There have been a number of voices expressing criticism for the early and broad evacuation orders made by Gov. Henry McMaster. These critiques range from charges of playing politics with the emergency orders in an election year, an allegation made by Don Fowler, former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, to simple frustration about the “hardships” of evacuation expressed by a letter writer in a coastal newspaper.
As a registered independent (and North Carolina resident), I have no dog in the hunt for South Carolina governor. As a coastal geologist who has conducted scientific studies of storm impacts in South Carolina for 30 years, I definitely have some opinions on wise coastal management.
In this case, I think the governor did just fine.
Predicting the future track, intensity and impact of any tropical storm is still a complex art. Ordering coastal evacuations based on the uncertainty of those projections often results in a no-win situation for any decision-maker. The difficulty is especially true for those areas that are on the fringes of the forecasted impact area.
On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, early evacuations have become standard operating procedure. It is a pain for those who have to give up their summer vacations, and for those businesses that lose money. But few question the logic anymore. During Hurricane Florence, the evacuation orders in North Carolina went all the way up to the Virginia line.
Getting people out of a complex coastal geography like the North Carolina Outer Banks or the South Carolina Lowcountry takes time. Have you ever tried to drive into Hilton Head on a Saturday? You can’t issue the evacuation order a day or two before the storm. That’s when you get an I-26 with standstill traffic and folks spending the night in their cars.
I learned my lesson the hard way. As a young man, I was conducting pre-storm beach profiling along the Grand Strand the day before Hurricane Hugo arrived in September 1989. Hugo looked interesting, but we were not that concerned. Our team spent the night in Florence, expecting to be far enough inland.
Without warning, Hugo rapidly intensified in the last 12 hours and picked up speed. It went right over top of us. It was the worst night of my life. The plate glass window in our hotel room shattered. Large highway signs crushed cars in the parking lot. Four of us awoke in a wet hotel room with no running water or electricity, and we couldn’t go anywhere. I learned a lot about the unpredictability and ferocity of tropical storms that night. I have never stayed to watch a storm come ashore again.
The problem with understanding risk during the passage of a tropical storm is that, despite the danger, most people will be lucky. Those who evacuated may see the fact that the storm missed their community not as luck, but as an inconvenience. That’s the wrong way to look at it. Before Florence, I begged friends and family at the coast to leave. In retrospect, some of them left places like Wilmington where the decision was obviously the correct one. Some left places that didn’t see much impact. I may hear some griping from those folks. But, you know what? I would rather hear the sweet music of my friends and loved ones complaining to me for the next month about being inconvenienced than be attending their funerals.
It’s a fair trade that I will always take. Any governor must also take that deal.
Robert S. Young, Ph.D., is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.