeland
Harold Smith lies flat-ish in the reclined passenger seat of his Camry. He has one blanket and, right next to his head, a stash of munchies -— mostly cans of Beanee Weenee, Saltines, and candy.
Linda wasn’t happy when he went to the car.
“You’re supposed to stay with me!” she said.
Nobody has service now, so his phone is quiet and stowed away in one of his shoes. His wire glasses are in the other.
I’m too old to lie on that floor, Smith thinks. They gonna have to be hauling me out in the morning. I’ll take my chances with the car. It’s comfy. Real comfy.
Besides, if anything happens to me here, it’ll probably happen to the shelter, too.
The Camry is quiet.
The radio was only picking up static, so he turned that off.
And the wind is moving, but not as hard as he expected. There’s a big truck on one side of his car blocking the gusts.
Smith stares out at the one light he can see in the parking lot. It seems to be flashing. Something tall and skinny is blowing back and forth fast.
If it’s a tree, why doesn’t it snap already?
10:50 p.m., Haig Point Equestrian Club, Daufuskie Island
Rachel Allen lies under a horse blanket in the barn’s tack room, going over the plan in her head.
If the roof comes off or a tree crashes down or they begin to flood, she’ll open the stalls and let the horses run to safety. Hopefully all of them can still run at that point.
She consulted a vet. There’s nothing in her medicine box strong enough to tranquilize an injured horse.
“Get a loaded handgun and hope that nothing happens,” the vet had told her.
But Allen doesn’t want a loaded gun in the barn.
It’s in her house. If something happens, she thinks, there’s time to get it.
11 p.m., Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary, 58 miles south of Hilton Head Island
Weather report: NOAA buoy 41008 off the Georgia coast reports sustained winds of 54 mph and a wind gust of 72 mph. The storm is 70 miles from Savannah.
1 a.m. , Beaufort, Beaufort County Sheriff's Office
Lt. Col. Baxley lies down in the corner of a downstairs conference room and plugs in his CPAP so his sleep apnea won't keep him up.
This storm is happening in the dark and even with all the information pouring into command center through the dozens of computer terminals it's hard to get the complete picture.
The county's 80 some odd traffic cameras are dark. Half of them will be damaged during the night. Most of the rest will lose power.
1:15 a.m., Wexford Plantation, Hilton Head Island
Lynsey Rini wakes up because she’s thirsty.
She hears the wind and the rain, harder now. She goes back to the bedroom and flips on the TV. The Weather Channel shows the storm heading right for them. The image updates every 15 minutes.
Every. 15. Minutes.
And yet it feels like time has stopped.
The worst is yet to come.
THUD! A tree coming down? More THUDS! Some closer now. Every THUD! sends her husband to the front or back of the house to look for fallen trees, but he can’t see anything. The dogs are in the bed with them. Duke shakes.
The family watches the forecast.
Which updates every 15 minutes.
1:24 a.m., Palmetto Bay Marina, Hilton Head Island
The water in Tracy Owens’ breezeway reflects the light from its sconces. But outside, it’s pitch black, and the wind whips the hood from her head.
The water is near level with the sea wall and the boats seem to be as high as her first-floor, dockside apartment. They look like they’re rocking hard enough to come loose, but the business owner, of Pure Natural Market, can’t tell if they have.
She starts to wish she hadn’t come outside, where the barometric pressure is all wrong and the docks are whining and twisting and her heart is racing.
Her biggest worries are flooding and the roof blowing off the fourth floor, but a neighbor just above her stayed, too, so until now, she’s felt safe.
Still watching the storm, her husband Brinsley Ellis lets out a laugh and a long whoop.
It’s not his first hurricane, or his strongest.
Back inside, Owens speaks breathlessly into her phone’s live stream.
“Holy smokes. S--- has gotten real for real.”
2 a.m., National Hurricane Center, Miami
Weather report: The hurricane is 45 miles south of Hilton Head Island. Maximum sustained winds are near 105 mph. High tide will peak in 31 minutes.
2:30 a.m., Village Creek, St. Helena Island
Right on cue, it seems, the creek is flush with the Sea Eagle Market dock.
Craig Reaves snaps a photo and posts it on Facebook.
“It’s a little wet,” he writes.
The Reaveses just bought the place in February, but the old owners, the Dopsons, said the water never crested over the sea wall in their 40 years there.
The crews watch closely and see the water inch down — and start feeling pretty good.
The worst is over.
Over the radio, Cameron Reaves tells his brother that a 16-foot Carolina Skiff is sinking a little farther down the dock. It’s now or never if they plan on salvaging the little boat.
