South Carolina’s hurricane emergency plans were put to the test in October during Hurricane Matthew. The entire experience has many paying more attention to the 2016 storm season, which officially began June 1.
Even before governors in some neighboring states, then-Gov. Nikki Haley ordered evacuations from South Carolina’s coast, an action questioned at the time as overly cautious but which proved to be wise as the storm severely impacted the state.
A key to the evacuation is opening up major routes to get people away from the coast to inland areas in The T&D Region and beyond. Ahead of Matthew, that meant implementing a nearly 20-year-old plan to reverse lanes on Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia.
It worked beautifully – with the most common complaints involving the post-storm return to the coast and questions about why lanes were not reversed again for the process.
The lane-reversal plan was born of a much-different experience.
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd threatened. And though South Carolina ultimately was spared the wrath of that storm, there was plenty of wrath to go around.
• People standing around their cars in traffic that simply was not moving, many making angry comments to reporters and anyone who’d listen.
• A woman changing a youngster’s diaper behind the door of a car stopped in the lanes of traffic on Interstate 26.
• Cars stalled along the roadside, out of gas from the long delay.
• The governor flying over in a helicopter before getting to Charleston to tell the media all was going smoothly with the evacuation.
The mandatory evacuation ordered by then-Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges did not go smoothly — and it didn’t take the governor long after that to find out. Late in the day of the evacuation, back in Columbia, Hodges ordered the traffic flow out of Charleston to all lanes of the interstate, closing off eastbound traffic.
For days afterward, Hodges took hit after hit from media, politicians and citizens. All the while, he and his lieutenants attempted to explain. Later he issued a formal apology.
It was a lesson learned. A lane-reversal plan for hurricanes became a fundamental part of the state’s emergency plan.
No such plan, however, is any better than its implementation. That’s why state emergency personnel annually descend on Interstate 26 and other key evacuation routes to put the plan to the test.
The S.C. Department of Public Safety, in conjunction with other state agencies, on Wednesday conducted a lane-reversal exercise to prepare emergency personnel for traffic scenarios that might occur during an actual hurricane. The exercise simulated the deployment of law enforcement personnel and traffic-control devices -- even though lanes were not reversed for the exercise.
The evacuation exercise tested lane-reversal plans for Interstate 26, U.S. 21, U.S. 278, U.S. 501 and S.C. 544 in the event of a coastal evacuation order. Personnel and equipment from the S.C. Department of Public Safety, the S.C. Department of Transportation, the State Law Enforcement Division, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardons, the S.C. Forestry Commission, the Civil Air Patrol and the S.C. National Guard participated.
Aerial units from SLED, the Civil Air Patrol, the National Guard, DNR and the Forestry Commission flew assigned aerial surveillance routes.
The hurricane exercise is meant to test readiness during the pre-execution and mobilization phase, to test information flow from the emergency operations centers to the field, and to assess the procedures for lane reversals and to evaluate how well participating agencies work together.
Such tests are crucial in ensuring public confidence in the system. When ordered to evacuate, people must leave the coast without wondering whether they’ll be able to get out on the roads and highways.
The plan worked well in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew. Hopefully, Wednesday’s test will be its only use in 2017.