Betsy Blake remembers the chaos of Hurricane Floyd all too well.
“It took people 21 hours to get from Charleston to Columbia during that evacuation because they just waited too late to evacuate and because they didn’t redirect (Interstate) 26 soon enough,” said Blake, a professor in the University of South Carolina’s College of Pharmacy.
Blake and her husband, Kevin, lived in Charleston and were part of the mass evacuation there in 1999. For that reason, the Blakes – who today have two children in Lexington 1 – understand Gov. Nikki Haley’s early call for evacuations and closing of many area schools for the rest of the week.
But that kind of understanding wasn’t shared among many other working Midlands parents, who were struggling to find child care options for three days.
“It’s just too extreme,” said Carla Johnson, who was at Riverbanks Zoo Wednesday morning with her 8-year-old son, a Richland 1 elementary student. “There’s no reason they can’t be in school at least today, and probably the whole week.”
Johnson, an employee at a Columbia-area restaurant, said she had to take Wednesday off work because she did not have adequate time to line up child care for her son.
“I’m an hourly employee,” Johnson said. “Not being there means I don’t get paid. ... I don’t want to be insensitive to what others might go through because of the hurricane but this is more than just an inconvenience for those of us with kids.”
Johnson wasn’t the only parent Wednesday trying to manage child care – and keep the kids entertained.
By 11 a.m., zoo employees already were starting to see larger than usual crowds.
“I’m not sure how many people have come through the gate already today, but a lot of the questions and messages we were receiving through social media this morning were from people in the Charleston area wanting to know as they were driving up with their families if we were open today,” said Susan O’Cain, public relations manager for Riverbanks, adding that the zoo will be monitoring conditions over the next several days to determine whether remaining open is safe for visitors and zoo inhabitants.
O’Cain’s own children – students in Lexington-Richland 5 – are staying with grandparents, as O’Cain helps monitor conditions at the zoo and her husband works extra hours this week as a marketing director for the state electric cooperative in Cayce.
Other Columbia-area organizations offered options to help parents, too.
EdVenture Children’s Museum, for example, has increased and extended its Club Edventure hours to encompass a whole day. And the State Museum and Columbia Museum of Art are offering price breaks through Friday.
“We do expect an influx of kids from out of town tomorrow and through the weekend,” said Margaret Clarkson, EdVenture’s marketing director. “We have had set events on the calendars and are not planning to cancel unless the governor tells us the roads are not safe. Today we have had a good steady group and have set activities for the rest of the week/weekend.”
Museum spokespeople said they would be monitoring weather conditions through the weekend as well.
Among child care centers, several decided to stay open, with some are even offering extended hours to help parents over the next several days.
Some employees required to report to work during the governor’s declared state of emergency were fortunate to have their employers provide on-site care. That was the case Wednesday at Palmetto Health campuses, for example, where a “Day Camp” offered to team members drew 100 children, according to spokeswoman Tammie Epps.
But parents without these kinds of options will have to get more creative.
“I immediately started making plans because five days shut in the house is not good,” said Lexington resident and stay-at-home mom Dawn Frazier, who was at Riverbanks Wednesday morning with her three daughters. “We are at the zoo today, we’re going to the movies tomorrow and they’ve got a sleepover planned at grandma’s.”
But Frazier isn’t critical of the governor’s decision to close schools. “At first I didn’t understand closing the schools so early on, but then when I learned that they were going to use the schools for shelters it made sense,” Frazier said.
Like most students, however, Frazier’s daughters were on board from the moment of the announcement about school closures. “We get to go do fun things like come to the zoo,” said 9-year-old fourth-grader Alyssa Frazier. “And it means we won’t have to take tests this week.”