County officials say hurricane response not hampered by Winn's resignation

Beaufort County at 'increased readiness'; Red Cross preps shelters

August 23, 2011 

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With Hurricane Irene churning hundreds of miles away in the Atlantic Ocean, Beaufort County workers cleared storm sewer intakes and made sure electronic road signs are in working order.

The threat posed by Irene to Beaufort County continued to lessen Tuesday.

Area emergency management officials, however, said they remain vigilant and are prepared should Irene move closer and pose a greater threat.

"At this time, there is no indication that evacuations will be issued," said Paul Rasch, emergency management coordinator for Hilton Head Island.

The track projected by the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday showed Irene about 200 miles out at sea as it passes by Hilton Head early Saturday before making landfall on the North Carolina coast, then moving into the Chesapeake Bay area on Sunday.

Far enough away to avert significant damage, but close enough to still have an impact, Rasch said.

"We still need to be aware of ... chances for us to receive rain, wind, heavy surf and rip currents from the storm going by," he said. "No landfall, while wonderful, does not mean no effects."

Residents should also still be prepared to evacuate should the situation change, said Todd Ferguson, Beaufort County director of emergency management.

Forecasters caution that predictions made days in advance can be off by hundreds of miles.

Beaufort County has been consulting the S.C. Emergency Management Division and National Weather Service in Charleston since Monday and will continue to closely track the hurricane, Ferguson said.

"If we need to increase our posture, we will," he added, "but at this time there is no reason to do so."

The American Red Cross began preparing shelters for evacuees Tuesday, moving supplies, disaster workers and emergency response vehicles to the area.

"Whether you are (a) local or a visitor ... you need to get ready now," Louise Welch Williams, CEO of the Charleston region of the American Red Cross, said in a news release. "We urge them to take the threat of Irene seriously and finalize their hurricane preparations and get their emergency kits ready."

WINN STILL HELPING

Officials said Tuesday the response to Hurricane Irene will not be hampered by the resignation of public safety director William Winn, a 32-year county employee who has long been at the helm of the county's hurricane preparedness.

Winn was removed from his position Aug. 1 amid allegations he made discriminatory comments to a job candidate, but he will remain with the county through Dec. 31. He also will help guide emergency response if the county is hit by a hurricane this season, county administrator Gary Kubic said.

"We have a qualified, trained team in place, and William is still playing a role," he said.

So far, Winn has been a technical adviser to Ferguson.

"Todd is fully qualified and has been trained by William for years to handle hurricane response and preparedness," Kubic said. "Because of (Winn) leaving in December, that has accelerated some concerns -- which I understand -- that the county's management of hurricanes and other public safety divisions is waning, and that is not the case. He is working side-by-side with Todd until he leaves."

ISLAND RESORTS FIELD PHONE CALLS, FEW CANCELLATIONS

Resorts and hotels on Hilton Head Island fielded phone calls Tuesday from concerned vacationers, but few canceled reservations.

"With the shift in the storm (to the east), we really haven't seen any major impact," said Crowne Plaza Resort's director of sales Ryan Matz. "It's business as usual, and (we) expect a busy weekend. We're not having a false sense of hope, but we've all been through this before. We are keeping an eye on it, because it can change, but we're expecting a good weekend."

Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort is booked for the week, said general manager Kristin Lindsay.

"Right now, our resort is operating as normal, and we will continue to monitor the weather," Lindsay said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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