HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Staff hurried to cover computer screens, weaving around busy medical experts and worried-looking patients. A volunteer barely looked up from the records that needed to be logged before the clinic closed for the hurricane at the end of the day.
The Volunteers in Medicine Clinic here was crowded with people needing advances on their medications, stressed about the looming storm or simply trying to fit in a last-minute doctor’s visit.
Julie Copp, the clinic’s director of patient care, will carry the vaccines with her when she evacuates for Hurricane Irma. Lessons learned from last year. Many of the clinic’s injectable medications were lost to heat when the facility lost power during Hurricane Matthew. And that wasn’t nearly the worst of the damage the free medical clinic suffered.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this again,” Copp said.
In the days before Irma makes landfall, Hilton Head is bustling with activity as residents prepare for the worst. Hurricane Matthew ripped through the community a year ago. Now, Hilton Head residents await an evacuation order and wonder whether Irma will live up to the ominous predictions culminating through the week.
Mayor David Bennett said there is no evacuation order yet, though he is anticipating one. Although the scope of Irma's destruction in South Carolina isn’t a sure thing yet, residents should be prepared to evacuate, he said.
Bennett said the town has well-laid plans in the event of a hurricane. He said the town’s staff were “heroes” in his mind for the work they did when Matthew struck, and he expects the same quality of work this year. But he also lamented having to go through another major hurricane on the island.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in that position to have a repeat of last year,” Bennett said.
Town Hall will be closed Friday. All public meetings for next week are already canceled.
Ginger Allen, senior development officer with the Volunteers in Medicine clinic, said there are few other places for low-income residents to go for health care during a major storm. The clinic has no option but to close. Allen said last year, they had no idea how extensive the damage would be. It remained closed for eight days in 2016. Emergency rooms in the area closed during Matthew, too.
They are more prepared this year.
Copp said she has seen many patients come in with mental health concerns. Many who are low-income are worried about having food or seeing irreparable property damage, she said.
One such patient had dark circles under her eyes and a hospital band around her wrist Thursday afternoon. She had fainted at work in the morning. Tears welled in her eyes when she considered what might happen to her house. Copp was seeing her for stress.
The resident declined to give her name. She has lived on the island since 1977 and has depression, she said. In financial trouble, she said she ate only cereal Wednesday night.
“I live alone. I have no family. I pretty much take care of myself,” she said. “I was overwrought as to where to go.”
But finding lodging has been a challenge for her. Officials urged residents to make their way off the island as quickly as possible.
At Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue, an employee leaving the office said they were closed.
“Evacuate,” she said. “Leave the island.”
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner told the public Thursday afternoon he considers 7 a.m. Saturday to be the evacuation time, if the governor decides to call for one. He pushed Beaufort County residents to leave as early as possible.
“Take the opportunity to take what routes are left,” he said.
County officials said about 300 state troopers and 600 national guardsmen should be arriving in the county beginning Friday.
Scott Hoffman was running down his checklist Thursday afternoon: Boat, house, office. He is still waiting to see what the winds will be like before deciding whether to evacuate. A Bluffton resident, he said he was blessed to have missed most of the damage from Hurricane Matthew. He wasn't about to take any risks with Irma, however. So he and his son Jake pulled their boat out of the water at about noon.
"It was so close to the docks letting go, we weren't going to chance it," Hoffman said.
Not everyone was concerned about the storm. At many of the island’s upscale communities, people were playing golf and tennis. It was in the mid-70s through the day. There was a breeze; the sky was perfect. Windows were mostly unboarded.
At the solid waste recycling center, Deborah Alston looked on as Hilton Head residents tossed porch furniture and other debris into the dumpsters.
“They just don’t want things hittin’ the windows, I guess,” she said.
At least 50 cars were backed up and waiting to get into the center midday. Alston, who works at the center, said traffic had been like that since nearly 7 a.m.
Personally, she was unworried. She said she would wait to see the news on Friday.