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Pawleys Island: Fragile dunes, rebuilt over months, disappear in a day

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“The sand dune was so high it was almost a nuisance,” said Bill Foxworth.

That’s not something many property owners on the narrow south end of Pawleys Island could say. After Hurricane Matthew rumbled up the Waccamaw Neck over the weekend, Foxworth can’t say it either. “We had 20-foot dunes,” he said looking up from the hard packed sand to where steps used to be.

Foxworth was the first property owner to return to Springs Avenue after a state evacuation order was lifted. He came by foot from Pritchard Street where members of a National Guard engineer unit were clearing sand and debris from the road. The town of Pawleys Island kept property owners and anyone not part of the emergency services off the island until Monday morning, about 36 hours after the storm passed.

“I’ve been coming to Pawleys Island for 79 years. I don’t know why the hell they won’t let me on,” said Bill Doar, who serves on the town Planning Commission, as he returned for the second day to a checkpoint at the North Causeway staffed by police and National Guard. “I told them I’d walk.”

Mayor Bill Otis said he’d heard similar complaints. “One person got on, and I’ve been catching hell for it ever since,” he said. Otis was back on the island as the eye passed Saturday then again Sunday morning to assess damage.

Debris still covered Myrtle Avenue as a convoy of National Guard trucks headed to Springs Avenue early Monday. A front-end loader lifted a fallen tree from the road and the trucks rolled on. Wreckage from docks, decks and porches was mixed with everyday items of beach living: boats, grills, chairs, toys. Power lines and power poles sat astride the road. A town project to move those lines underground is working its way toward the south end.

In the cool fall air that came in behind the storm, emergency workers found the scent of propane from damaged tanks. Midway Fire and Rescue removed them with help from two gas companies.

The storm surge from Matthew was estimated at 4 feet on the North Causeway. It washed over the island about two hours before the high tide. “What saved us was the wind on the back side of the storm,” Otis said.

Matthew made landfall at McClellanville as a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph and higher gusts. That put Georgetown County at the focus of the strongest winds. The eye passed over the Waccamaw Neck and the wind that had been blowing from the east shifted to the west.

Otis said he watched the wind that had been blowing up white-capped waves in Pawleys Creek shift and blow the water flat. Unlike the storms of October 2015 that caused severe flooding and erosion, the winds from Hurricane Matthew blew against the rising tide.

The only house that was lost was due to a fire that started at 216 Atlantic Ave. on the island’s north end the morning before the hurricane arrived.

“Midway did an amazing job,” Otis said.

Water was turned off during the storm. That wasn’t a factor in the fire, Otis said. It was a factor in allowing property owners to return. It was restored late Sunday afternoon. Sewer service was not.

Town Council convened an emergency meeting Monday morning at Pawleys Island Realty, which like the island and large portions of the mainland was still without electricity. With the National Guard at work and Gov. Nikki Haley ending her evacuation order for Georgetown County, Otis and Council Members Rocky Holliday and Sarah Zimmerman agreed it was time for owners to return.

“The most critical thing is to let them back on,” Holliday said.

Midway Fire and Rescue had surveyed all the oceanfront homes and pronounced them safe. Only one, on Atlantic Avenue, had a widow’s walk hanging from the roof that was deemed a hazard. “We got an amazing amount done on this island in one day,” Otis said.

Foxworth headed over the sand ridges that had formed along Springs Avenue to his house. It was built in 1990, the year after Hurricane Hugo washed the house his family built in the 1950s across Pawleys Creek. “I knew these posts were solid,” he said, patting one of the pilings. His outdoor shower was gone, but his fish table and trash cans remained.

A family from Lexington, Ky., rented the house last week. They wanted to stay. “I came down and told them they needed to leave,” said Foxworth, who lives in Conway.

His family had put off a visit until November because of a series of October rentals. Those are gone now.

The family from Lexington locked up, which gave Foxworth a little trouble getting back in since he usually doesn’t fasten the deadbolt. With a shove, the door opened to show a house with freshly made beds and the pattern of a recent vacuuming on the carpets.

Some stains on the living room ceiling caught Foxworth’s eye. “The real test is going to be upstairs,” he said. On the second level, some ceilings also had dark water stains, but nothing Foxworth hadn’t seen before. “It’s not too bad,” he said. “I can repair this. I believe we can make it work for next year’s rentals.”

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