For two years, South Carolina’s emergency responders and its federal military installations worked to coordinate their responses in the event of a disaster.
Last year, that disaster came, in the form of an historic flood that swamped the Midlands.
Now with the one-year anniversary of the flood coming up, federal, state and local representatives sat down again Wednesday in West Columbia to discuss their response and plan for South Carolina’s next major disaster – with Tropical Storm Julia threatening to dump even more water onto the state.
“To make it more realistic, we’ve cooked up a tropical storm,” joked Kim Stenson, director of the S.C. Emergency Management Division, in opening the third annual seminar on the mutual support of local government and military installations at the emergency management headquarters.
Both civilians and soldiers credit the ongoing meetings with improving the state’s response to last year’s flooding crisis.
“We were so well-prepared because of the relationships we’ve built,” said Maj. Gen. Gregory Batts, South Carolina’s assistant adjutant general. “Everybody understood the system.”
Batts said the seminar should be a “springboard for later success.”
The point man for all sides is Army Col. Bill Connor, the Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer for South Carolina under the FEMA regional office in Atlanta.
“I took over just before the flood, so I kind of had to drink from a fire hose,” said Connor, a Reserve officer who practices law in South Carolina in civilian life.
“We were watching Hurricane Joaquin, so a hurricane was what we were planning for,” he said. “We didn’t think it would just dump that much water on us.”
Military forces on the ground in South Carolina were fast to respond to requests for help after flooding hit the state in October, including boats deployed from Fort Jackson at the request of Columbia’s police chief.
That request is key, Connor said, because the Posse Comitatus Act prohibits military personnel from operating directly on American soil in the absence of an emergency situation. They must receive a request for help from a civil authority – a governor, mayor or some other civilian – and then work under the local civilian agencies leading the response.
“Troops cannot perform any law enforcement functions, period,” Connor said. “We’re here strictly in a support role.”
After 72 hours, the request has to be reviewed to ensure the emergency situation still exists.
For someone outside the military, knowing the process can be helpful in a pinch. Beth Fletcher, direct services manager for the S.C. Red Cross, said the previous meetings were invaluable in getting that information out.
“Just being able to coordinate, how to access different things, how long it’s going to take,” Fletcher said. “It definitely helps.”