NEWS: S.C. better prepared to weather big storms, experts say

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Cleanup efforts stretched from Oconee County, above, to the coast. (SCDOT photo).

By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  Four people died and more than a quarter million residences lost power in South Carolina earlier this week as sea levels rose and high winds bellowed in Tropical Storm Irma. The storm’s glancing blow packed a big punch, leaving the state reeling from its fourth natural disaster in four years.

But experts say there is a silver lining to this and previous storms: South Carolina is getting good at dealing with disasters.

“If you look at our state compared to other coastal states, we’re doing a fabulous job,” said Susan Cutter, director of University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. “We are becoming quite a hurricane-savvy population. We understand the threat.  We know pretty much what to do now … I hate to say it, but practice and experience helps.”

That practice and experience has led to effective communication between governmental agencies, nonprofits and the public, experts say.

Improved communication helps preparedness

South Carolina officials are in the process of analyzing the state’s performance during Irma. A report is due in the coming days, according to S.C. Emergency Management Division spokesman Derrec Becker.

In the process of compiling that report, there have been multiple “post-event” conversations, according to Gov. Henry McMaster.

“The lesson that came out this time is that careful preparation, experienced personnel, and fastidious and constant attention to detail will produce a good plan and good performance,” McMaster told Statehouse Report. “It was very comforting to all of us involved in this response to see the expertise and dedication of the people responding to the threat of hurricane.”

He said he was happy with the state’s overall performance, particularly with the constant communications with emergency management officials throughout the state.

Information shared among those officials was then shared to the public by 2-1-1, a key disaster tool operated by nonprofit United Way Association of South Carolina. South Carolinians can dial 2-1-1 and receive up-to-date information on evacuations, cleanup and more.

United Way ramped up its 2-1-1 call center efforts following the 2015 flood.

Cruise

“The partnership that we have with S.C. EMD (Emergency Management Division) has deepened and deepened,” President and CEO Kelly Callahan Cruise said this week “State government can’t do it all by themselves. No one nonprofit can do it by themselves. It takes everyone jumping in and helping.”

And that’s where United Way can help aid in a disaster, as it relays information and organizes help where needed, Cruise said.

“The communication is better. The support is better. We know how to respond better. All around, it’s real helpful for citizens of the state that everyone is just working as a team,” she said.

Getting help from outsiders is important, too

Another way agencies in the state have learned to deal with big storms is knowing when and whom to ask for aid. Prior to Irma’s winds beginning to cross the Georgia state line, electrical linemen from other states were ready to deploy to fix downed lines and submerged substations.

Couick

Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina President and CEO Mike Couick said the devastation from storms going back to the 2014 ice storm has “made us more practiced in how we bring in other resources.” His organization represents 20 member-owned cooperatives in South Carolina, representing about 1.5 million residences in all 46 counties.

Couick said linemen from North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas came to the Palmetto State’s aid. The cooperatives also work to prioritize bringing power back to those most in need, such as hospitals or residences with special-needs occupants, Couick said.

While more than 270,000 power outages were reported across private-owned utilities and cooperatives, most had power back online within 24 hours. Nearly all had power by Thursday.

Where the state needs improvement

While communication was cited as one of South Carolina’s strong suits, it was also cited as an area for improvement among experts.

Chief among the need to improve communication was messaging from the governor, according to Cutter. She said the delay in calling the evacuation of S.C. coastal communities created “ambiguity,” particularly among residents near the Charleston area.

She pointed to his Thursday, Sept. 7, announcement that said he would call for an evacuation Saturday, Sept. 9. The storm hit the state Monday, Sept. 11.

S.C. emergency management officials at work on Sept. 7 in Columbia.  Photo provided.

“There was a period of 24 to 36 hours where people were wondering whether he was going to mandate an evacuation. That led to some uncertainty in people’s minds and a lot of folks left Friday from the coastal areas not knowing whether or not they were going to have a mandatory evacuation,” Cutter said. “It was more of a problem of the messaging and the timing of the messaging which led to the ambiguity … We have learned from science about evacuation behavior that you need to make definitive statements.”

On Saturday after Irma moved in a more westerly direction that originally forecasted, McMaster called an evacuation for fewer than 45,000 along the state’s southern-most barrier islands.

Cutter said it was ultimately a good call, but she added that McMaster’s predecessor, Nikki Haley, was more skilled at providing effective communication to the public. She said it comes down to inexperience for McMaster, who faced his first natural disaster in the state’s highest elected office.

“It’s not easy and you’re dealing with lots of different pieces that you have to consider, and you don’t want to inconvenience people unnecessarily but you do want to keep them safe,” Cutter said.

McMaster

McMaster countered that the communication and planning worked to the benefit of people along the coast as the storm pushed west.

“We were thoroughly aware of the situation,” he said.  “We had a great plan and experienced, dedicated people implementing that plan.  We had flexibility built into that plan and, a result, it worked extremely well.”

Communication with the public was also an area targeted for improvement for the state’s cooperatives, Couick said. He said that while the cooperatives effectively communicate issues through literature and social media, they can always do better.

“There are things where you look for continuous improvement,” Couick said. “The real challenge isn’t the lineman and what he does to get the power back on … What we need to work on and what we have been working on is that we let our members know about expectations for recovery.”

United Way’s Cruise also cited improvements in communication — but as recovery continues, not just before and during the storm.

“One of the biggest things is keep communicating that disaster just doesn’t stop. It’s still going on. People are going to forget about it,” Cruise said. “If we could just make the communication within the community stronger … then the rebuild after a disaster is not as devastating.”

— Andy Brack contributed to this story.

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