How a governor weathers a major storm can make or break a political career.
A job well done reaps rewards. Former Gov. Nikki Haley’s handling of 2015’s historic flood and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew brought her national praise. She is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Failures are seldom forgotten. Then-Gov. Jim Hodges ordered a coastal evacuation ahead of 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. But Interstate 26 westbound became a parking lot before Hodges decided to reverse the eastbound lane. The governor later apologized.
For the past week, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has been faced with his first test since becoming governor in January in the form of Hurricane Irma.
One of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, Irma could have slammed South Carolina’s coastal communities, wreaking havoc. Instead it shifted west, sweeping the Palmetto State as a tropical storm.
So how did McMaster stack up?
Well, a former aide to Gov. Haley said, an assessment that other elected leaders — Democrats and Republicans — generally agree with.
But some on social media panned McMaster’s performance.
‘I miss Nikki Haley’
Signaling his focus on Irma days before its was expected to blow ashore, McMaster canceled an out-of-state fundraiser and an international trade trip to prepare.
The governor listened to state and local officials, shaping his message around their advice, said Swati Patel, a former Haley chief of staff.
“When you're in an emergency, what is most important is that they (the governor) communicate with the public often and clearly,” she added. “He did that.”
Still, McMaster took some hits on social media for garbling his message about an evacuation.
During a news conference last Thursday, McMaster told South Carolinians to prepare for an evacuation before stating his evacuation plans. Viewers watching a live-streaming of the briefing on Facebook were confused.
Eventually, McMaster clarified his point: If an evacuation became necessary, it would begin at 10 a.m. Saturday.
But the message was lost in translation for some. “He said IF he orders a mandatory evacuation it would be Saturday at 10 am. What a way to muck up the message,” one commenter noted.
Some viewers longed for Haley, whose ease before cameras and ability to communicate updates from emergency officials, won her widespread praise. “I miss Nikki Haley,” one viewer lamented.
Local lawmakers sing praises
Outside of social media, McMaster was praised for his late Friday call to evacuate barrier islands in three S.C. counties.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said McMaster’s limited evacuation was “just right.” The partial evacuation kept more people from driving in dangerous conditions or holding up motorists who needed to get off the coast.
“There will always be some Monday-morning quarterbacking. That’s inevitable in an evacuation,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. “But I think he showed good judgment, and that’s what you’re looking for with a governor in situations like this.”
State Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, said some of her constituents criticized McMaster’s “indecisiveness, not necessarily being specific about the evacuation, which areas would be evacuated and for how long.”
But overall, Bright Matthews also praised McMaster, saying the Republican governor was accessible, reaching out to her — for example — with concerns about a hospital in her district.
Facing questions Tuesday about why he did not order the evacuation of frequently flooding Charleston, McMaster said economic considerations in the tourist city were a factor. Instead, officials issued numerous warnings that flooding was likely, McMaster said.
Monday, the city’s peninsula experienced some of its worst flooding ever. Afterward, however, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, a Democrat, said the governor made the right call.
Irma’s GOP primary boost
Irma’s winds could fill McMaster’s sails heading into next June’s GOP primary, political observers say.
“The governor and his staff have done a very good job,” said Greenville GOP consultant Chip Felkel. “There will be political capital that he gets off of that. ... (I)f you perform well, you automatically have a feather in your cap in terms of leadership and executive authority.”
Neal Thigpen, a longtime Florence GOP activist and retired Francis Marion political scientist, said McMaster needed something to show his management skills.
“What's been the knock on Henry thus far? That he hasn't said a whole lot about a whole lot of things,” Thigpen said.
“He hasn't had many opportunities to really demonstrate his leadership ability. In a lot of ways, this little storm ... gave him an opportunity to do that.”
MAKING THE CALL
How S.C. governors have responded to hurricanes:
Hurricane Hugo, 1989: Gov. Carroll Campbell was praised for the steps he took before Hugo made its devastating landfall. But he was criticized for preventing evacuated 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 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, leading to massive traffic jams on I-26. Facing criticism, Hodges ordered the eastbound lanes open to westbound traffic. The debacle prompted a review of the state’s evacuation plan and an apology from the governor.
Hurricane Matthew, 2016: With the storm still 1,000 miles away, Gov. Nikki Haley ordered the evacuation of coastal counties. The state reversed lanes on I-26 to accommodate the outbound traffic. The storm made landfall three days later near McClellanville, causing destructive flooding in some parts of the state.