This map of Southern Beaufort County shows in blue all the land mass that would be underwater in the event of a Category 1 hurricane storm surge. The other colors represent water coverage in higher category storms. The map is available at www.bcscgis.maps

Leave early.

If nothing else sinks in when local authorities speak about hurricane preparedness, the one thing to act upon is “Leave early.”

At the annual Hurricane Preparedness Seminar held recently in Sun City Hilton Head, Securitas branch manager Kenny Lancaster was very clear as to why residents throughout Beaufort County should leave before the governor orders a mandatory coastal evacuation.

“The later you go, the fewer decisions you get to make,” said Lancaster.

Everyone must leave because there are no hurricane shelters in Beaufort County.

Those who evacuate when ordered will have no choice in what route they take to leave the county, and there will be no choice in where drivers will be permitted to exit I-95.

“If we’re in the midst of an ordered full coastal evacuation and you’re on I-95, the soonest point to be able to acquire another route will be Florence and I-20,” said Capt. Robert Woods of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. “The reason for that is we can’t allow conflicting traffic on other evacuation routes. There are a number of evacuation routes between here and Charleston – and actually all the way up the coast towards Florence – that are going to cross I-95. Again, the point is, if you leave early and you want to get to I-26, that’s not an issue.”

Florence is 170 miles away – about 2.5 hours on a normal day.

How early is early?

An attendee at the seminar asked “When should you plan to leave if a hurricane deep in the Atlantic looks like it might head our way?”

“Today,” said John Wetherbee, chief meteorologist for WTOC in Savannah. He was half joking. He was also half-serious.

“How early is too early? I’m the local meteorologist for the Georgia Ports Authority,” Wetherbee said. “We start the process five days before the storm could possibly get to us. You don’t need five days. Four would be thoughtful.”

The hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.

“Prime time [for hurricane activity] is the end of August through September. If I can make it to Oct. 10, I feel a whole lot better. Storms will still happen, but there will be less risk. The peak is Sept. 10,” Wetherbee said. “Named storms we worry about – tropical storms with winds 39-73 mph, with tornadoes. There are heavy rains in excess of 20 inches and loss of life and property damage which can be extensive.”

Wetherbee said the winds aren’t the only problem.

“Inland flooding is the major cause of tropical cyclone-related fatalities over the past 30 years,” he added.

Joe DeVito from Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority said the last thing residents should do before leaving early is turn off their water at the main valve.

“When you leave, turn the water off. It helps us restore pressure faster later when we come back to the area and begin to bring the water back on,” DeVito said. It will also prevent more damage from flooding inside the home. “Otherwise we have to turn off whole neighborhoods in order to acquire the water pressure needed by the system.”

However, Wil Saleeby of Palmetto Electric Cooperative told everyone not to turn off the electricity.

“In the worst-case scenario, you don’t have to worry about turning off your power. It’s just going to kind of turn itself off. You can expect that you are going to experience long power outages,” Saleeby said. “However you probably won’t care at the time because you will have left early. Your lights will turn off on their own.”

Saleeby suggested removing perishables from the refrigerator. “If we have a long period of power outages, you might come back to find your perishables are not very good,” he said.

Saleeby also warned that cell phone service might not be available during an evacuation.

“The cell phone [service] will probably be the very first thing that collapses, because once we give a mandatory order to get out, everyone is going to want to call somebody, and that will overload the towers,” he said. “You need to have a plan that your family that lives elsewhere knows where you’re going.”

The bottom line is: Leave early.

“Let me say this to you,” said Wetherbee. “If you start watching that there’s a hurricane coming, and it is projected to start hitting this area and you have somewhere to go, go and have a vacation with family or loved ones.

“Go hang out for a few days until it misses us.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.