I-526 Wando River Bridge (copy)

Gov. Henry McMaster visits the closed span of the James B. Edwards Bridge on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Rob Thompson/SCDOT

It's four weeks before an election. A key artery used by tens of thousands of drivers in one of the most Republican towns in the state goes down.

Commerce is halted. Road tempers flare. Nervous parents worry about school buses and the uncertainty of how daily patterns will be disrupted for the next four weeks.

Where does the crisis management start, possibly with a political future on the line?

Gov. Henry McMaster says the process is not much different than the planning that goes into responding to a hurricane, with key agencies such as the Department of Transportation and Public Safety called in.

Lines of communication already are established, he said, as it would be in the case of a storm, to include the affected communities.

"We keep those lines tight and clear," said McMaster, who said he first learned about the cable breaking on the Wando bridge by text Monday.

"Everybody knows who to talk to and how to get in touch with people and we just activate the response team," he said.

McMaster has so far not taken any significant response steps. South Carolina governors have weathered temporary crises before, albeit nothing like a bridge that a community of more than 90,000 people and a port is dependent on.

Nikki Haley faced several hours of melting winter ice bombs falling off the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and onto cars.

Carroll A. Campbell Jr. oversaw months of Hurricane Hugo recovery.

But there were duds as well, that contributed to career killers.

One-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges failed to reverse the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26, creating a nine-hour backlog of drivers leaving Charleston to escape Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Republican Gov. David Beasley, another single-term governor, ordered an evacuation for Category 3 storm Hurricane Bertha in July 1996 but showed the stress that a summertime coastal exodus can evoke.

"I hung up and went into the bathroom to throw up," he recalled.

Several staffers from previous administrations say there will be a degree of short-term judging out of the Wando debacle, but they stress it's a governor's response, not the cause of a crisis, that matters for now.

Scott English, former chief of staff to Gov. Mark Sanford, recalls three serious disasters or potential disasters Sanford had to face, including a deadly chemical train derailing in Graniteville, hurricanes and a post-Katrina gas line break that sent fuel prices spiking.

He said in the Wando bridge case, the administration's reaction can be much more measured based on a simple fact. "No one was injured; no ones' lives are in danger," he said.

People are used to bad traffic in Charleston so the issue becomes how the state deals with what is an obvious period of adjustment.

English says he understands how some may want to hold the administration immediately accountable, but that a review will take place eventually and the evidence of what led to what happened is not going away.

For now, he suggested a cooling off period.

"Bad things happen and, unfortunately, when you are sitting in the Governor's Mansion they happen morning, noon and night," English said. "As governor, you can't stop that from happening; it's your response that counts."

Rob Godfrey, former deputy chief of staff to Haley, said some of the response management she faced included the Emanuel AME Church shooting, ice storms, a 1,000-year flood and the data breach at the Department of Revenue, which was the largest of its type at the time.

He pointed to her ability to communicate the danger to the public and the safety factor as key.

"Crisis management is what separates good governors from great governors," he said. "Her response to crisis is what people remember her for."

Godfrey agreed the governor's response is key, and that if the community in the long run accepts the steps toward a fix, there shouldn't be lingering political damage.

"Good policy is good politics," he said, and if the policy is correct, the optics of the politics "is not something you have to worry about."

But that hasn't stopped the shots from being fired.

"The bridge has been damaged the entire time you've been Gov, you admit you have no plan, and this is what you call solving the problem at 'maximum velocity'?" said McMaster's leading GOP gubernatorial race foe Catherine Templeton of Mount Pleasant in a tweet after the crisis broke. "While you sit in the mansion, we're sitting in traffic."

Republican Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, who is also running for governor, took advantage of a bank of television cameras ahead of a Department of Transportation press conference Wednesday on the Wando bridge mess to make his support pitch for making the DOT director a cabinet position.  

Even candidates running in other races chimed in.

"I'm sitting in traffic right there with you, Charleston," said Democrat Joe Cunningham, a first-time candidate seeking Charleston's seat in Congress held by Republican Mark Sanford.

"My #1 priority when I get to Congress will be to bring home as much federal funding as I possibly can to help rebuild the Lowcountry's infrastructure to alleviate our traffic nightmare," he added.

McMaster said the political optics are not on his mind.

"You can't worry about that," he said. "The worry is that we'll miss something, that we will not recognize a danger or we will somehow not get the response or the correction done as quickly as possible."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.