Residents of ritzy Hilton Head Island happy to be alive

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Whether it was an exhilarating night of watching nature’s wonder or one of the most frightening experiences of their lives, people on Hilton Head Island felt the same way Saturday — happy to be alive — hours after Hurricane Matthew moved past.

Hilton Head Island belonged to those who stayed Saturday morning. Emergency officials left Friday afternoon and didn’t return until a few hours after sunrise Saturday as the winds and rains died down. Most of the 40,000 residents of this island where the median home price is nearly $450,000 left, and Gov. Nikki Haley said they may not be able to return for at least two days.

Ellis Clemons walked down the middle of Hilton Head Island’s main road, dogging tree branches and giant puddles with his arms raised high, singing and yelling.

“The wind was howling, the rain was falling sideways — and then, boom, the power went out,” Clemons said. “I never felt in danger. I just enjoyed it. How many times can you say you made it through a hurricane?”

For Clemons, the number is two. He survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which came ashore about 60 miles north near Charleston. Clemons said Matthew was worse.

Russ Johnson survived Matthew on the island, too. He thought it wasn’t going to be so bad until about 4:30 a.m. Saturday when some of the storm’s strongest winds in the eyewall began slamming the island as the hurricane’s eye slipped about 20 miles offshore.

“The power went out. The wind was howling. You couldn’t see anything. That was pretty scary,” said Johnson, who moved to the island earlier this year.

Johnson lost part of his roof, but saved his boat. There was no way to assess damage Saturday because many of the smaller roads leading to neighborhood still had a few feet of water and fallen trees blocking them. A few nervous residents who evacuated and dodged the downed trees to get back to the island tried several different ways to get to their homes with no luck.

“I think we’re going to have a pine tree splitting our house,” said Chandler Brunson as she and her fiance turned around to try one more way to get to their home.

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