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On the front line vs. storms: T&D Region officials learn from the past, prepare for future

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Calhoun County Emergency Management

Calhoun County Director of Emergency Management David Chojnacki looks over the county’s emergency operations plan. The plan is used by the county for storm preparedness and response.

The Atlantic Ocean hugs the South Carolina coastline with her tenderness.

The sound of waves brings a calmness that continues to attract millions.

But the ocean's tranquility hides a fierceness within. A fierceness that is often displayed and churned up during the June-to-November hurricane season.

The T&D Region, while removed from the ocean's immediate grasp, is not spared from the impacts of the globe's second largest ocean.

"We are seeing stronger storms," Orangeburg County Director of Emergency Services Billy Staley said. "They are increasing both in intensity and in increasing in frequency."

"We are seeing storms pop up before the season starts and we are seeing storms run late into the season that are stronger than we would have normally anticipated in late fall," he said.

Over the past seven years, Orangeburg County and the entire T&D Region has had its fair share of tropical systems impact the area.

Two particularly come to the fore: the October 2015 historic flood and Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

Not directly blamed on a tropical system, the October 2015 flood was indirectly caused by Hurricane Joaquin.

Although Joaquin never directly affected the United States, another large storm system over the Southeastern states drew tremendous moisture from the hurricane, resulting in catastrophic flooding.

How bad was it?

Over the course of three days in 2015, parts of The T&D Region and the Midlands received more than 20 inches of rain, leading to multiple dam failures and overloaded storm drains. It was the worst flooding many residents ever experienced.

The rain began late Friday, Oct. 2, and fell steadily on Saturday before picking up in intensity late Saturday afternoon into Sunday morning.

The flooding forced the evacuation of homes and businesses, primarily in flood plains and low-lying areas.

The Holly Hill area and the eastern part of the county were hit hardest by the storm. A number of water rescues occurred in the Holly Hill and Eutawville areas, plus other isolated areas.

T&D hurricane guide

As a result of the flooding in Calhoun County, several roads were closed, one bridge was washed out and about 40 homes were damaged.

Low-lying areas in the southeastern portion of Bamberg County were also impacted, requiring a few rescues of residents from the high waters.

Approximately $1.2 million in damage was done to public infrastructure in The T&D Region.

Damage to crops was severe in the rural T&D Region, with 80% losses reported for cotton and peanuts. The total direct and indirect impact statewide on agriculture was estimated near $600 million.

Staley was heading Orangeburg County's emergency services at the time of the flood -- which he says is the most impactful storm he has had to deal with in the past seven years.

"The biggest challenge in that was messaging to the public -- post event," Staley said. "Getting information out about what resources FEMA was going to bring to town and what they (residents) could apply for. The recovery component is the most challenging part."

"Getting money into people's hands so they can fix their homes and get their lives back going," Staley added.

Staley said the flood was the biggest challenge because of its broad scope, especially its impact on infrastructure and roads.

"You had to work more through how those responses were going to look," Staley said. "We had flooding on the river and we had to do rescues on the river in boats. People's houses got flooded."

"The flood was so big that it isolated a lot of riverfront homes in the river," Staley said. "It was challenging to get to people and communicate with and to monitor."

Staley said the most satisfying or joyful moment in storm response was "getting assistance" to people in a relatively quick fashion.

"It takes time for us to do a damage assessment and compile the numbers and aggregate the data that we have to submit to the state and get FEMA in here to do these assessments to validate it before we get a presidential declaration," he said. "For us to be able to get individual assistance to the citizens as quickly as we did in some of those storms, that was the most validating thing for me."

Staley recalled that from the date the state was declared a natural disaster, an individual had a check in hand within five days.

"That is moving quickly," he said. "It was within seven days that people were starting to see some of the financial impacts coming back from the assistance side of the house."

Staley said local community support from volunteer organizations was also crucial during the flood.

"There are certain things you are not going to see FEMA provide that level of assistance fast enough or in the long term," Staley said. "You have to lean on those locals like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Armies to help out. A lot of disasters are not big enough for FEMA and it falls back on those local volunteer agencies to do that."

Staley said the state's Office of Recovery helps with long-term case management for people impacted for disasters.

"That is something we have been missing for years," Staley said. "There was not a mechanism for it."

Staley had been no stranger to emergency response. 

During Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, the 18-year-old Staley was a volunteer at the fire department in Bowman. He staffed a shelter at the high school in Bowman during the Category 4 hurricane packing winds of 140 mph near landfall at the coast.

"We had a substantial power outage that night," Staley recalled. "You can tell when the storm came through because it was very noisy. Then everything kind of lulled off a little bit and then the winds picked back up. The next thing you know, it was daylight quickly and everybody was out and it was 100% cleaning up recovery, getting things moving."

He said what he remembers is doing construction work (his full-time job).

"We were putting on roofs in Clarendon County for months," Staley said. "It passed through the lower end of the county near Eutaw Springs and it went up through Clarendon is where the bulk of tornadoes were. Clarendon County was just like mowed down. That is what it felt like to me when I was driving through Clarendon County gong down to do work for weeks after that.

"It is just like somebody just went through there with a lawnmower. Tree tops snapped off. Just terrible right around Manning. I worked in Manning for several weeks."

Staley arrived at the Orangeburg County Office of Emergency Services in 1994, first working as a dispatcher and then becoming an assistant director of emergency services before becoming director in 2012.

