With hurricane season underway, Shannon Scaff implores residents to heed the warnings and evacuation orders. He knows people can get complacent and think a tragedy “will never happen to me.”
But Scaff knows better. For 24 years he served in the U.S. Coast Guard and one of his roles was to rescue people during disasters. When people were trapped on their rooftops surrounded by rising water, he would be lowered from a helicopter to help them into a basket so they could be taken to dry ground.
As the director of emergency management for the city of Charleston, Scaff says people see him as simply a government employee in khakis and a button-up shirt, but his background rescuing people from rooftops, trees and from cars almost completely underwater gives him a special perspective on the power of hurricanes.
“I’ve seen the worst of the worst,” he says. “I’ve seen when happens when people aren’t prepared.”
As hurricane season began on June 1, Scaff started hitting the streets speaking to people at churches, homeowners’ associations meetings and at farmers markets, handing out preparedness guides and asking people if they have a hurricane disaster plan.
Much to his dismay, many people tell Scaff they won’t leave. Residents who survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Charleston’s last significant hurricane, tell Scaff they made it through that, so there’s no need to evacuate. But Scaff reminds people that Charleston is a very different city now than it was in 1989. The population has grown tremendously. It’s hard for people to see how vulnerable the city is to a hurricane threat.
“I know the cost of complacency like no one else in the city of Charleston,” Scaff says. “I’ve hung on the bottom of a hook from a helicopter and pulled people out of flood waters. Do me a favor and listen to me.”
Prepare each year
For Mount Pleasant mom Kira Perdue, it was watching families get separated during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that spurred her to take hurricane preparation more seriously. Her two children were babies at the time and she just couldn’t imagine going through that heart-wrenching situation.
“I’ve prepared for every hurricane season ever since,” she says.
In the family’s kitchen, there’s a checklist of all the things they need to grab for an evacuation. The list includes tents, blankets and the important “brown emergency folder.” Perdue keeps a folder stocked and ready to go with key documents such as copies of passports, birth certificates, social security numbers and $200 in cash. The folder also contains a current photo of each of her two children just in case they get separated.
At the beginning of hurricane season, Perdue pulls a big plastic bin out of the garage for inventory and updates. The bin is filled with enough supplies for the family of four to live on for two weeks: canned food, a manual can opener, peanut butter and plastic spoons. There’s a change of clothing for each person plus food for the two dogs. The hurricane bin has a pocketknife, flashlights and batteries along with small first aid kit. Bottled water sits in the garage too, another important supply to have on hand.
Each year, Perdue checks the bin and replaces food items as needed and checks the flashlight batteries.
“It might be peanut butter and soup we never touch, but if we need to leave at the spur of the moment, it’s there,” she says.
They recently bought a generator — more for convenience than safety — and they have a camp stove to heat up those canned beans if needed.
Like every hurricane season, Perdue says her family will carefully watch the forecast and in the event of category 3 hurricane or greater, they will pack up and evacuate.
Think like an emergency manager
Planning where you can evacuate and having a stockpile of emergency supplies on hand is critical for keeping your family safe during hurricane season.
Scaff says parents are the emergency managers for their homes, tasked with keeping their family safe in the event of a disaster.
“We really push people to develop a plan they can support,” he says.
He cautions families from making decisions based on the category of a storm. Many people will choose to stay during a category 1 or 2 hurricane, but Scaff says it’s not just the wind that poses a threat, it’s the rain.
“Wind is dangerous, but you need to understand the power of water,” he says. “A large category 2 storm can push a lot of water and, if it’s high tide, we’re looking at the (Charleston) peninsula and West Ashley under water.”
Wind, water and overall public safety are some of the many factors that go into planning for a hurricane and issuing an evacuation order. Scaff recognizes it might seem inconvenient to have people evacuate a few days in advance of a hurricane strike, but state and local officials must get people out safely and in a timely manner. Imagine if the evacuation order came 24 hours before the hurricane, he says, it would be absolute pandemonium.
Heed the evacuation warnings
Amanda Baldwin is executive director of the Lowcountry Chapter — South Carolina Region, American Red Cross. She urges families to listen to the warnings and evacuate when the time comes.
When the state called for an evacuation during Hurricane Matthew three years ago, the Lowcountry listened, she says. When then-Gov. Nikki Haley said it was time to go, people left. As with every hurricane season, Baldwin says she encourages people to listen to the local and state government and evacuate.
For families, especially those with young children, talking now about an evacuation can help alleviate their fears when the time comes, Baldwin says. Explain what a hurricane is and why they might need to leave their home. Make the kids part of the planning process, she says.
The Red Cross has a mobile app specially for children ages 7-11. “Monster Guard” uses cartoon monster characters to help kids prepare for real-life emergencies using games. It has resources for hurricanes, floods, home fires, thunderstorms, tornadoes and more.
Baldwin recommends parents download the app for their kids now so they can learn about hurricanes and other emergencies before a disaster strikes.
The Red Cross Emergency App is another good resource for parents. The app has more than 35 emergency alerts along with information on what to do in case of floods, thunderstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and more. The emergency alerts are available for the user’s location and to monitor where friends and family live. A single map provides open Red Cross shelter locations and weather information.
“As long as people know where the nearest Red Cross shelter is, a safe place won’t be too far away,” Baldwin says.
Red Cross shelters guarantee food, water and safety, she adds. Some shelters do allow pets and that information is noted in the mobile app.
Officials stress the best thing Lowcountry families can do is be prepared and listen to those evacuation warnings.
The Charleston region has largely dodged major damage from the last three years of hurricane threats. But, Baldwin says, that doesn’t mean people should become numb to warnings and evacuation orders.
“The safest thing to do if an evacuation is called is to leave,” she says. “Know what zone you’re in and know your official evacuation route.”