Cameron fixes a spotlight on Craig as he kneels and starts scooping water from the skiff with a 5-gallon bucket. It takes 10 or 15 minutes to bail the boat out.
No big deal.
2:30 a.m., Jason Street, Bluffton
Greg Dennis sees a flash and hears the WHIRRRR of a transformer blowing out through his bedroom window at one end of the trailer.
His brothers, Bo and Sport, are asleep in their rooms on the opposite end of the home, where they've lived for 33 years.
3 a.m., Fort Pulaski, Ga., 66 miles from Hilton Head Island
Weather report: Storm surge is measured at 4 feet. The northern eyewall is moving on-shore of Hilton Head. NOAA buoy 41008 in the Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary, 58 miles away, reports 6 foot waves.
3 a.m., Hardeeville Pet Resort, Hardeeville
Franny Gerthoffer finds water seeping into the back of the pet lodge.
Considering the kennel is smack dab between the Savannah and New rivers, just five miles from each, and a flood risk in a Category 2 hurricane, she and Bob have been checking for water all night — scanning the ceiling, the walls, the doors, over and over.
The pair start grabbing animals out of the kennels and carrying them to crates in the lobby and bathrooms.
At one point, Franny tries to look outside with a flashlight, but the darkness swallows the weak beam.
She wonders how the dogs and cats at the shelter’s spay and neuter clinic in Ridgeland are doing, but has no way to communicate with her staff.
So she goes back to moving dogs as the water rises.
Did I make the right decision?
3 a.m., Southside Boulevard, Port Royal
Through the window of her parents' spare bedroom, Kamri Simmons sees embers.
A transformer is sparking, and she doesn't know why or what's going to happen. And she's freaking out.
She jumps out the bed she's sharing with Robyn, her 2-year-old, and goes out into the hall, where she could hear her sister Cameron talking to her parents.
"Do I need to move her from by this window?" Kamri, who is 38 weeks pregnant, asks. "Should I be scared? Should I get my daughter out of the room?"
"It's OK," her father, Billy Holmes, says. Her mother agrees.
They tell her not to worry and to go back to bed, but Kamri hasn't been sleeping.
She wants to be ready.
Sometime between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., Locust Lane, St. Helena
WHOOSH! A gust of wind wakes Henry Chisholm, who gets up and peeks out his bedroom window.
From his home’s top floor, he sees water – waves! – where he usually sees grass.
The 69-year-old retired shrimper has lived in this house on the banks of Jenkins Creek for 20 years, and he’s never seen anything like this.
The water will recede, he thinks — he knows.
Chisholm goes back to sleep.
3:15 a.m., Village Creek, St. Helena Island
The dock is out of sight and the water is rising.
Cameron Reaves notices that there doesn’t seem to be a star in the sky. He can’t find the moon, either. It’s creepy.
Over the radio, the Reaveses and King ask each other, “How long is this gonna go?”
3:56 a.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
Neither Natalee Desimone nor Maddie Conner can sleep through the howl and clatter.
Desimone texts Karen Just to tell her how solid the RV is.
“Your baby's strong. She hasn't moved at all.”
Still, she’s nervous and not at all sure this was a wise choice.
Conner’s phone is dead. They’re hungry.
They consider going back to the kennel with the others.
It’s so windy. Do you think we can even walk there?
They’re surrounded by floodwater outside. Desimone considers the alligator factor.
They decide to stay put and text kennel manager Dillon Cooper, who is in his car out front, charging his phone and listening to the radio.
Bring us food, they tell him.
And Maddie’s charger.
Desimone checks in with friends on Facebook.
“There are thousands without power,” someone tells her.
“There goes my pumpkin pie ice cream in the freezer,” Desimone replies.
3:58 a.m., Wexford Plantation, Hilton Head Island
The Rinis lose power. The fridge, the ice maker, the home’s electronics — anything that makes a noise inside their place — goes quiet and, for the first time, they truly hear the wind.
It hisses through the walls and between window panes.
Moose hugs her.
He tells her he wishes they would have evacuated.
“You’re great at selling real estate, Moose Cantore,” Lynsey says, invoking the Weather Channel storm guru Jim Cantore’s name.
“But you suck at doing the weather.”
4 a.m., Beaufort County Airport, Lady’s Island
Weather report: A wind gust of 61 mph is recorded at the airport. Storm surge nears 5 feet. The storm is 30 miles south-southwest of Hilton Head Island.
4 a.m., Jason Street, Bluffton
CRACK! CRUNCH! Greg Dennis wakes up to a 60-foot pine tree crashing through the back kitchen wall, tearing through the joists and coming to rest on trailer's front wall in the dining room.
