The FEMA Disaster Assistance Center at Hilton Head Town Hall permanently closed Dec. 20, and the deadline has passed to apply for individual federal assistance from FEMA.

But the Hurricane Matthew recovery effort on the island is far from over. The debris cleanup continues daily, as it has for the past two-and-a-half months. There is no definitive timetable for completion.

“With (Town Manager) Steve Riley and the town, we’ve had the same message all along: We knew it wasn’t going to be a matter of days or weeks; this was going to be a matter of months,” said Barrett Holmes, eastern regional manager for debris removal contractor Crowder Gulf. “So we’ll be going well into the first part of the year – for months. There will be some aspects of our operation, I’m sure, that will still be around in springtime.”

The cleanup must be completed by April 8 in order for the town to recoup 85 percent of cleanup expenses from FEMA, but the town is exploring a deadline extension. Riley has indicated it could take upward of two years before the recovery and repair is completed.

“I think it’s going very well,” said Charles Cousins, town director of community development. “I think we have a very good plan for doing it, and we’re succeeding in addressing what we felt we could accomplish.”

At last count, about one-third of the vegetative (natural) debris – nearly 1.5 million cubic yards as of Dec. 20 – has been collected and dumped at the processing sites at Honey Horn and Chaplin Park, said Holmes, who is also senior project manager for Hilton Head for Crowder, an Alabama-based company.

Additionally, 42,301 “hangers” (a fractured or broken, dislodged tree limb) and 5,230 “leaners” (a tilting tree that might fall into a roadway from private property or onto private property if originating from a roadway) have been removed, the town reported on its website Dec. 23.

Unfortunately, there’s no method of counting the number of fallen trees that have been removed because most are hauled away in large bits and pieces, not by their full length.

“We don’t keep track of trees,” Holmes said. “There’s really no way to tell. All I know is, there’s a lot of them.”

Preliminary estimates by Riley report that hurricane damage could exceed $77 million, including $50 million for debris removal.

Ten days after the Category 2 hurricane smashed into the island Oct. 8, Crowder Gulf crews arrived and have been working seven days a week, from 8 a.m. until sundown.

Except for a few days off at Thanksgiving and a 10-day break during the recent holiday season, now about 70 units (trucks, trailers and 100 crew members) can be seen working around the island.

“You’ll see us throughout the island,” Holmes said. “For instance, once you get into the PUDs (planned urban developments) like Sea Pines and Hilton Head Plantation, they are so big and so expansive, we may have 20, 25 or 30 units working in there.”

A monitor shadows the Crowder crew from California-based Tetra Tech, hired by the town as the debris monitoring team to ensure the town doesn’t violate FEMA’s debris removal guidelines.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no FEMA equipment on the island involved with debris cleanup.

All Crowder Gulf trucks display a certification placard and the letters “CG” in black on a white stencil on the side, including the subcontractors working for them with their own trucks.

Besides the clearing of all private and public roads on Hilton Head, Crowder also tackles clearing drainage sites and waterways, which is “open-ended because the town is still making assessments,” Holmes said.

“It’s much more difficult for us to get in there and clear stormwater debris, drainage ditches and marshes,” Cousins said.

Officials from the town, Crowder and Tetra meet daily to discuss removal priorities for the following day based on the volume of debris, efficiency and traffic flow, Cousins said.

Islanders might see a Crowder truck on a street hauling large logs and stumps along with some lighter debris in order to stay within the truck’s lawful weight limit. But it might not haul everything on the street in one stop.

How often the trucks return to the same street for a second or third “pass” to pick up lighter debris depends on the priorities set by the town, Holmes said.

“There’s a method to it,” Holmes said. “Eventually, it’s all going to be picked up.”

As disruptive as life has been and is for residents, visitors and town staff in the aftermath of Matthew, it could have been worse if not for planning.

The multi-year, pre-event contract between the town and Crowder Gulf, which was competitively bid and is periodically reviewed, outlines emergency planning and management.

“We have a plan in place to help the town respond in the event of a natural disaster, just like Hurricane Matthew,” Holmes said. “It makes the operation go much smoother.”

Thanks also goes to the response training practices Crowder and town emergency personnel conducted in June to prepare for a catastrophic natural event.

Little did they know what lay ahead.

“The scenario we trained for this summer is actually what occurred with Hurricane Matthew,” Holmes said. If not for that training, “It could have delayed the project weeks if not months.”

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.