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What you need to know about SC hurricane evacuations in 2021

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The eastbound lane on Interstate 26 was reversed for evacuation as Hurricane Dorian threatened the coast. Dorian was the last time an evacuation was called in South Carolina, and residents can expect some changes in 2021. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Hurricane evacuations, if one is called in 2021, may look slightly different to South Carolina residents. Mostly, those differences are lingering effects from 2020. 

The main departure from past storms is that operators of emergency shelters for evacuees would expect occupants to wear masks and observe social distancing rules, even though those coronavirus related restrictions have started to fall away from public life. 

Ben Williamson, a spokesman for the Palmetto Chapter of the Red Cross, said that shelters will follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for congregate shelters. Though the CDC has said vaccinated people can ditch face coverings in many settings, its guidance still says that the staff, volunteers and clients of shelters should wear masks and try to stay six feet apart. 

In addition, shelters will "still have verbal health screenings, but it won’t be as extensive as last year when it comes to taking temperatures and things like that," Williamson said.

Ideally, said Derrec Becker, spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division, people on the coast should get their vaccinations completed as soon as possible so they're protected before a storm threatens.

Last year, emergency officials were grappling with the possibility of handling two disasters at once: an oncoming hurricane and a raging global pandemic. Emergency officials adjusted the way they set up shelters that are placed temporarily in schools, churches and other community buildings. These spaces are a last resort for people leaving to avoid dangerous storm surge, and they are run in South Carolina by the Red Cross and the S.C. Department of Social Services. 

The Red Cross said last year that it would try to put more people in hotels, but Williamson said that strategy has been abandoned in 2021. Even with reduced numbers per shelter to ensure distancing, he said, "capacity is not a concern."

At a June 4 hurricane preparedness press conference, DSS chief Michael Leach said officials are preparing shelters to be more pet-friendly as a way to ensure evacuation orders are heeded. Not all shelters in the state have accepted animals in the past

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.

"No one should worry about what shelter they go to if they have a pet," he said.

But animals may have be temporarily housed at nearby veterinary clinics or other locations. He suggested owners provide caretakers with photos of themselves with their pets, pack any medical documents or prescriptions and bring their own carriers. Another word of advice is to get animals microchipped ahead of any emergency.

People evacuating from the Charleston region would also see, for the first time, changes that were implemented last year in how the state does lane reversals. The change in traffic pattern on Interstate 26 will start 15 miles farther north instead of at the interchange with Interstate 526 as in the past.

Major highways leading inland from the coast are turned into one-way paths of escape when storms threaten, in part, because a mad dash to evacuate before 1999's Hurricane Floyd left roads across the state gridlocked.

The chaos before Floyd is one reason why governors of South Carolina tend to err on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to call a coastal evacuation. But even though Hurricane Isaias swiped the northernmost reaches of coastal South Carolina last year, Gov. Henry McMaster did not ask residents of the area to leave when earlier forecasts had pinned the storm as a hurricane.

That made 2020 the first time that no evacuation was called anywhere on the state's coast since 2016. 

Residents unsure of evacuation procedures or whether they're in an evacuation zone can go to for more information. Coastal evacuation zones are mostly the same as the past, with the exception of Berkeley County, where a region inside the Francis Marion National Forest was removed from an evacuation zone. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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