At the Center of the Storm
Radar at 4:20 a.m. placed the eyewall [of Hurricane Matthew] over Hilton Head and Edisto Island. At 6:50 a.m., measured winds roared at 88 mph at the Hilton Head Island AP. Not since Hurricane Gracie back in 1959 had these conditions been witnessed over South Carolina's southern-most islands.
–Weekly report of October 3-9; prepared by the S.C. State Climatology Office
The Lowcountry of South Carolina, coastal regions farther north, and even some inland areas, experienced severe damage from wind, storm surge and heavy rain in early October when Hurricane Matthew brushed the South Carolina coastline. The destruction lingered into the following week, with record rains in North Carolina driving severe flooding downstream in the Pee Dee and Waccamaw river watersheds. The response by SCDNR Law Enforcement Officers and Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division staff was swift, and the state and -- thanks to cable television and the Internet – even the rest of the nation, got a good look at the critical role played by the SCDNR in responding to a disaster with boots on the ground and boats in the water in the affected areas.
The hundreds of men and women who work as conservation officers, biologists, wildlife technicians and in other support roles for the agency all had important roles to play during the height of the emergency and its immediate aftermath. And respond they did, performing rescues and protecting lives and securing property. But after the worst had passed, it was time to take a look at the damage suffered on our Wildlife Management Areas and other SCDNR-managed public properties and to begin the long, arduous task of repairing the infrastructure and habitat there.
When Matthew’s outer bands of high winds entered the western edge of South Carolina’s coastal plain, they were felt inland well into Jasper and Hampton counties. Despite being approximately 50 miles from the coast, the SCDNR’s cherished Webb Wildlife Center WMA was not spared. SCDNR wildlife technician April Atkinson works at the Webb Center and nearby Hamilton Ridge and Palachucola WMAs and lives onsite.
“I have never seen trees bent over like they were during the storm,” said Atkinson. “We could hear trees falling around us. I didn’t see blacktop until Sunday after the storm; we had to cut our way out of the property. Tears were shed, but this ecosystem is designed to withstand hurricanes. It could have been worse and she will recover. Webb looks better and better each day.”
According to Atkinson, during the two weeks following the storm, Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries technicians from every other region in the state [for organizational purposes, the SCDNR divides the state into 4 management regions] came to assist the regular Webb staff with cleanup and repairs.
“We had three bulldozers running with staff utilizing chainsaws to clear 1,645 trees out of roads on Webb, Palachucola & Hamilton Ridge WMA,” reported Atkinson. Staff also assisted with cleaning up trees in campgrounds, the Webb Compound (the lodge, office and workshop) and from around numerous deer stands, food plots and wildlife openings on the property. “There was not a road on Webb WMA that didn’t have a tree across it,” added Atkinson. Currently, staff at the Webb Center is still working on cleanup and assessing areas of the property that were hit the hardest for potential timber salvage operations.
Just up the coast, two of the DNR’s flagship coastal properties in the heart of the ACE Basin – Bear Island and Donnelley WMAs – were also squarely in the storm’s path. While these properties are managed intensively for a wide range of wildlife species, both feature former rice field impoundments that provide fantastic habitat for various species of migratory (and resident) waterfowl and other wetland wildlife. At Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve in Horry County, the damage was “very reminiscent of last year’s flood but with the addition of some tree blowdown from the strong winds,” reported SCDNR Region IV Heritage Trust Coordinator James Fowler.
Lottery deer hunts scheduled for Bear Island and Donnolley in mid-October had to be cancelled, and it’s possible that damage from the hurricane could also impact some waterfowl lottery hunt locations during the upcoming season. The issue is water control infrastructure at the properties, some of which was damaged and is awaiting extensive repairs, including a 69-foot and growing breach at Springfield Cut on the Edisto River, where at least 1,500 acres of impoundment that have lost water control are flooded daily by the tides.
“We have to be able to lower water levels in order to manage the habitat,” said SCDNR waterfowl biologist and Regional Wildlife Coordinator Dean Harrigal in an October 20 interview.
Storm surge caused damage to impoundments at Bear Island WMA, as well as Murphy Island and Cedar Island at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA on the upper coast, where substantial amounts of managed waterfowl habitat have also been flooded. Regaining the ability to control water levels in those damaged impoundments is key to whether they will be available to support birds, let alone being able to support hunts. Right now, Harrigal, project leaders Daniel Barrineau and Joachim Treptow, and the rest of the SCDNR staff along the coast are focused squarely on that issue.
“Right now our goal is simply regaining our ability to manage the habitat,” said Harrigal. “Once we’re able to manage the habitat and have it properly prepared for wintering waterfowl, then we will take the next step and decide which areas we can hunt.”
