Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Day After the Hurricane by Michelle Hankes

The day after Hurricane Matthew struck the South Carolina coast, my Red Cross partner and I were sent to check the extent of the damage and to talk to residents to find out what their pressing needs were. We drove from Charleston, South Carolina toward Edisto Beach, a sixty mile trek through some of the areas that saw flooding and wind damage. What we found were regular people trying to get their lives back to normal in many different ways.  

Power was out nearly everywhere, with some businesses able to open their doors using generators for power.  Two of the most important businesses were gas station convenience stores and pharmacies. A local CVS still had its windows boarded for Matthew's visit yet was taking customers.  The accessibility of refilling or replacing lost prescriptions is vital for many people who must have medications—from heart medications to insulin—to survive.  

When evacuations occur, the American Red Cross strongly advises that residents bring personal items like medications with them to shelters, but when that is impossible, the Red Cross works with health care partners to help these clients stay safe and healthy until pharmacies are accessible. 

We turned down Highway 17 and found a beautiful, well-loved cemetery across from a local church. We stopped to pay our respects and discovered that the rising water had actually pushed a coffin up from the ground amongst the flowers carefully placed around the grave sites. I found it particularly sad that not only must the family of the person honored in this plot clean up any damage to their home caused by this hurricane, but also go through the grief of losing a loved one all over again. (Put in Cemetery Photo: "Flood waters pushed a casket out of the ground.") 

Once again, the Red Cross was able to contact the appropriate officials and church to make sure that the family was aware of what had happened and that the grave site could be returned to its proper place with respect. 

As we got closer to Edisto Beach, we saw more and more damage to buildings, mostly caused by the towering water oaks falling in the high winds. Those we spoke to were positive about recovering and rebuilding. Many had evacuated to other parts of the state and were only just returning to see what kind of gifts Matthew had left for them. There were countless examples where trees fell only inches away from homes. (Trees down photo: "The large oak trees on the island were pulled out by the roots, causing damage.") 

Shanta Millan evacuated before the storm.  She and her husband live Edisto Island, and she was willing to stay, but they are expecting their first child around Thanksgiving. When we met her, she had just returned home and was working with her husband to check out the damage to their property.  Edisto Island is a beautiful place with soaring oak trees with Spanish moss, yet that beauty is part of the danger.  Tree limbs loosened by the storm are still falling as the day goes on, so anyone in the hurricane zone must remain vigilant of what's overhead. 

Nothing dampened Shanta's spirits.  "We've been together for nineteen years and have tried everything to have a child.  We had given up when I got pregnant.  Yes, we have storm damage, but we know how lucky we really are in life. Our baby, Malachi, will be born at Thanksgiving, and we have lots of reasons to be thankful."  (Shanta Photo: "Shanta Millan gives Red Cross staff member, Michelle Hankes, a hug.) 

Safety needs to come first for those starting to do tree cleanup on their property. Here are some tips for homeowners: 

·                     Check your homeowners insurance policy before starting tree work.  Many policies will cover at least some of the cost of tree removal if there has been some structural damage. 

·                     Damaged trees are often tangled in utility lines. At no time should you remove limbs touching lines.  Call your local utility company and inform them of the issue. 

·                     Be sure you are wearing appropriate protective gear for what you are doing. Gloves, good shoes, protective eye where and ear protection are vital. 

·                     Make sure you know how to properly use power tools like chain saws.  Accidents can be deadly. 

Some of the roads my partner and I tried to venture down were covered in water.  Flooding is a major concern as most of the deaths attributed to Hurricane Matthew are associated with the high water.  It's easy to think that the water isn't very deep and that your car will have no problems in crossing flooded streets; however, even a little water over a road can sweep a vehicle into danger.  Standing water is receding very slowly, and there are reports that more water is coming down to the area. (Flooded Edisto Island: "Standing water filled meadows and groves all the way up the road.") 

Responding appropriately to flood waters will save your life. The Red Cross has a list of ways to protect yourself and your family at, but here are a few quick tips: 

·                     Return home only when officials have declared a flooded area safe. 

·                     Before entering your home after a flood, look outside for loose power lines, damaged gas lines, foundation cracks or other damage. 

·                     Watch out for wild animals, especially venomous snakes that may have come into your home or near it with the flood water. 

·                     Keep children and pets away from hazardous sites and floodwater. 

·                     During cleanup, wear protective clothing including rubber gloves and rubber boots. 

·                     Make sure your food and water are safe. Discard items that have come in contact with floodwater, including canned goods, water bottles, plastic utensils and baby bottle nipples. When in doubt, throw it out! 

·                     And most important, do not drive into water. "Turn around; don't drown!"  

We reached the end of our adventure about four miles from Edisto Beach. We had already passed several crews working on fixing downed powerlines, but at this point, the damage was so bad that the roads were too dangerous to drive. With the dangling tree branches and draping moss, the powerlines blend into the background and are almost impossible to see until you are right on them. The downed lines, of course, mean that there is no power for the neighborhoods and the lack of power may last for several days. Families in affected areas should follow these tips: (Power Crews: "Power crews were at work trying to get Edisto Island back on the grid.) 

·                     Do not touch any electrical power lines and keep your family and pets away from them.  Report any downed lines to the appropriate officials. 

·                     Throw away any food that has been exposed to temperatures 40 degrees F for two hours or more or that has an unusual odor, color or texture. 

·                     When using portable generators, connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator. Do not connect a generator to a home's electrical system. 

·                     Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside a home, garage or any partially enclosed area. 

·                     Turn off and unplug all unnecessary electrical equipment, including sensitive electronics. 

·                     Leave one light turned on so you'll know when the power comes back on. 

When we reached the end of the road open to us, we met local law enforcement and the National Guard members who were kept busy letting the public know what to expect for the next few days including when they might expect to be able to return to check on their property. Keeping a positive attitude and being patient is vital in the aftermath of the storm. Everyone wants to clean up and move on, but safety MUST come first. Curfews and closed road signs should be followed by all. If you are in the affected areas, listen to your local radio stations or follow the social media sites of emergency management agencies and municipalities for information. (Tree and House: "Trees were down all over the island.") 

Our trip from Charleston to Edisto Island was an opportunity to meet people who are facing an extraordinary situation with extraordinary grace. We saw residents helping each other clean up and get back on their feet, but most important, we saw a resilient community that was prepared for Matthew's arrival.  

As Jim Perry, who we met in front of his home on Edisto Island as he dealt with a giant oak lying across his property, told us, "I've lived here all my life. The people here are the kindest folk in the world.  This wasn't our first hurricane, it won't be our last, and we'll be ready for the next one, thanks to what you all do at the Red Cross." (Jim Perry: "Jim Perry was grateful for the Red Cross.")


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