Know official status before attempting to return home

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Once the storm has passed and any issued evacuation order has been lifted, that does not mean your county or community are ready for you to return.

Officials will release return information as soon as determinations of safety have been established. The best recommendation every official made was to follow the most accurate information, which is not your neighbor.

A Hurricane Hotline will provide information to every community within Beaufort County in the event of a hurricane. The number is 1-800-963-5023. You will be asked to choose your community from those listed in the menu options. This phone number will be activated only in the event of an evacuation.

Other credible options include Nixle, a free regional law enforcement text messaging service that provides updates on many community incidents, not just hurricanes. Text your zip code to 888777 to receive alerts.

The Beaufort County Community Preparedness app is available from app stores. It provides numerous tools, including an evacuation map, flashlight and an option to "Share My Status," which will let family members know where you are in one step after you provide the contact information.

Facebook pages for Bluffton, Beaufort County and local law enforcement agencies will be coordinated with the same message. Find them at blufftonpolice, TownBlufftonSC, BeaufortCoSO, and TownofHiltonHeadIslandSC.

Twitter users can follow @SCEMD, @bftcountysc, @BlufftonPolice, @TownofBluffton and @bcsopio.

If the hurricane has caused substantial damage, return access will be permitted only as needed in a tiered process.

The first tier will be security and life-saving folks who need to get back into their buildings, check them for use and then begin recovery efforts.

The second tier is essential support personnel - opening and expanding emergency room crews; utilities such as water, electric and gas; debris removal crews (remember Matthew and the hundreds of trees that blocked roads on Hilton Head Island?); essential government services - such as business license offices for those companies that come in to do recovery work; relief workers; town and county support organizations, such as food trucks, gas tankers and hardware stores.

Tier three includes hotels, grocery stores, pharmacies and gas station owners.

The fourth tier will then include residents and business owners.

At this point, a curfew might be in effect.

Officials caution that the tiered return process might be different for different parts of the community.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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