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Emergency management officials urge early prep for hurricanes

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By Barry Waldman

The Atlantic hurricane season began June 1. But disaster season could be anytime in the Lowcountry, as the historic October floods showed.

Area emergency management officials and community leaders took the time in late May to remind residents to prepare as though disaster is a certainty. The only uncertainty, they say, is exactly when it will strike.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a near-normal number of named storms and hurricanes during the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30. The forecast predicts 10 to 16 named storms, with four to eight of those becoming hurricanes. (Photo/File)

Although the Lowcountry’s last devastating hurricane — Hugo — hit in 1989, the region has endured numerous high-wind events since. It is also prone to tornadoes, flooding, ice storms and earthquakes, any of which can and have destroyed roads and bridges, leaving communities isolated and without basic services for days.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a near-normal number of named storms and hurricanes during the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.

NOAA’s predictions come with a wide margin for error. Hurricane Hugo, which delivered between $8 billion and $10 billion worth of destruction in 1989, rumbled through the Lowcountry during a “normal” hurricane season.

Officials have developed plans for how individual families and businesses can prepare for storms, ride them out and recover. This is important, they say, because residents will be on their own in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

“We need 72 to 96 hours because it’s going to take that long for local government to restore essential services,” said Mario Formisano, director of Dorchester County’s Emergency Management Department.

Because 200,000 more people live in the region now than were here in 1989, at least 30% of the population has not experienced widespread destruction. So leaders urged residents to take precautions seriously.

Charleston County produced a hurricane guide that includes maps of evacuation zones, lists of evacuation routes and emergency supplies, and preparation instructions.

Cathy Haynes, chief of operations at the Charleston County Emergency Management Department, said residents can download an app with much of the same information and can visit the county website to sign up for alerts delivered by email, text and voice.

Like in Dorchester County, Charleston County officials also recommend all residents develop a plan for the first three to five days after a storm, when there may be no power, no access to or egress from neighborhoods, and no access to food or clean water.

The Charleston County hurricane guide suggests making a communications plan for contacting family members, protecting buildings from damage, ensuring that flood insurance is up to date and assembling an emergency supply kit. Plans for family members who have special medical needs should be addressed, as should pets.

Among the items that could easily be  overlooked are a manual can opener, utensils, toilet paper and bleach, the latter of which can be used to purify water.

The S.C. Emergency Management Division has also created a hurricane guide available on its website and at area Walgreens stores.

Business continuity

Business owners should develop continuity plans so that their companies can continue essential-mission functions at alternative locations, if necessary, Formisano said.

Businesses need to consider four key questions to ensure continuity after disasters, according to Scott Cave, principal at Atlantic Business Continuity Services and a certified business continuity professional:

  • Does the disaster plan cover every kind of disaster, or just hurricanes?
  • Does the disaster plan focus as much on recovery as on preparation?
  • When was the disaster plan last updated?
  • When was the last time staff members were trained and the disaster plan was practiced?

“The actual event shouldn’t be the first time you crack the binding on the plan,” Cave said.

Larger companies are generally better prepared than small companies, which are more focused on day-to-day operations, he said, adding that it generally takes businesses three to six months to create a plan and train employees.

Once a disaster occurs, recovery authorities said they need residents’ cooperation. Those who break the rules during these events put their own lives and the lives of rescuers in danger, said Tom Smith, director of Emergency Preparedness for Berkeley County.

During the October floods, he said, some people moved barricades blocking flooded streets and drove themselves off the road. Personnel had to abandon recovery work to rescue them.

“If we tell you to leave, it’s not because we don’t like you,” Berkeley County Supervisor Bill Peagler said. “It’s because we care about you.”

When Dorchester County emergency management officials urged 45 residents in one community to evacuate during the floods, all but two remained in their homes, said Dorchester County Council Chairman David Chinnis.

Rather than order anyone out, county staff went door-to-door asking residents to provide county officials with information about their next of kin. That strategy worked, he said, and will be used again in the future.

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