Beyond the flood, Hurricane Matthew came up the coast in October 2016 and brought major power outages, downed trees, structure damage and flooding to Orangeburg and neighboring counties.

A peak wind gust of 64 mph was reported Saturday morning at the Orangeburg Municipal Airport.

Despite the damage and intensity of the storm, there were no fatalities or serious injuries reported in The T&D Region.

About 52,300 individuals were without power at the height of the storm.

In some cases, individuals were without power a week.

In total, there was about $7.9 million worth of damage to structures throughout the region.

The entire T&D Region was declared a natural disaster, meaning residents in the area qualified for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance and U.S. Small Business Administration loans.

Calhoun County

Calhoun County Director of Emergency Management David Chojnacki moved to South Carolina in 2011 from Buffalo, New York. 

Hurricanes and tropical systems were foreign to him, though emergency response has not been.

Chojnacki served as the emergency preparedness chairman for about 3,000 people at his Buffalo church. He now holds such a position at his local church.

Upon arriving to South Carolina, Chojnacki  served as the St. Matthews emergency manager in February 2012. He became the director of the county's emergency management in July 2018.

When it comes to tropical systems or hurricanes, Chojnacki said making sure residents get what they need from the county regarding available resources such as sheltering is perhaps the biggest challenge.

"Getting the word out is the big thing," he said. "Letting the population know what is happening, what to expect, what they can expect from us and what they need to do on their own." has a new special: $1 for 26 weeks

Another challenge Calhoun County faces is having enough personnel for storms.

"We are always stretched," he said. "There is 1-1/2 persons that work in this department: me full time and Bill Minikiewicz (former director of emergency services)) is part-time now."

Chojnacki said during the flood in 2015, the state enacted a mutual-aid agreement with Florida. That state sent in eight individuals to the county for two days.

"They did everything I needed," Chojnacki said. "They were all seasoned emergency management professionals. They came here to help everybody here in South Carolina. The state sent them to me for two days."

Chojnacki said the county has not received any outside assistance during hurricane events, but FEMA has helped the county with damage verifications and assessments following storms, specifically with regard to Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

"They come every hurricane to verify all the damages we have and to authorize for public and then individual assistance to the county," Chojnacki said.

Chojnacki said the county's emergency staffing is supplemented with Amateur Radio Emergency Service volunteers who man the county's radios and answer phones at the Emergency Operations Center 24 hours a day on major storms or emergencies.

During the historic 2015 flood in the Stumphole area, the department had to rescue a motorist when the road dropped out from below the vehicle.

"Our paramedic crews and fire departments were all out there and had to rescue the guy by placing a ladder across the opening in the road," Chojnacki said. "One of our medics actually moved out onto the ladder and was able to assist the gentleman out. That was about the worst."

Chojnacki said it is not unusual for the department to receive calls for flooding in homes during hurricanes and have to respond to auto accidents of trees falling on vehicles and people running into trees. Chojnacki said there have been no fatalities in storms over the past seven years.

Chojnacki said there have been celebratory moments in the midst of struggle.

"During the floods we had one woman -- I think she had like seven or eight children -- and she came to the shelter. She was just so happy to be able to get out of the weather and have a warm place to be. Some place with food and some cots to sleep on for her and her kids. She was very ecstatic about that."

"It is usually being able to help those people," he said. "Answering people's phone calls, getting them the assistance they need when they need."

Chojnacki said the area has not had many major hurricanes over the last few years and those that occurred have been relatively small and had little impact.

"Are we seeing more? Chojnacki said. "The weather department says the prediction center says we are going to receive more but so far so good."

Bamberg County

Bamberg County Director of Emergency Services Tiffany Kemmerlin began her career in emergency services in 2012 when she joined the Edisto Fire Department.

In a short time, she began volunteering with Orangeburg County Emergency Services and assisted in the Emergency Operations Center during several events, including the ice storm storm in 2014, the historic flood in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

"During those years, I grew a passion for emergency management and accepted an administrative assistant position with Bamberg County Emergency Services," Kemmerlin said.

During her time as an administrative assistant, Kemmerlin obtained a SC Certified Emergency Manager Certification, which requires extensive educational classes/workshops and more.

In September 2020, Kemmerlin was promoted to her current position.

Since her time at the Bamberg County Emergency Operations Center, Kemmerlin has seen a lot.

She has been through Hurricane Florence, Dorian, Irma as well as several severe weather storms and tornadoes that affected the county.

As the director of the county's emergency services, Kemmerlin said there have been challenges for each tropical system, but more so in what the department has had available to it than from the storms themselves.

"One of the most difficult challenges we encounter is not having the adequate space during any Emergency Operation Center (EOC) activation or to host large-scale trainings and exercises," Kemmerlin said. "We are very excited for the new EOC expected to open around the new year. This will allow the Emergency Management Department to expand and grow to better serve the citizens of Bamberg County."

Despite the challenges, Kemmerlin said the county has been very fortunate recent storms have not been worse.

"We have been very lucky not to have storm-related fatalities but we have had several homes damaged over the past years from storms or hurricanes," she said.

Each storm has a silver lining, Kemmerlin said.

In Bamberg County, community involvement during storms has been impressive to behold.

"Witnessing the collaboration of the citizens, from not only our county and communities, but from others all over the state joining together with the same common goal working hand in hand to recover and build our community/county back together stronger than ever," she cited as the proudest moments for her. has a new special: $1 for 26 weeks

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