Hurricane Matthew hit Bluffton and Hilton Head Island hard on Oct. 8, 2016, flooding many areas, uprooting a number of trees, and snapping others, like this one in front of the Spartina store on Calhoun Street PHOTOS COURTESY TOWN OF BLUFFTON

It’s been a minute since a hurricane has seriously threatened Beaufort County.

Bluffton was fortunate in 2020 and 2021 to not deal with hurricanes and the pandemic at the same time, but one can never be too prepared for something as unreliable as a hurricane.

The hurricane season begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30, with historically the most active months for the Lowcountry being August, September and October. Local agencies and communities are making sure critical information is handy for residents.

Bluffton will host a week-long #ReadyBluffton Preparathon on its social media platforms from May 9 to May 13 with a culminating free community activity May 14 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Oyster Factory Park.

“The best antidotes for the unpredictability of hurricane season are preparation and a plan,” Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “As a town, we are every resident’s partner in preparation, for our goal is to mitigate personal and property damage in every storm. This Preparathon and Saturday’s event are great opportunities, especially for new residents who are new to hurricanes, to be informed and have the tools ready for anything Mother Nature brings.”

“Each hurricane, as with any critical weather event, is a unique event with dynamic variables,” said Town of Bluffton Emergency Manager Stephen Combs. “People may say, ‘Well, the previous ones weren’t so bad, so I will just ride this one out.’ Generally, once an individual has endured a hurricane that threatens their personal and property safety, they typically regret the decision and choose to never stay home again.”

Emergency management emphasizes that the first 72 hours after a storm are very hard on the individuals who remain behind, since most local, state, or federal assistance won’t arrive until after 72 hours.

Sun City Hilton Head residents will find specific preparation information on the community’s website. Rather than conducting a series of in-person workshops that might reach only 1,000 or so residents, the Community Association went to technology.

“When COVID arrived, we decided to switch gears on how to educate residents about hurricane preparedness,” said Director of Communications Jennifer Mathis. “We invested in making a series of educational videos to highlight the same material we previously shared in person.”

The videos are available for residents to watch at their leisure, which also lets them digest the information in smaller segments.

Mathis said the videos are reaching a much wider audience than the meetings did. “The prior meetings, which required considerable coordination with officials across the county and state, only afforded 500 people to attend, whereas the videos on the community website provides everyone in the community an opportunity to hear the same message,” she said. “When we first released the series, we had over 4,000 views.”

The information includes details on many topics, from what to do before a storm to what could happen afterward, with evacuation routes, Sun City-specific communications, frequently asked questions, a downloadable guide, and what to expect if you decide not to evacuate.

“In the awful event we have to evacuate, we push out even more information, along with links to the videos,” Mathis said.

General preparation guidelines, no matter where in the Lowcountry one resides, include the following:

• Do the paperwork before you have to evacuate. Make sure you have copies of important papers like birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, insurance documents, and a driver’s license or state-issued ID. Those documents will be needed to file for financial assistance in the event of damages. Include current photos and videos of your house and property before a storm should you need to file a claim.

• If you have pets, plan your evacuation route to include hotels that allow pets and know what additional fees may be required. Ensure your pet has identifying tags, vaccination records, collars and/or a microchip. Plan to take along adequate pet food and medications.

• Check with your particular community for specific information concerning closures and evacuation routes. Timing your departure ahead of the storm means the difference between going where you want to go and being forced to follow a pre-ordained route.

“Evacuations are an essential way to reduce the impact to oneself and their property. The governor of South Carolina is the only person or agency with the authority to issue an evacuation order,” said Combs. “If the variables are favorable for the governor to do so, it is best to pack up and leave. These decisions consider many issues but, ultimately, public safety is the highest priority.”

Among the lessons learned after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the last major storm to blow through the county, was the need to provide consistent information among all of the county’s and state’s emergency services, especially on social media platforms, which were also rife with misinformation among users not involved with emergency oversight.

“Make sure you get your information from reliable and official sources, such as the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. The Emergency Management Division oversees response and recovery efforts to man-made and natural disasters in Beaufort County, and will have the most up-to-date information,” said Maj. Bob Bromage, BCSO Public Information Officer.

Since the information being provided will appear on numerous digital platforms, it’s important to be prepared whether you have power or not. Keep a spare battery charger and cable for your cell phone or tablet. If power goes out, you won’t have a place to plug in and charge up, Combs recommends.

A NOAA weather radio will allow you to stay up to date on the latest weather conditions and hear critical emergency alerts.

Sign up for emergency alerts for your phone or email. Individuals can sign up by texting their ZIP code to 888777, or by visiting nixle.com and typing in their ZIP code, to see which agencies service them. Currently, Beaufort County, Jasper County, SC DPS (Department of Public Safety – S.C. Highway Patrol), the Town of Bluffton, and the City of Hardeeville all use Nixle to keep residents and visitors informed.

The May 14 Preparathon Expo exhibitors will include Bluffton Police Department, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Beaufort County EMS, Beaufort Radio Amateur Group, South Carolina Emergency Management Division, Bluffton Township Fire District, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, South Carolina Department of Mental Health, South Carolina Department of Insurance, Fetch-A-Vet, and CPM Federal Credit Union.

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