The tree has almost halved the trailer, like God whacked it with a dull ax.
Dennis' brothers are awakened by the front porch shattering under its weight. The home's front and rear entrances are blocked.
Bo Dennis calls 911, telling the dispatcher the brothers are trapped.
“Is anyone hurt?” the dispatcher says.
“Not yet,” he says.
He jumps out the living room window and helps his brothers and the family dog, Daisy, get outside. The trees in the backyard bend like they're made of rubber.
Right away Bo and Greg decide to go with plan B — they’ll walk around the corner to Messex One Stop Service station.
But Sport won't go.
His brothers plead with him.
Sport climbs back inside and sits on the couch, alone.
He says a prayer.
4 a.m., Palmetto Bay Marina, Hilton Head Island
Tracy Owens’ bedroom, her safe place, goes black.
She grabs her yellow Eveready lantern from Piggly Wiggly and walks into the bathroom, stepping around the swelling patches of carpet where water has seeped up through the concrete foundation.
She perches on the tub and pulls out her phone again.
“I know it’s going to be OK, but I’m really scared,” she writes to her Facebook friends. “Our island can’t take anymore of this. I can’t take anymore of this. We have no control over anything right now.”
4:15 a.m., Messex One Stop Service station on May River Road, Bluffton
Greg and Bo Dennis huddle between the concrete walls near that gas station's ice machine. They’re soaked by a cold rain.
Their dog, Daisy, tries to chase pieces of debris that pinwheel through the parking lot.
The brothers watch the wind peel the paint off the walls.
4:15 a.m., Haig Point Equestrian Club, Daufuskie Island
Rachel Allen wakes to a horse whinnying over and over.
The wind has moved nail and concrete to blow open one barn door, and it’s slamming against the wall.
Rachel doesn’t move. It’s too late to do anything but hope for the best.
4:30 a.m., Palmetto Bay Marina, Hilton Head Island
Maybe I’ll laugh about this night one day, Tracy Owens thinks.
But she can’t joke when her daughter, Sarah, calls asking if she feels safe.
Owens says she does.
But she can’t stop crying.
4:31 a.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
Natalee Desimone posts a photo of rain.
4:32 a.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
Natalee Desimone hears about a report on the radio. Nearby on May River Road a tree has fallen, splitting a trailer in two.
One brother is on the left side.
The other is on the right.
There’s a dog.
4:33 a.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
With a deafening, thunderous crack, the trailer pitches forward.
Maddie Conner and Natalee Desimone scream.
The wind just lifted us up, Desimone thinks. If it hits us again, the camper will flip over.
“We got to go! We got to go NOW!,” Desimone yells.
Neither cries. But both are shaking, their sympathetic nervous systems take over and launch them into a full-fledged, adrenaline-fueled panic.
Desimone puts down her dog Bella and struggles to get on shoes with trembling hands. Bella runs and hides under all the things that used to be on the other side of the RV.
Desimone retrieves the dog and pushes on the door of the trailer.
Conner, holding Bonita, is right behind her.
The door won’t open.
It’s stuck on something.
Desimone shoulders against it hard.
She gets it open just wide enough for two slim women holding two tiny dogs to slip through.
Outside, the floodwater laps against their calves. They wade to the back door of the kennel, but not without looking back at the RV.
It was a tree.
A tree had fallen on the trailer and through the roof.
Desimone looks around her and all she can see now are trees. Big ones. They’re surrounded by bowing trunks.
And they’re stuck.
The fallen tree has blocked their passage to the front of the kennel.
The back door only opens from the inside.
The two bang on the metal door and scream to be let in. No one inside can hear them over the hurricane and barking dogs.
Desimone calls Karen Just.
Just picks up. But she can’t hear.
Desimone tries again.
She texts Dillon Cooper, who is in his car out front still.
Her screen is cracked and wet, though.
Her nerves prevent her fingers from typing the right letters.
Conner holds on to Desimone and tries to shield the phone, wiping off the water as fast as it’s falling.
Cooper gets the message and tells Just.
The door swings opens.
The two women and two soaked dogs fall in.
And Desimone doesn’t stop shaking for the next half hour.
The dogs took it in stride.
4:40 p.m., Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, Ridgeland
The storm is at its peak. Harold Smith continues to sleep.
4:45 a.m., Sunrise Bluff, Lady’s Island
The power is out for the first time all night.
And Billy Powell, of Beaufort Water Search and Rescue, is bored.
He finishes a cup of coffee, slips his feet out from under one of his dogs and says bye to another. He won’t be missed by the third, Crumpett the border collie, who’s conked out on medication for advanced Dog-heimer’s.
