State can handle storm, officials say

S.C. Highway Patrol Capt. Robert Woods (left) explains changes in hurricane evacuation routes as Gov. Mark Sanford listens on Tuesday at a Charleston County Emergency Management Department news conference.

State engineers can view traffic in real time and remotely adjust the timing of some highway light signals to ease backups. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can deliver 3 million pounds of ice anywhere in the country within 24 hours.

Those are two examples of just how sophisticated emergency operation planning has become in response to a hurricane, in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Katrina in 2005. Despite budget shortfalls, staff cutbacks, an ongoing war and crises such as the Gulf oil spill, officials say the resources and personnel will be in place if another major hurricane hits South Carolina this year.

"We'll do what we have to do to get it back to normal," said Buck Limehouse, secretary of the S.C. Department of Transportation.

"We don't stop until FEMA tells us to stop," Maj. Mike Ellicott, Corps deputy commander for the Charleston District, said about the ice-delivery program.

"We are in good shape. Our equipment is in the best shape it's been in a number of years," said Col. Pete Brooks, public affairs director for the S.C. Army National Guard, adding that only about 10 percent of the state's 10,000-soldier force is deployed overseas right now.

But don't let that breath out yet. The master link in the workings of a complex plan that has yet to be tested in South Carolina would be people. Evacuating as early as possible and knowing mandated routes are critically important, said Capt. Robert Woods of the S.C. Highway Patrol.

"Don't assume the only route out of Charleston is I-26. It isn't," he said.

That's the takeaway from Gov. Mark Sanford's eighth annual hurricane preparedness news conference tour of coastal counties. He stopped in North Charleston on Tuesday, the official opening day of the storm season. Sanford cited a forecaster's statistic that there's a 45 percent chance of a major storm making landfall on the East Coast this year.

"At the individual level, there is a temptation to be lax about a storm hitting," Sanford said. But evacuating the Charleston metro area in front of a storm can take anywhere from 13 to 31 hours -- according to computer programs -- and how early a voluntary or mandatory evacuation is ordered is a balancing act between the threat of a storm and consideration of the impact on tourism and other businesses.

National Hurricane Center forecasters have gotten more certain earlier about where a hurricane is headed but still struggle to predict how strong it will be when it makes landfall. In one recent year, two voluntary evacuations were ordered in South Carolina that turned out to be unnecessary.

"Some of it can be problematic in that there is still a certain level of uncertainty," Sanford said. "Given the population growth on the coast of South Carolina, there is no substitute for taking the initiative to leave early."

Sanford conceded after the conference that budget shortfalls and staff cuts statewide mean that at one point or another, the state will "run out of gas" to deal with a major disaster. The difference, he said, is that federal assistance has stepped up since Hurricane Katrina. And the governor, who in 2009 refused $700 million in federal stimulus money for essential state services, said he would accept that help.

The assistance is legitimate when disasters bigger than state boundaries "are not of our making, not of our choosing," he said, so long as the federal role is complementary to the state.

One odd aspect to a multi-staged, multi-agency disaster response plan is the Corps' ice mission, which is coordinated by the Charleston district along with the Albuquerque, N.M., district.

Working with private, often mom-and-pop ice houses and tracking companies, the Charleston district oversaw the transport of more than 47 million pounds of ice to Texas alone in response to Hurricane Ike in 2008, Ellicott said. In the event of a storm striking Charleston, the Albuquerque district would coordinate transporting ice to Charleston.

"The people in South Carolina are just as well covered as people in Georgia or anywhere else in the nation," he said. "We've got a great track record of success."