Cindi Ross Scoppe

How Gov. Haley weathered the storm

SC Gov Nikki Haley briefs the media after Hurricane Matthew made landfall in South Carolina.
SC Gov Nikki Haley briefs the media after Hurricane Matthew made landfall in South Carolina.

WE HAVE A LOT of work ahead of us following Hurricane Matthew.

Although South Carolina has weathered far worse storms, lives still have been interrupted and even uprooted across much of the Lowcountry and Pee Dee. Repairs will take days, weeks and months and cost at least hundreds of millions of dollars. Our farmers suffered another year of crop losses that they will never recoup. And the Waccamaw River could be bringing still more misery to the Grand Strand.

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Dams again failing in South Carolina

Hurricane Matthew costs loom over SC state budget

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We face serious policy questions following yet another round of dam failures. Was it unrealistic to expect that dangerous dams could have been made safe so soon after our state finally started taking dam safety seriously? Or do state regulators still lack the personnel, laws or political support to make owners keep their dams from endangering the rest of us? Or both? This time, we can’t dismiss the question based on our misunderstanding of what a thousand-year flood actually is; these failures resulted from a Category 1 hurricane, which is hardly a rarity.

Likewise, serious questions need to be asked about local, state and especially federal policies that allow and even subsidize rebuilding and rebuilding again on land that is susceptible to flooding — and that only becomes more vulnerable as sea levels rise and storms grow more intense.

But a quick look to our neighbor to the north, or even backwards to the 2015 floods, should remind us how much we have to be grateful for. Only five lives were lost, at least two the result of apparently reckless decisions. And although there were annoyances, the inconvenience to most of us was modest at best.

Of course, the path of the storm contributed to our relative good fortune: Matthew had weakened tremendously by the time it crossed into South Carolina, and after hugging the Florida and Georgia coasts, it actually made landfall here, which sapped it of even more energy.

But we also had something else going for us: Gov. Nikki Haley.

Frankly, I worried that the governor was overreacting when she ordered the coast evacuated three days ahead of a storm that might not even come our way. I understood that her decision could have been influenced by our experience just one year earlier with the horrific floods. But I was concerned about the cry-wolf effect: If you make people evacuate, and then the storm doesn’t hit or doesn’t hit hard, you guarantee that many of them will ride out the next storm.

Now, political calculus could have taken her in either direction, so the early evacuation wasn’t necessarily a courageous call, as some have suggested. But it was the right call. And more important than the decision itself was her overall performance before, during and after Matthew hit.

The governor was clear and firm from the beginning: This is a dangerous storm, we need to take it seriously, and you need to evacuate. She surrounded herself with experts who exuded competence as they explained the details of a well-thought-out plan to get people out of the coastal regions quickly and safely, through staggered evacuations and lane reversals. More than 100 miles inland, she cleared the highways as best as she could, ordering schools and state government offices closed four days ahead of the storm. (I’m still not convinced that last part was necessary, but it was not clearly wrong, and once she got some pushback, she did a good job of explaining her reasoning.)

Even as the storm’s path vacillated, the governor never vacillated, and state, local and federal officials coordinated their efforts admirably. She kept the public informed through twice-daily news conferences, where she gave updates about problems and solutions, successes and failures and challenges, and answered questions.

And a week and a half after the storm passed, the most serious complaints we’ve heard are from evacuees who ran into problems trying to return home. Some of that is inevitable, and some reflects a lack of post-evacuation coordination that needs to be addressed before the next storm.

But when all the missteps involve the after, rather than the before or during — when they relate to convenience, as opposed to public safety — that suggests a job well done.

For all the missteps Gov. Haley still makes in the legislative arena, she has proved quite deft at leading us through emergencies. We saw this when her heartfelt response after the evil man-child massacred the nine innocents at Emanuel A.M.E. Church set the tone for a brokenhearted state. Less than four months later the floods came, and that crisis called for strong direction and confident reassurance that our government officials knew what they were doing and would help us through the crisis. And now Matthew.

This isn’t the sort of thing we have in mind when we choose a governor, and I don’t know that you can predict how a governor would do in such situations. Certainly there was nothing about then-Rep. Nikki Haley to indicate she would have handled major emergencies so well. (Nor was there anything about Sen. Vincent Sheheen to indicate he would have done this well.) But she has led us well through emergencies. And for that we should all be grateful.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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