During late October in a “normal” year, water levels would be being adjusted downward at this point to make crops of widgeon grass and other foods available to arriving winter waterfowl, which are due to begin arriving in coastal South Carolina any time.
“Within the next week or 10 days we should be able to get a handle on what we can do for the waterfowl and for the hunters who look forward to coming to our areas,” added Harrigal. “But at this point I would say that there is likely not going to be the full suite of areas available to hunt. Don’t think for a minute that we haven’t been looking at it, working on it and trying to figure out how to get things in place to get it done. It may take us a little longer to get back to our annual management cycles, but I keep telling the younger members of our staff, if we’ve still got something to work with, we can figure the rest of it out.”
Daniel Barrineau is one of those “younger members,” and as the waterfowl project leader at Bear Island and Donnelley WMAs, he’s working closely with Harrigal and the other SCDNR biologists, technicians and administrators to get the ball rolling on needed repairs. Donnelley suffered “mainly timber damage,” said Barrineau recently, in a quick interview after a morning spent helping out with a release of five pairs of endangered red-cockaded wood peckers on the property [look for that story in an upcoming S.C. Natural Resources Blog post].
Barrineau, Joachim Treptow, the waterfowl project leader for the properties in the SCDNR’s Upper Coastal Unit (Santee Coastal Reserve, Santee Delta and Samworth WMAs), and Harrigal were all extremely busy in the days following the storm, preparing estimates and paperwork for long-term repair work to dikes, water control structures and other infrastructure, even as emergency repairs, cleanup of downed trees and power line rights-of-way, and repairs to damaged roads was still ongoing. In some cases, these repairs will be manpower and equipment-intensive and expensive, but federal disaster assistance to state governments should help shoulder some of the costs. At this stage of the recovery process, hunts are planned on all of the SCDNR waterfowl areas (except Samworth), though the number of hunters will likely be reduced on some areas. Santee Delta, the Cape, Bear Island East and West will have hunts as usual. Limited hunts are planned on the portions of Murphy, Cedar, and Springfield/Cut that are accessible.
There’s “no quick fix” for dike breaches like this one at Murphy Island Santee Coastal Reserve, said Treptow. The breach at nearby Cedar Island, while fairly easy to repair, was “extremely difficult to get to.” It’s just a fact of life at these properties that moving supplies and equipment necessary for these types of repairs is a difficult task [see the Blog posts Cool Tools parts I & II from September]. The boat dock at Santee Coastal Reserve was also badly damaged, adding another element to the host of complications Treptow and his staff are dealing with.
Despite all that adversity, South Carolinians should be proud of the important conservation work that continues to goes on at all of these special places. At least fifteen nesting trees for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers were lost at Webb Center during the storm, and another group at Yawkey Wildlife Center. It’s anyone’s guess how the birds utilizing those trees fared but SCDNR biologists have evaluated the situation and will place cavity inserts where needed, and last Saturday, Barrineau and Harrigal were on-hand to help as five pairs of RCWs were released into the carefully managed stands of mature longleaf pines on the upland sections at Donnelley.
“You know, we’ve got black eyes, bloody noses and broken bones, but we’ve got intact forests and a good portion of our wetlands; we’ve got something to work with,” mused Harrigal “Our biggest concern is those niche species that really live on the edge – think about shore birds and sea turtles. Our waterfowl habitat took it the hardest, but that habitat’s always lived on the edge. We got Hugo in 1989, and we recovered, and a quarter-century later, Matthew whacked us, and, you know, hopefully we will recover from this one too, and ten years from now, people will say you all did a good job.”
Botany Bay WMA
Since opening to the public in 2008, Botany Bay Wildlife Management Area and Heritage Preserve on Edisto Island has proven to be as popular with wildlife photographers, sightseers and tourists as it has with hunters. The good news, according to SCDNR’s Daniel Barrineau, is that the interior portions of Botany Bay such as the roads, fields and historic sites laid out in the driving tour of the property will be reopen soon.
However, it’s likely to be some time before Botany’s popular remote beach will be accessible to visitors, said Barrineau. The causeway leading to “Pocky Island” and the beach itself is littered with downed trees and badly eroded. Such devastation may be tough to swallow for folks who have come to enjoy the serene beauty of the beach at Botany Bay over the last decade, but it’s important to remember that, unlike public beaches that are managed with a primary focus on tourism and recreation, these are natural areas whose primary purpose is habitat preservation. In this instance, the barrier island at Botany Bay fulfilled one of its natural functions by absorbing the brunt of the storm surge. The beach will recover – but on its own timeframe, which could take years.