Matthew: Retirees fleeing hurricane find refuge in Fort Mill
A natural disaster narrowed in on his home and most all he holds dear, and all Pat Gilmore could do was watch it on the big screen.
He was thankful, at least, to have found something eight hours inland he wouldn’t enjoy back in Hilton Head – calm.
“I’m going to take it step by step,” Gilmore said that recent Friday afternoon, intent on Hurricane Matthew coverage spread across three large projection screens at the Heritage International Ministries Hotel and Conference Center in Fort Mill.
“I don’t think anybody has tomorrow’s newspaper, so we’ll see. I won’t get upset until I know there’s a reason to get upset, and then maybe I will.”
The Cypress of Hilton Head has five apartment complexes and about 40 homes. Retirees, ranging from active homeowners to nearly bedridden, had to evacuate ahead of Matthew and manager James Coleman eyed Charlotte, which has a sister property. Coleman found the former PTL site made famous – and eventually infamous – by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that is now part of Morningstar Fellowship Church.
“We needed a very large hotel,” Coleman said. “We were very happy to have found this facility. It enables us to keep almost everybody in the same place.”
Erika Robinson, general manager of the Fort Mill nonprofit, has 500 hotel rooms which usually run at least half full with conferences or events. They also have permanent and extended stay residents. She committed to taking in 365 Cypress residents and staff. They will get three meals each day with drinks and snacks, for as long as it takes.
“So far everything is going well,” Robinson said. “After the eye of the storm passes through Hilton Head, we’ll see where we go next.”
The evacuees ended up staying more than a week.
Coleman said Matthew is his second evacuation in 25 years. Gilmore recalls an evacuation to Aiken several years back. Barbara and John Kiebler have been in Hilton Head 15 years, and this evacuation is their first.
“This place has been very nice to us, very accommodating,” Barbara Kiebler said. “It must be like getting a bunch of unknown relatives. They’ve taken care of us.”
Matthew spun nearest the Florida coast as the guests watched Friday afternoon. Some speculated its northern route. Others just waited.
“It’s kind of a dreaded anticipation,” Barbara Kiebler said.
It took the Hilton Head group eight hours, twice what it normally would, to get to Fort Mill. Most rode in buses. Some drove. By Friday many had taken to calling the trip their “involuntary adventure.” Guests complimented the accommodations despite the severity of the situation.
“They’re not visiting,” Robinson said. “They were evacuated. It’s not about luxury. It’s about safety first.”
Gilmore was beyond glad to be in Fort Mill, away from the strongest winds and surge. He isn’t a big television watcher, but wouldn’t be far from the large ballroom screens anytime soon.
“It’s an event that’s going to take my interest for quite some time to come,” he said.
Gilmore didn’t want to put too much though toward Matthew’s aftermath. Not until the storm is spent and he has a better idea what awaits him at home.
“I hope I’ve got something worthwhile to get back to,” Gilmore said.
Robinson said her group is a ministry, and performs a variety of ministries in its community and beyond. Having the ministry opportunity come to them is unusual, she said, but the church is happy to be “their home away from home.” Robinson is glad to offer what she can, accommodations that don’t displace the seniors any more than they have to be.
“They’re all going through this together,” she said.