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SC emergency officials prepared for potential hurricane evacuations

Dorian Prep06.JPG (copy)

Motorists travel out of the Charleston area on I-26, on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, as Hurricane Dorian threatened the coast. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Even with rising gas prices and population increases on the coast, state officials insist South Carolina is prepared to execute an evacuation should a severe storm occur this season.

An evacuation order hasn't been issued for the coast since wind, surge and flooding from Hurricane Dorian in 2019 caused widespread damage in the state. At that time, Gov. Henry McMaster urged 830,000 residents of multiple coastal counties to leave their homes. 

The state's population has increased by 1.4 percent since July 2021 to 5,190,705 people, recent census data shows. Most of the growth took place in areas closest to the state's biggest cities. 

In terms of coastal municipalities, Bluffton added 3,457 more people in the past year, North Charleston grew by 1,701 residents and 1,527 people moved to Mount Pleasant.

In the Charleston area, there's about a 48-hour maximum window needed to clear the area in the event of a severe storm, said Kim Stenson, director of the S.C. Emergency Management Division. 

The clearance time was last updated in 2019 to account for an increase in population then. Stenson said the state will probably go through the process again soon to update evacuation planning timelines. 

In June, state agencies tested hurricane evacuation plans that call for reversing traffic on major highways to speed departures from the coast. Since 2016, McMaster has called for lane reversals three times.

Eight coastal counties in South Carolina are divided into a number of evacuation zones. During smaller storms, it might only be necessary to evacuate people living in zones closest to the coast. And in stronger storms, some of the more inland zones might need to be evacuated. 

State emergency management officials have made it easy for people to learn which zone they reside in. The agency's website includes a feature where people can enter their address to learn their zone.

Evacuation zones are based on how far inland storm surge could reach. It is possible to be in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-declared flood zone but not in a hurricane evacuation zone.

Flood zones are based on riverine flooding, and evacuation zones are more concerned with modeled storm surge, said EMD hurricane program manager Leah Blackwood. 

"The greatest cause of loss of life and property is storm surge," Blackwood said.

Even when there's a mandatory evacuation, Stenson said the EMD has discovered that about 20 percent of the people along the coast do not leave. 

"If they stay in the evacuation zone and there's a large impact in terms of power outages and roads blocked, they're not going to have any services down there," Stenson said. "They're not going to be able to go to the hospital very easily if they hurt themselves, and that sort of thing."

If transportation is the cause for people staying home during hurricanes, the state has a solution. State officials have executed a Critical Transportation Needs Plan only twice, but it is meant to help people with no other way to get to emergency shelters during hurricanes and other severe storms. 

When needed, the state emergency office will contract buses to bring people from disaster-prone areas to other parts of the state. The Charleston Area Convention Center is a rally point for buses to deliver people in Charleston County. From there, they go to shelters further inland, Stenson said.

About 10,000 people in the Charleston area could be expected to take advantage of this service. 

"The two times we've done it before, no one's really taken advantage of it, "Stenson said. "It just hasn't been a real need."

For those who have reliable transportation, emergency officials recommend a half of tank of gas be kept in vehicles in case they have to evacuate from Charleston to Columbia.

More than 250 locations have been identified as shelters in the state, including in parts of the Upstate. Many are staffed by the American Red Cross and the Department of Social Services. 

In the last nine years, about 8,000 people have gone to emergency shelters, Stenson said. So there's usually plenty of room at them during storms.

Transportation and shelters are available for those who choose to evacuate. But regardless of whether people leave or stay put during a storm, the emergency response is to encourage all residents to prepare their homes.

People who don't live in an evacuation zone could still see the effects of a hurricane making landfall. It is important to make sure insurance coverage includes damage from rain, wind and flooding. Roofs should also be inspected and shutters properly installed. 

With the current supply chain issues, getting the necessary items before a storm might be a bit of a challenge. 

"So now's the time to kind of start collecting those things — your emergency supply kit — over time and keeping it stocked throughout hurricane season," said Derrec Becker, an EMD spokesman. "That way, you'll have enough for your family to survive on for at least three days or preferably for a week or more."

EMD has compiled a 2022 Hurricane Guide that includes more preparation tips including information about evacuation routes, emergency alerts and important contacts, among other things. Find it online at hurricane.sc.

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.


Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.