It’s been a minute since a hurricane has seriously threatened Beaufort County.
The Lowcountry was fortunate in 2020 and 2021 to not deal with hurricanes and the pandemic at the same time, but one can never be too prepared for something that is as unreliable as a hurricane.
The official season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, with historically the most active months for the Lowcountry being August, September and October. Local agencies and communities are making sure critical information is handy for residents, but living on this island means preparation is as much about timing as it is about packing.
Tom Dunn, Town of Hilton Head Island Emergency Manager, cautions residents to remember that there is only one way on and one way off the island.
“FEMA says be prepared for 72 hours, but because we are on an island, with heavy tree cover, you should be prepared for five days. Plan to evacuate early to ensure you are ahead of evacuation traffic. If you go early, you have better option for hotels,” said Dunn. “Plan early. Now is the time to develop a plan if you do not have one or review your plan if you do.”
A new preparedness guide is now available in all town facilities and on the town’s website, in English and Spanish. There is also a page titled “Ready Hilton Head Island” that provides additional information and links. Visit hiltonheadislandsc.gov/ready for information and resources.
General preparation guidelines, no matter where in the Lowcountry one resides, include the following:
• Do the paperwork before you have to evacuate. Make sure you have copies of important papers such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, insurance documents, and a driver’s license or state-issued ID. Those documents will be needed to file for financial assistance in the event of damages. Include current photos and videos of your house and property before a storm should you need to file a claim.
• If you have pets, plan your evacuation route to include hotels that allow pets and know what additional fees may be required. Ensure your pet has identifying tags, vaccination records, collars and/or a microchip. Plan to take along adequate pet food and medications.
• Check with your particular community for specific information concerning closures and evacuation routes. Timing your departure ahead of the storm means the difference between going where you want to go and being forced to follow a pre-ordained route.
The governor of South Carolina is the only person or agency with the authority to issue an evacuation order. If the conditions are conducive to the storm having a damaging impact on the coast, it is strongly recommended that residents pack up and move inland. Waiting until the storm is halfway across the Atlantic is no time to decide to look for a destination 100 miles or so inland. Thousands of other evacuees from Florida, Georgia and elsewhere will have already scoped out potential safe havens.
“Any evacuation order should be followed,” Dunn said. “The Governor is using the best data and forecasts available to make the decision. Every storm is different, and the storm category only takes wind into account. The category does not include storm surge.”
In a recent presentation by the National Hurricane Center, a portion of the presentation was a slide titled “No Such Thing as Storm ‘Justa’,” that noted 10 category 1 storms between 2010 and 2020 caused: 185 deaths directly related to the storms, and $110 billion in damages, Dunn added.
There are no hurricane shelters on Hilton Head Island nor in Beaufort County. All such shelters are at safer locations inland. If it is determined that there is a need after a hurricane, shelters may be opened locally.
For those who have no other way off the island, the Palmetto Breeze manages the county’s evacuation plan. For the most up-to-date information on evacuation assistance go to www.palmettobreezetransit.com/hurricane-evacuation-information.
Those who wait until the last minute may find the traffic pattern off the island changed.
“There is a lane reversal plan in place if needed,” said Dunn. “Please follow the town on social media. We will be providing specific information related to any changes in the normal traffic patterns. Also, do not come back until you are directed too. Wait for clear direction to return from the local governments. Even if the governor lifts the evacuation order it may not be safe for you to return home.”
Emergency management experts emphasize that the first 72 hours after a storm are on the individuals who remain behind, since most local, state, or federal assistance won’t arrive until after 72 hours.
Among the lessons learned after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the last major storm to blow through the county, was the need to provide consistent information among all of the county’s and state’s emergency services, especially on social media platforms, which were also rife with misinformation among users not involved with emergency oversight.
“Make sure you get your information from reliable and official sources, such as the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. The Emergency Management Division oversees response and recovery efforts to man-made and natural disasters in Beaufort County, and will have the most up-to-date information,” said Maj. Bob Bromage, BCSO Public Information Officer.
The county’s most up-to-date resource will be the BCSO Storm Center at bcso.net/storm-center.
Since the information being provided will appear on numerous digital platforms, it’s important to be prepared whether you have power or not. Keep a spare battery charger and cable for your cell phone or tablet. If the power goes out, you won’t have a place to plug in and charge up. A NOAA weather radio will allow you to stay up to date on the latest weather conditions and hear critical emergency alerts.
Other reliable sources of information include the Town of Hilton Head Island, the National Weather Service, South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the National Hurricane Center, and local news.
Sign up for emergency alerts for your phone or email. Individuals can sign up by texting their zip code to 888777 or by visiting nixle.com and typing in their zip code to see which agencies service them. Currently, Beaufort County, Jasper County, SC DPS, (Department of Public Safety – Highway Patrol), the Town of Bluffton and the City of Hardeeville all use Nixle to keep residents and visitors informed.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.