Powell heads outside for his Dodge Ram to do recon and get his eyeballs on the damage.
Meridian Road, just off the bridge to Lady’s Island, is impassible.
Wind gusts of 100 mph, and the rain they’re splattering over his pickup’s windshield, are leaving him practically blind.
He drives, slowly, on.
Sometime between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., Locust Lane, St. Helena
BAM! Another gust, this one stronger, like something running into the side of the house — a gust you feel more than hear.
And then Chisholm hears the sound — a roar, something bad.
The power goes out.
He looks out his window again, thinking the water has surely started to recede. He sees angry white caps in his yard.
The roof must be coming apart, he thinks.
But the rest of the house feels solid.
And there is nothing to be done about it anyway.
4:50 a.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
“On a scale of one to 10, how ruined is it?” Karen Just asks Natalee Desimone and Maddie Conner, who have toweled off.
“A nine,” Conner answers immediately.
“Oh, no,” a shakened Desimone says, giving it some thought. “It’s probably a six. ….. Like a totaled six.”
5 a.m., National Hurricane Center, Miami
Weather report: NOAA reports Hurricane Matthew as “lashing” Hilton Head Island.
5:15 a.m., Hardeeville Pet Resort, Hardeeville
It’s been two hours of slogging through dirty water in a building that may now always smell like wet dog.
The wind is still howling, trees — or something — are still falling outside.
Her charges are quiet but seem stressed and sad. It feels to Franny Gerthoffer like she isn’t enough, that there’s not enough of her to go around.
She tells them each, over and over, that the storm is ending and they’ll be OK and go home soon.
“It was almost more for us than for the dogs.”
5:30 a.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
Karen Just looks at Natalee Desimone and laughs.
“Only you,” she says.
Desimone was rattled like she’s never been before — even more than she was after a horrible car crash in South Forest Beach that left her arms scarred from the deployed air bag.
This storm was worse than that.
But she still had it in her to make a joke.
“Two girls walk into a camper during a hurricane …”
5:30 a.m., Southside Boulevard, Port Royal
Robyn Simmons wakes up like clockwork. Mom is usually up even earlier for her shift at McDonalds, so the toddler is ready to go.
Outside, though, the wind and rain are still howling.
Inside, the power is out.
Kamri Simmons begins to relax.
She can already tell Beaufort’s not underwater, and soon she can go outside and see the damage.
Soon she can sleep.
6 a.m., Beaufort
Weather report: A private weather station reports a wind gust of 83 mph.
6:15 a.m., Village Creek, St. Helena Island
Over the radio, Laten Reaves asks his son if he said Matthew already made landfall.
“No sir,” Cameron responds from the Palmetto Pride. “It’s right on top of us. Landfall’s right here.”
A 100 mph gust nearly pulls Cameron’s phone out of his hand, so he grabs it with two. His boat is level with the highest piling now that the water is 3 to 4 feet over the dock.
He and David King have had their engines running for 5 hours, ready to cut themselves free of the dock if they get any higher.
All the boats are triple-tied, and the ropes nailed down.
Cameron keeps his knife by his side.
6:45 a.m., Palmetto Bay Marina, Hilton Head Island
Tracy Owens opens her eyes after a 15-minute nap on top of the covers of her bed.
Brinsley is hollering from the living room.
“Oh my God, the marina’s gone! Tracy!”
She runs to the window and sees only water and a small clump of dock, now twisted and sunken, with a few boats hanging on at weird angles.
She throws her shoes back on and runs outside with her phone to go live on camera for Facebook. She catches the sky as it turns from dusky gray to electric blue.
Fire alarms are blaring. Pieces of SunRise Cafe’s red, metal roof lay in the parking lot. A graveyard of boats are run aground outside the villas.
Somehow, a little plastic stool is sitting upright in the grass.
“Oh my God, you guys. Oh my God.”
7 a.m., Hilton Head Island Airport
Weather report: A wind gust of 87 mph is reported. It is still raining. All told, Hilton Head Island gets 11 inches of rain. Beaufort gets 14.
7 a.m., Locust Lane, St. Helena
It's like waking up in the middle of the ocean, Chisholm thinks as he steps onto his porch.
The flatbed trailer near the creek bank in the backyard is nowhere to be seen.
Neither is the trampoline.
Water surrounds his home — it's pushed clear up to Rose Island Drive. It's come in from every direction.
“That storm was something to behold,” he’ll later say. “I’ve never witnessed anything quite like that.”
Jenkins Creek is usually about 13 feet deep behind his home, maybe 19 during a high tide. He guesses the storm surge pushed it up another six feet.
