As Sullivan’s Island residents began their cleanup Tuesday, it felt like Tropical Storm Irma hand-picked an icon to damage, as if she wanted to make a statement to those who dismissed her westward turn over Florida as good news.
A small grey octagon-shaped house that locals know well lost much of its roof in a smack of wind that one neighbor said felt like a microburst. Yet, while that house suffered severe damage, homes around it stood in Tuesday's brilliant sunshine unscathed.
Maybe it was the homeowners' own defiant testimony.
Spray-painted plywood covered the house’s windows, each board bearing the name of hurricane the structure had weathered: Hugo, Fran, Matthew, David.
Another one read: "STILL GOING!"
When the owners arrived to survey Irma's damage Tuesday morning, a large chunk of the structure's roof sat against a back fence. Water formed a moat through the backyard with midday's high tide still approaching. Yellow caution tape skirted the house. A board shattered the front door’s window like a knife in the heart. Pink insulation dangled inside.
Greg Garner, whose family owns the house, arrived and plucked the board from the door, then eased it open to survey the extensive damage inside. He emerged with a broken flag pole the family had framed after it was destroyed out front of the house by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The house got 10 feet of water inside then.
“Hugo looked worse, but it didn’t pull the roof,” Garner said, face grim. “Irma did it.”
He and his family have spent summers at the house, though he now lives on Johns Island. They rent out the octagon house these days, and the tenants had evacuated before Irma arrived, taking many valuables with them.
A neighbor bicycled by and shook his head. "What a shame."
Across the Charleston area's oceanside communities, Irma left a wake of eroded beaches, flooded properties and ravaged docks.
The octagon house, built it in 1970, sits across Marshall Boulevard from a strip of beachfront homes. Linda Nettles, who has lived on the beach side for decades, approached Garner. She had evacuated and just returned home.
She and Garner hugged tearfully.
“He’s like another one of my sons,” she said.
Garner returned to his severely damaged house. Nettles returned to hers, choking up as she crossed the street.
Storm surge had ripped through the lower level of her home, sending chest-high waves through a garage and hangout room fondly nicknamed Club Breezy. Its long bar sat in the middle of the room. The entire garage door, giant windows, breakaway walls, a refrigerator, TVs, a roughly 12-foot bar, and other remnants of countless fun times in the space remained piled so high by the waves that the Nettles couldn't walk through the space.
"We didn't think it would be as bad as Hurricane Matthew," said Deron Nettles, who grew up in the house where his parents still live.
He and a half-dozen Nettles men stayed during Irma, then fled around midnight after Garner's roof blew off and the dark waves of high tide became too much. His father, Aaron Nettles, refused to leave.
"It was scary. It'll make you think," said Aaron Nettles, a contractor.
Despite the wreckage, Aaron Nettles grinned and noted that his old Gamecock boxers still hung from the ceiling of Club Breezy, unharmed.
A door down, one neighbor's back steps, painted blue, listed against the house. Yellow tape surrounded another neighbor's cabana given its concrete floor had cracked in half. On the street, tractors shoved wet layers of mud-sand back toward the beach where it came from.
Isle of Palms
Other busy work crews did the same on strips of the Isle of Palms, left largely impassable Monday during Irma's wrath and where a water spout formed off the coast. Residents awoke Tuesday to widespread damage to the island's beaches along with a few still-flooded streets, waterlogged lawns and tattered docks and boardwalks.
Christiana Harsch and her husband, Ravi Scher, an owner and chef of Long Island Cafe, spent much of Irma's descent watching water fill the intersection outside of their home at 41st Avenue and Forest Trail. It crept up their front yard and seeped into the garage of the brick split-level house they rent. Rising water tipped a gas can, tainting the floodwater in their garage.
The water rose more, leaking inside their house, reaching a hang-out room, then an office on the lower level.
From the main living space of their home, up only a few stairs, they watched it rise more.
It crept up one step. Then another.
"I was panicking then," Harsch said.
It stopped before reaching their main living space.
Across the harbor on Folly Beach, erosion from Irma's storm surge was worse than Hurricane Matthew, and officials worried that more could be on the way with Hurricane Jose stewing in the Atlantic.
Beach sand was lost across the island. Properties and streets in low-lying areas flooded, and big piles of vegetative debris were left on the road to the mainland. Parts of wooden stairs to the beach could be seen in decimated dunes. Timbers used to battle erosion were tossed ashore and sand blown onto the road at the east end of the island where surfers gathered.
On the west end, homeowner Melanie Perry was recovering from nearly 2 feet of flooding that rendered the downstairs of her house useless for now.
"It's trashed. It's completely trashed," she said.
The septic tank also backed up, so salvaged items will have to be sterilized. A couch and other furniture stacked outside the home was destroyed.
But Folly was spared the destruction Irma inflicted on Florida and the Caribbean, said Mayor Tim Goodwin.
"We've got a real mess," he said. "They've got a real disaster."
The scope of erosion was most apparent Tuesday next to the pier, where children played on a sandy cliff that Irma's storm surge carved out of a big dune.
"This is pretty serious. It looks like the erosion is substantial — shocking," City Administrator Spencer Wetmore said. She worried about what Jose might have in store for the island next. Current forecast models keep the hurricane at sea, but it could send more wind and waves this way.
The Army Corps of Engineers this week will assess the condition of the beach, Goodwin said. The flooding was the island's worst since Hurricane Hugo, he added, but it could have been much worse.
"It's easier to clean up a mess than a disaster," he said.