After Hurricane Matthew downed trees and flooded the Lowcountry, Hampton County’s emergency management director Susanne Peeples said she knew just whom to call for help – Kim Stenson, director of the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
“I called him and said, ‘We need a recovery specialist down here to help us,’ ” Peeples said Wednesday. “He said, ‘Whatever you need.’
“The next morning, they were here to help. He never says no.”
Stenson sent Peeples two state specialists to lend a hand in recovery efforts. That support is just one example of the assistance that Stenson and his team of emergency planners have offered communities across the state during the last two weeks.
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To respond quickly to emergencies, Stenson says he spends the night at the state emergency operations center in West Columbia. There, he is within earshot of the emergency planners responsible for sending out manpower, supplies and other resources.
The Blythewood resident, whose wife is used to his job sometimes keeping him away from home, has a decent place to rest his head when emergencies strike.
“It’s an Army cot,” Stenson said, adding, “I keep it in the back so nobody can see it. I’ve got a sleeping bag and a poncho liner and a pillow. I’m in pretty good shape.”
Matthew one of many storms
A few nights recently, Stenson has got about five or six hours of sleep a night on that cot. It is a short walk from the sea of offices and computers lit by the glow of a jumbo screen of maps, data and news casts, giving the latest updates on Hurricane Matthew and the flooding that has threatened the state in its wake.
The S.C. Emergency Management Division does not operate on full throttle all the time, Stenson said. Instead, the division of the S.C. Adjutant General’s Office acts as the hub for state and federal emergency planners when a storm or other emergency comes up.
But in the past couple of weeks, the center has been bustling.
Last Monday, for example, Stenson was making his rounds, gathering information that he uses to keep tabs on what is going on all around the state.
In the span of about 10 minutes, Stenson asked a recovery specialist about the damage assessments that soon would begin to come in. Then, he talked to the chief of logistics, asking for an update on all the support Horry County had requested. Then, he asked an analyst questions about a river that was being monitored for flooding.
Stenson and the state’s team of emergency planners have been busy since he was named director in 2013.
Since then, the president has declared disasters in South Carolina three times after major weather events.
A February 2014 ice storm saw 364,000 South Carolinians lose power. That storm also cost the state’s timber industry $360 million in damage.
Then, last October, historic rainfall led to unprecedented flooding that damaged crops, and destroyed homes and businesses, hitting the Midlands hard when dams burst, turning shopping areas and residential neighborhoods into lakes.
Then, Hurricane Matthew came.
The storm barely made landfall on the Palmetto State’s coast last weekend before turning out to sea, but it left coastal communities flooded, trees down, roads and bridges damaged, and more than 6,000 South Carolinians in shelters and more than 800,000 without power.
More time behind him
Stenson’s cot probably resembles the ones he slept on a quarter-century ago, when he got his start planning big operations in the U.S. Army.
Deployed in the first Gulf War, Stenson planned combat missions for an infantry battalion – from training to executing missions.
When he retired from the Army after 20 years, Stenson started working for the state’s emergency management division in 1998.
The next year, Hurricane Floyd came through – the first major event for which Stenson helped plan the state’s response.
“Suddenly, I was in it, and they were talking about evacuating the whole coast of South Carolina, and that sounded like a big deal.”
It ended up being a big deal, leading to devastating flooding in the Pee Dee and creating one of the biggest storm-related debacles the state has seen – when Gov. Jim Hodges issued a mandatory evacuation of the coast, and Interstate 26 westbound became a parking lot.
After the storm, state emergency planners updated their plans to include lane reversals, something that previously had not been included out of consideration for motorists’ safety, Hodges has said.
Since coming to Emergency Management, Stenson has helped plan the state’s response to hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, wild fires, the 2005 Graniteville train derailment, and the state’s support to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Sometimes, emergency planners call the right shots, Stenson said. Sometimes, they don’t.
Most of the time, they are making decisions based on incomplete information, he said.
“It is a collective effort, and it takes a lot of parts and pieces, and all of us are cogs in that giant wheel. You have to look at it from that perspective.”
High demands, high stakes
The stakes are high as the state’s chief emergency planner.
Asked how stressful the job is, Ron Osborne, one of the agency’s former directors, said it’s “extremely stressful.”
“That would be why I retired fairly early,” Osborne joked. “You are advising the governor, and he or she has to take actions based on your recommendations.”
The public is not always forgiving, either.
“Unfortunately, the public is probably going to think that you could do something a different way, and maybe you can, and you learn from that,” said Osborne, who, as director, promoted Stenson to chief of staff.
But, Osborne added, “Your first priority is keeping people safe. Sometimes, you feel like they (the public) don't realize that's what you're doing, and think that you're just inconveniencing them.”
Osborne said Stenson appears to have done a great job managing Matthew.
“I'm sure at this point he's very tired. I'm sure he's had to work long hours and long days. From what I can see from the media and the news, he seems to have done a great job.”
‘The best director’
Emergency management directors across the state appreciate Stenson’s even-keeled nature, said Hampton County’s Peeples, president of the S.C. Emergency Management Association.
“He is the best director that we've had in the state. He is so laid back. He doesn't let things worry him,” she said.
Stenson also is accessible, Peeples said, adding she and other county emergency directors can call Stenson directly at his office or on his cell phone.
“He's got an open-door policy. We don't have to go to his secretary to talk to him. And anything we need sent up to the governor, he never hesitates to send it up to the governor,” she said.
Stenson says he tries to stay in direct contact with county emergency directors. He wants to hear their needs from them.
It is a leadership style Stenson made clear when he became director, Peeples said, adding Stenson took the time to come to her rural county and meet her team.
“He came in and said, ‘I'm Kim Stenson,’ – not director Kim Stenson – ‘Call me Kim.’ That meant a lot to me that he came here to a small town and visited us.”
S.C. Emergency Management Division
What is it: A division of the S.C. Adjutant General’s Office, which oversees the state’s National Guard
What it does: Acts as a hub for the federal, state and local agencies that work together to respond to emergencies and crises in the state
Who runs it: Director Kim Stenson, appointed in 2013 after joining the agency in 1998