SC emergency officials say early decisions helped prevent winter storm problems

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 31, 2014 

After being closed earlier in the week due to the winter storm, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge was closed again Friday for about six hours because of falling ice. It reopened late afteroon Friday.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH/THE GREENVILLE NEWS — File photograph/The Greenville News

South Carolina emergency officials say the state escaped this week’s winter storm relatively pain-free in part because they follow one mantra: Make decisions early so you can manage the situation before the situation manages you.

It helped that the worst of the snow and ice arrived after sunset Tuesday or before dawn Wednesday, when most people were safely in their homes.

“But even if it came in at 2 p.m., by that time the decisions had been made, schools had been closed, the government offices had been closed, (the Department of Transportation) and (the Department of Public Safety) were out on the road doing their thing,” said Kim Stinson, director of the S.C. Emergency Management Division, on Friday. “So I’m sure the scope of it might have been a little bit different, but personally I don’t think the end result would be any different.”

And the end result was no major highway backups, no widespread loss of power and few life-threatening weather-related situations. The comparisons to the traffic and schools debacle in Atlanta are inevitable, though S.C. officials are reluctant to be drawn into that. They’re like football coaches after a big weekend win: They only want to talk about what their team did.

“This is the first time we’ve had to play this out, and I’m very, very proud of our team,” said Gov. Nikki Haley.

Haley said she hadn’t spoken yet with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, but she did burn up the phone line to Atlanta. Her brother was stuck in the traffic there for more than 24 hours and had to camp out in the lobby of a full hotel one night.

Haley caught some flak – even from friends and family members – for declaring a state of emergency early Tuesday, hours before the first sleet pellet fell. She can’t help but feel a little vindicated.

“On Wednesday, I was getting text messages from people saying, ‘You were right,’” Haley said. “But it’s not about being wrong or right, it’s about keeping people safe.”

The early state of emergency declaration put the full state emergency operations team into action, bringing together leaders from multiple state agencies at the Emergency Operations Center in Lexington County.

Even before the declaration, state officials had been in contact with county emergency agencies and school districts. Decisions about shutting down schools and government offices are made locally. With the early forecasts indicating the storm could start Tuesday morning, many counties and school districts went ahead Monday and told people to stay home on Tuesday. Others waited for later forecasts, which had the frozen precipitation arriving later in the day, and decided to go on half-day schedules on Tuesday.

Even those who spent a half day at work or school made it home long before the storm hit.

By the time the worst of the storm arrived, the S.C. Department of Transportation had spread tons of sand, brine and calcium chloride on major roads to slow or prevent icing, said Leland Colvin, chief engineer of operations for the agency.

In some areas, however, the frozen precipitation was preceded by a couple of hours of light rain, washing the ice-preventing coating away. That led to the one major hiccup in the state – the long closing of the Ravenel and Holt bridges over the Cooper River in Charleston County. The Ravenel Bridge, the major connection between downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant, ended up closing for nearly 44 hours.

The Ravenel Bridge “is a little bit of a unique animal,” Colvin said. Because its surface is a latex-concrete overlay, it can only be treated for icing with a brine mix. Rain washed off the brine, and the bridge surface quickly became a sheet of ice.

“We know we’ve got some lessons to learn, and that’s one of the focus points for us, some of the high level bridges in the Lowcountry,” Colvin said.

One of the options would be installing a spray system on the bridge, but it likely would need to be along the pedestrian walkway and would be susceptible to vandalism between its rare uses. Another option is large blower machines, which shoot out air to dry standing water. But those are expensive and would have few other uses. When highway engineers meet soon to debrief on the storm, the best solutions for the coastal bridge situation will be a major topic, Colvin said.

A new problem cropped up Friday on the Ravenel Bridge, when it had to be closed after chunks of ice fell from the superstructure and damaged cars. Colvin will need to add that to the list of future bridge concerns.

Despite the ice, snow and slush, all interstate highways other than the Holt Bridge on I-526 remained open. Travel was slightly more treacherous than normal, with the S.C. Department of Public Safety responding to 3,536 calls from 4 p.m. Tuesday through 4 a.m. Thursday. That included 1,799 collisions, 368 abandoned vehicles and 853 stranded motorists, according to agency director Leroy Smith.

It was a busy two days, but far from overwhelming.

“This is why we plan, and this is why we train, for events like this,” Smith said. “We didn’t start this event on Monday, we started this event years ago.”

One lesson learned for Smith was to be flexible. Highway Patrol resources from the Upstate originally were sent to other areas forecast to have the worst of the weather. But some had to be pulled back when snow hit the Upstate, too.

Emergency officials said this was the first time they could recall a winter storm impacting every county of the state. The state and local agencies were able to handle it because early decisions gave them plenty of time to prepare.

“Counties got out there and did what they need to do,” said Major Gen. Robert Livingston, who as South Carolina’s Adjutant General directs both the National Guard and the Emergency Management Division. “Everybody did their job the way they’ve practiced it. It’s second-nature.”

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