Voluntary evacuation orders no longer are part of the hurricane plan in South Carolina.
One of the major tweaks in the 2012 plan is the elimination of the voluntary order, which was a bit of an oxymoron. If its time to evacuate in the future, the governor will issue one evacuation order, which should be considered mandatory. That way theres no misinterpretation of the danger.
The change, part of the annual streamlining of state emergency procedures, will be included in the state hurricane plan updated Sunday on the Emergency Management Divisions website. Hurricane season begins June 1.
Were one of the last states to have a voluntary evacuation order, said Derrec Becker, spokesman for the emergency division. Instead, well just have an evacuation order by the governor, and thats it.
Experience indicated few people heeded voluntary evacuation orders. But the orders required state agencies and the Red Cross to begin deploying resources, Becker said. If nobody evacuated, those resources were wasted.
The change is mostly in terminology. Emergency officials still will aim to warn residents and visitors to begin leaving 48 hours before hurricane-force winds are expected to arrive. With the improvements in hurricane forecasts and the explosion in attention to approaching storms from media including social media most people inclined to leave earlier still should have plenty of warning.
Susan Cutter, a USC geography professor and national expert on disaster evacuations, said the change is an excellent strategy based on research on how people interpret the voluntary evacuation order. This way, when we tell you to go, you need to go. With the voluntary one, it was a bit ambiguous.
And if the decision to leave is up to individual interpretation, its impossible to determine how many inland shelters to open or when to begin reversing lanes on major roads so all lanes lead out. Cutter said few other states have used voluntary evacuation orders.
Mandatory hurricane evacuation orders have been rare in South Carolina. Many longtime coastal residents remember the massive traffic jams during the mandatory evacuation for Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Since Floyd, South Carolina has issued mandatory evacuations for one storm Charley in 2004 and voluntary evacuation orders for three others.
For communities such as Folly Beach, where a large portion of the summer population is weekly renters, staged warnings make some sense, said Folly Beach mayor Tim Goodwin. Renters often leave at the voluntary stage and residents at the mandatory stage.
If it means they go to mandatory (evacuations) earlier thats one thing, Goodwin said. But if you dont have voluntary and you wait until later for any evacuation, its harder for us to get people out of harms way.
Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said he worries a little what will happen now when everyone reacts the minute you mention an evacuation. Hes equally concerned that the governor and emergency officials rely only on sound scientific forecasting, not on hyberbole, when declaring an evacuation.
In terms of coastal business, it doesnt matter whether the evacuation is voluntary or mandatory. We call it the E word, Dean said. For the tourist in Ohio, all they need is to hear the term evacuation to change their plans.
Edisto Beach mayor Burley Lyons said his community, with only one two-lane road leading out, never waited for the voluntary order. We started even earlier recommending campers with recreational vehicles at the state park and boat owners at the marina get out first, Lyons said. We think our way works better.
The state Emergency Management Division has staged multiple exercises in the past month to get a better handle on how the changes will impact decision-making for everyone from county emergency departments to the governors office, which makes the official declaration.
While the term voluntary wont be used anymore, the term mandatory never has been treated literally. Emergency officials dont force anyone to leave their home, but local law enforcement officers have stopped by homes to remind stragglers their agencies arent going to provide help during the storm.
Another change in South Carolinas plan might have more impact on individual coastal residents and visitors. Using updated models of storm surge impact, some of the evacuation zones and routes have been changed. Those changes will be detailed on the Emergency Management Division web site, www.scemd.org, when the plan is published Sunday.
The changes also will be reflected in the paper copy of the S.C. Hurricane Guide included in many Lowcountry newspapers.
Also, the American Red Cross, which operates evacuation shelters in the state, is switching to a tiered system designed to allow organizers to open only as many shelters as necessary, said Jeremy Jeffcoat, disaster services manager for the Central South Carolina office. For example, only five out of 20 shelters in an area might open at first. The others will open as it becomes clear more space will be needed.
In the past, if we opened one, we opened all, Jeffcoat said.