But his house is dry.
And the water is receding.
7:15 a.m., Beaufort, Beaufort County Sheriff's Office
Baxley is back upstairs in the command center when the county's three remaining traffic cameras start to pick up first light.
One of them, at the intersection of U.S. 17 and U.S. 21, shows flooded roadways, a small ocean with white caps.
Baxley does about 100 presentations a year on disaster response, and part of those presentations cover flooding. He's told people how portions of the county's major roadways can become impassable, and, in one way, it's nice to see that image on the traffic camera.
Vindication— he and the experts were right.
Which is a sobering thought, because he realizes that at least part of the county is now cut off from outside help.
7:15 a.m., Bark Shack, Bluffton
Natalee Desimone and Maddie Conner go outside at the first sign of light.
Another tree had fallen.
On both their cars.
This tree likes them better, though.
There is no major damage.
7:17 a.m., Village Creek, St. Helena Island
Cameron Reaves stands in the doorway of his cabin to watch for daylight he’s been waiting for.
The dock is back, and the wind has shifted directions with the passing of the eye, but the gusts are still too strong to get off the boat.
“Heeey-lo,” Cameron says after one gust. “Hello. That’ll wake you up.”
7:20 a.m., Keith Funeral Home, Hilton Head Island
Before the sun is fully risen and with the wind still howling, Jim and Susan Keith walk the mile between their home and their business.
The trek usually takes 15 minutes, but this morning they climb over trees, wade through water and stop to take pictures of the destruction.
On their way, they see only one other person, who is in a car.
Ten downed trees cover the parking lot at their funeral home.
There is a large tree poking a hole in the roof of the building.
Inside, the rain seeps into a space where dozens of families have posed for photos during wakes. Where they have comforted the bereaved and planned services for those close to death.
The carpet is sopping.
The Keiths grab garbage cans to catch the water. When they check one later, they find 8 inches of rain in it.
Jim Keith looks in on his client in the cooler and sighs.
The body made it through the night.
“We’ll be OK,” Susan Keith says to her husband.
7:25 a.m., Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, Ridgeland
Harold Smith stares out at the parking lot, which looks as clear as it did the night before.
He guesses the storm wasn’t bad.
But still, he doesn’t feel like getting out of the car. Not until he sees someone leave the shelter.
He glances around and realizes an aluminum pole in front of him is the culprit from the night before — the tall, sturdy thing that was blowing back and forth.
And the little Christmas-tree looking pines are leaning just a bit. Finally, a Red Cross worker opens the door of the high school.
Smith yells out to him, “Hey, they serving coffee yet?”
“The power’s out,” the man told him.
Still, the man is standing. The wind didn’t knock him over. So Smith figures it’s time to get out.
When he swings open the shelter door, he sees everyone sitting in the hallway, some gripping their useless phones or packs of cigarettes.
They look tired and frustrated.
The shelter flooded overnight from water leaking through the roofs and walls and under doors. Few evacuees had cots, so they slept shoulder to shoulder in the halls in the water.
The building smelled of human waste.
Did they move them for a tornado? Smith wonders.
He steps in and lets the door fall shut behind him.
7:28 a.m., Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, Ridgeland
They’ve got the longest hallways in this school I ever seen.
Down to the end, turn left, down to the end, turn right.
Smith spots his girlfriend.
Linda’s sitting with her siblings and their kids.
“You can stop crying now,” they tell her, teasing. “He’s back inside.”
Except now, everybody wants out.
Smith is happy to lead them to the door.
7:45 a.m., Bluffton, Jason Street
Greg and Bo Dennis arrive home, where the tree still rests on their trailer.
They yell for their brother, Sport.
They bang on the living room window.
They yell some more.
Sport emerges from his bedroom and opens a window so they can climb back in.
The brothers see the damage for the first time in the daylight. In the dining room, their mother's collector's plates have survived, along with a black-and-white photo of their stepfather holding a catfish — and a painting of The Last Supper.
The back wall is gashed. The kitchen sink is destroyed. Water pours through the hole in the roof.
But the living room couch is dry, and that's why Sport stayed behind — he didn't want to get wet. He wanted to stay warm.
Hours earlier after the tree fell, after his brothers left for Messex — after he said a prayer — Sport left the couch and went to bed.
Behind his bedroom, in the backyard, another tree loomed, one that would surely crush his end of the trailer if it fell.
But that didn't matter.
He was tired.
And he'd made his peace.
If God wants to take me now, he thought to himself, he can send another tree.
Reporter Erin Heffernan contributed to this report.