The surest sign of Spring on Hilton Head Island comes in mid-March when the entire Island population gathers on Pope Avenue for the Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This year is no different as the 34th annual edition of the Parade is set for Sunday, March 12 at 3:00 PM. The 2017 Parade takes on special meaning as it gives us a chance to forget about the struggles of Hurricane Matthew recovery for a while, and remember the positive aspects that we can take away from the experience. How many times since Matthew have you heard somebody say something about “the way we all came together” to restore our home? Well, there is no better exhibition of that community camaraderie than the Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Oh, by the way, everyone always has a great time too!
A Reluctant Hero
It likely comes as a surprise to few - if any - Hilton Head Island folks that the Parade Committee chose Stephen G. (Steve) Riley, Hilton Head’s Town Manager since 1994, as Grand Marshal for this year’s parade. “We were unanimous,” said Committee Co-Chair Alan Perry. “Everybody in the room wanted it to happen.” As did plenty of others around the Island, in Bluffton and throughout Beaufort County no doubt.
To meet Riley is to discover a rather humble, unassuming fellow who admits a preference for being in the background. “It’s a little embarrassing I guess,” he said, “but in this job sometimes you’ve got to be out in front.” And that’s where he was during those harrowing days in October when Hurricane Matthew slowly churned it’s way up the coast. Many of us believed (or hoped?) that it would turn away like all the others. It didn’t. Now the question was; how bad will it be when it gets here? Riley kept in contact with the National Weather Service, hoping that they would tell him that Matthew would downgrade, hopefully to a tropical storm at worst, before it arrived, but NWS would make no such guarantee. It was time to come to terms with the fact that a Category 2 hurricane had its sights set on our Island. So the wheels started turning.
Most of us will never know what it’s like to take on such a huge task under normal circumstances, let alone under the pressure of a Cat 2 hurricane bearing down on your area of responsibility. Riley needed to coordinate the efforts of innumerable people and entities; Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Division, Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue, Bluffton Township Fire District, local utilities and Public Service Districts, the National Guard and Crowder Gulf just to name a few. They needed to facilitate evacuations of every fire company on the Island as well as citizens ahead of the storm. In the aftermath the immediate task was to clear enough roads so that recovery activities could commence: restoring water and power, and making neighborhoods safe for evacuee re-entry. By the grace of God, that task did not include recovering bodies or evacuating the injured.
Next came the emotionally charged effort to smooth the way for thousands of stranded evacuees who desperately wanted to come home. Although there were a few hiccups due to mixed messages from State, County and Local officials, not to mention sometimes conflicting and erroneous reports from citizens via social media, we all made it back and were greeted by a now-famous homemade “Welcome Home” sign at the base of the bridge. The entire story is beautifully portrayed in a video, “Matthew,” produced by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and is well worth viewing.
Although the Chamber awarded Riley the John Curry Tourism Award for his efforts, and he is a unanimous choice for Parade Grand Marshal, the reluctant hero will never take credit for what happened during the storm and what has happened since. He summed up his role leading the parade thusly: “I really just consider myself a symbol representing all of the people who did so much to get us through the storm.”
Riley will be out in front once again on March 12, albeit for a much happier occasion: The 34th Annual Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Instead of leading first responders and the like in disaster relief, he will lead marching bands and floats up Pope avenue bringing joy to the people of Hilton Head Island.
Parade organizers say that this year’s parade may be the biggest one in years with marching bands from five high schools and five pipe and drum bands from as far away as Boston. The Marine Corps Band from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island will also make a return visit.
Special features include the Planters Nutmobile with Planters spokesnut, Mr. Peanut, and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Additionally, the Express Clydesdales of Yukon, Oklahoma will make their Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade debut. The team travels the land promoting Express Employment Professionals and raising millions of dollars for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. All will join the usual collection of colorful floats and marching groups from local businesses and non-profit organizations, and a procession of local dignitaries.
The Parade will follow its usual route, beginning at the south end of Pope Ave. near Coligny Circle and marching north to Office Park Road – site of the reviewing stand – where it will make a left turn and proceed to its end in front of Park Plaza and The Courtyard Building.
“It’ll be a celebration of our home and community as always,” said Committee Co-Chair Gabrielle Muething, “but this year it is also a celebration of our victory over Hurricane Matthew. We are Hilton Head Strong and we are Lowcountry Strong!”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone.