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Hurricane Prep August 14, 2007

Posted by fitsnews in SC Politics.
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IS SOUTH CAROLINA READY?

FITSNews – August 14, 2007 – It’s been 18 years since South Carolina suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane, a Category Five beast by the name of Hugo which slammed into our coastline just above Charleston in September, 1989. Hugo caused $10 billion in damage (then a U.S. record) and permanently scarred our state’s landscape.

Since then our state has been spared a costly direct hit, but with the formation of Tropical Storm Dean in the Atlantic this morning, you can bet that the state’s Emergency Management Division is ramping up its tracking efforts.

South Carolina’s last close call was Hurricane Isabel, another Category Five monster that appeared to have our state in its sights until turning north at the last minute and ravaging the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As these tropical behemoths approach, it’s hard to describe the intensity inside the state’s executive branch, which literally shuts down to monitor the progress of the storms and prepare for the frightening scenarios which could unfold.

In the Sanford administration, the undisputed hurricane czar prior to 2005 was Communications Director Chris Drummond, who worked closely with Ron Osborne of the Emergency Management Division and Jim Schweitzer of the Department of Public Safety. One source at EMD tells FITSNews that Drummond is still integrally involved in the state’s emergency response efforts despite having left the Governor’s Office nearly two years ago.

“He still sits in on all the conference calls,” the source said. “It’s not a big secret to those involved in the discussions.”

Shortly after taking office in 2003, Sanford updated and expanded the state’s hurricane evacuation capabilities, which consisted most notably of new lane reversals in our state’s most populated coastal regions. Many attributed Sanford’s 2002 victory at least in part to the poor performance of former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges during the Hurricane Floyd crisis in 1999, a botched evacuation of the South Carolina Lowcountry that effectively turned Interstate 26 into a parking lot.

Prior to coming on board Sanford’s campaign, Drummond helped fuel the fire by printing bumper stickers that read “Two Lanes, One Term,” a reference to Hodges’ failure to open up all four lanes of I-26 to outbound traffic in a timely manner.

Floyd’s legacy continues to impact evacuation planning at all levels of state government, with officials struggling to find the balance between safety and the disruption of hundreds of thousands of lives over what could be a false alarm.

Sanford in particular has been especially focused on involving local leaders in his decision-making process, holding seperate conference calls with mayors and county emergency management planners after the conclusion of the primary Hurricane conference calls, which feature representatives from the National Weather Service, FEMA, EMD, the Governor’s Office, SLED, DPS and the National Guard, among others.

The first call generally runs about 20-30 minutes, and begins with updates from the Weather Service about the current position, strength and track of the storm. Once a forecast consensus is reached, state emergency management personnel outline the precautionary steps that are being taken to deal with the worst-case scenario. Depending on the location of the storm, timelines for voluntary or mandatory evacuations are established and various emergency management personnel and resources are moved into place to handle the evacuations.

The second calls generally run about 15-20 minutes, with the governor relaying information from the first call to the municipal leaders and collecting their input. One frequent sticking point on these calls is the fact that municipal leaders are much more hesitant to endorse evacuations owing to the chilling effect they have on tourism revenue.

Depending on the location and intensity of the storm, up to four of these twin-conference call sessions can take place on a given day, with the governor holding the final say in the execution of the state’s chosen emergency response measures.

Thankfully, most of the state’s big decisions have been made for it, as Mother Nature has seen her way to shuffle most recent major threats away from our coastline.

Their have been numerous close calls, however, often resulting in clashes between local leaders and state officials. Former Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride, for example, was often highly critical of Gov. Sanford during the local conference calls.

For the most part, however, Sanford has earned positive marks for his handling of the few Hurricane crises that have come his way since 2002. South Carolina’s emergency preparedness and response procedures seem to be well-organized and well-executed, with extensive local involvement that incorporates input while still preserving a clear chain of command. The one limited mandatory evacuation and lane reversal ordered by the governor (Hurricane Charley, 2005) was also well-managed by the State’s Department of Public Safety.

Of course, having been spared a direct strike by a major storm, it remains to be seen how well South Carolina would react today to a Hugo-sized disaster.

With the peak of the Atlantic storm season now upon us, let’s hope we make it through another summer without having to find out …

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