When Hurricane Bertha took a brief turn toward the Isle of Palms in 1996, then-Gov. David Beasley said he entered “a whole other level of praying,” hoping the storm would miss the island community he had not ordered evacuated.
Three years later, when Hurricane Floyd threatened the state, then-Gov. Jim Hodges took the blame after S.C. motorists inched along Interstate 26 westbound, spending hours in their vehicles as they tried to obey his coastal evacuation order.
Tuesday, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley got an early start to her hurricane planning, calling for coastal evacuations to start Wednesday. At the time, Hurricane Matthew was pummeling Haiti, more than 1,000 miles and four days away from the Palmetto State.
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Haley ordered school districts and government offices in more than half the state’s counties to close. She also announced lane reversals on I-26 to help motorists fleeing the coast.
The actions disrupted lives, forcing some Midlands parents to stay home from work to watch children who could have been in school.
But Haley made the right call, Republican Beasley and Democrat Hodges told The State Thursday. Haley’s decisions are part of the tough calls a governor has to make to keep people safe, the former governors added.
“It's got to be an orderly process and, if you wait to late, the roads get jammed and then tempers flare and there's catastrophe,” Beasley said. “You err on the side of caution. You can't err on the side of convenience.”
“There are a lot of tough decisions that need to be made,” Hodges said.
“She (Haley) has much better information than any of us have” about the storm’s path and what it will take to keep people safe, Hodges added. “Second-guessing her or the team is inappropriate.”
If Matthew charts a course away from South Carolina, Haley may take heat for evacuating the coast too early, leaving tourism dollars on the table, and disrupting the routines of S.C. families.
But if the storm wreaks havoc, she will be praised for protecting the state, observers say.
“It's a no-win proposition for any governor if you do that (call for an evacuation),” said Bob McAlister, Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell’s communications director when Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina in 1989. “If you evacuate and the storm misses you, then you're subject to all sorts of criticism. But that's the risk that you take when the buck stops at your desk.”
Moving ‘a million-plus people’
Haley said Tuesday the early start to evacuations was, in part, an attempt to avoid the gridlock created when coastal residents fled Floyd.
“When we look at the timeline, the amount of time it's going to take to move a million-plus people off the coast, that's the way we can do it safely,” Haley said.
Starting the evacuation early helps, said Beasley.
Motorists leaving the state’s barrier islands need time to travel limited two-lane roads to interstates before the onslaught of Florida and Georgia traffic comes up I-95 and hits the state.
Reversing lanes on the interstate and other highways also now is seen as a crucial part of the state’s evacuation plans.
That change happened as a result of Floyd.
Hodges said officials initially did not recommend he reverse lanes on the interstate, citing concern for motorists’ safety. However, after traffic built up on I-26, Hodges did order traffic reversed on I-26 eastbound, allowing for westbound vehicles.
Schools, families feel Matthew’s effects
Working with state emergency officials, Haley called Tuesday for school districts in more than two dozen counties to close Wednesday through the end of the week.
On Wednesday, some Midlands parents wondered why schools weren’t open.
Haley said she called for closures as far inland as the Midlands because of the influx of traffic that she expected in the area. She urged Midlands residents to stay off the roads if possible, making room on the highways for the coastal evacuees.
The storm’s effect has been felt as far away as the Upstate.
“We dispatched our entire school bus fleet to Charleston,” said Beth Brotherton, spokesperson for the Greenville School District. “The buses ... are state owned. Therefore, when the governor asks for our buses, we give her our buses.”
Greenville schools stayed open, offering excused absences to students who relied on buses to get to school and could not get there.
Haley asked the district to send more than 250 buses to the Lowcountry to help Charleston County evacuate residents, who lacked transportation, to the Upstate.
As of Wednesday evening, no one had asked for a bus ride, Haley told reporters. State officials ordered most of the buses back to Greenville, leaving 100 on standby in Charleston. By Thursday evening, 67 buses had been used to transport residents, officials said.
Making the call
How S.C. governors have responded to hurricanes:
Hurricane Hugo, 1989: On Sept. 21, Gov. Carroll Campbell and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley urged barrier island residents to evacuate as the storm approached. Hugo made landfall devastatingly on Sept. 22. Campbell was praised for the steps he took before the storm but criticized for preventing coastal residents from returning to their homes immediately. Campbell said it was a safety precaution.
Hurricane Bertha, 1996: Gov. David Beasley ordered evacuations of the Grand Strand as Bertha threatened to graze the state. At one point, the storm turned toward the Isle of Palms, a coastal community that Beasley had not evacuated. Beasley later joked with a reporter that news made him throw up. The storm ended up sparing the island.
Hurricane Floyd, 1999: Gov. Jim Hodges ordered a mandatory evacuation of roughly 800,000 coastal residents on Sept. 14. However, massive traffic jams on I-26 spurred instant criticism of Hodges, who ordered the opening of eastbound lands to westbound traffic at 8 p.m. The debacle prompted a review of the state’s evacuation plan and an apology from the governor. Bertha hit North Carolina but caused flooding in South Carolina.