A new state program — previously untested by disaster — and a separate county process left some business owners hoping to re-enter Beaufort County early in the wake of Hurricane Matthew confused and frustrated.
The S.C. Emergency Management Division’s Business Reentry Certification program was signed into law in July, according to agency spokesperson Derrec Becker.
It provides a credential for business operators and employers who assist “in the restoration of utility or other services” to return to an area “subject to a state or local curfew.” But local authorities can still refuse businesses access to an area deemed unsafe. And for places such as Beaufort County that have their own re-entry processes, the program does not supersede them.
Some business owners, however, were not aware of the county’s process.
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“I’ve owned a storage facility for 24 years (on Hilton Head Island), and I’ve never heard of a Beaufort County re-entry program,” Bubba Gillis said Thursday morning.
Gillis was on the island cleaning up his office at Bubba’s Hilton Head Shipping and Storage after about a foot of water flooded it. He’d heeded Gov. Nikki Haley’s evacuation order and heard from others about the state’s re-entry certification program. He’d gone online and registered his business, but when he didn’t hear anything back, he made a call to Columbia and was told to call the county.
He did, and learned a state business credential wouldn’t be enough to get him home. He was told he should applied for a county re-entry pass well in advance of Matthew.
The state’s process was in “beta testing mode,” Becker said — there wasn’t enough time for a full marketing and messaging campaign ahead of the storm.
Gillis was frustrated and wondered why the county has a separate process from the state.
“The Beaufort County re-entry pass program was initiated in 2007 as a lesson learned from disasters in other areas,” Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Capt. Bob Bromage said Thursday morning. “The purpose ... is to provide certain agencies with entry to the county to perform emergency service operations.”
Those agencies are identified and approached by the Beaufort County Emergency Management Division, Bromage said, adding that service providers could also contact the division if they were interested in obtaining a pass.
There are no passes solely for businesses, he said.
Passes are reviewed and issued every three years, he said.
The current batch — 5,215 passes — was issued in spring 2015 and are valid through spring 2018. People cannot apply for them during a disaster like Matthew, Bromage said.
Final approval of passes is granted by Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, director of the county’s emergency management division, Bromage said.
3 types of passes
▪ First entry is reserved for agencies providing “immediate” search-and-rescue and life-saving efforts, infrastructure and government re-establishment, and agencies that support those efforts.
▪ Second entry is for “continued” re-establishment of hospitals and emergency medical services, groups that support law enforcement, fire and government personnel, continued clearance of highways and infrastructure, and limited establishment of “emergency welfare services” (such as places where food and water will be distributed).
▪ Security passes allow security companies established by homeowners associations and property owners associations to resume operations.
As officials learned more about damage throughout the county, exceptions were made that allowed business owners who did not have a county pass to enter, Bromage said. Extra power line workers and tree cutters were needed, and water and utilities companies were allowed to enter, Bromage said.
When asked if the county had identified workers that should have been approached but weren’t, and if communication to the public could have been better, Bromage said those items would be discussed in after-action briefings.
“In the next several weeks there will be a lot of discussion about the re-entry process, and I’m sure it will be discussed,” he said. “It makes good common sense to go through lessons learned.”
Representatives from the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Hilton Head-Bluffton chamber said they had not received calls from constituents who were confused or frustrated by the process.
According to Becker, county officials contacted state officials Sunday — the day Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner first discussed re-entry after the hurricane at a news conference — and asked them to add a disclaimer to the Business Re-entry Certification program’s registration form.
That disclaimer stated Beaufort County had its own reentry process and directed business owners to call the county.
This note was added under pre-existing language that said local officials could still refuse business owners access to areas that were unsafe.
Beaufort and Horry counties have their own re-entry process, according to Becker, who added there may be others — officials from those counties are the ones SCEMD heard from during the disaster regarding re-entry.
Horry’s process more closely mirrors the state’s, Becker said.
Like Gillis, Signe Gardo, owner of Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery and Cafe, was not aware of the county’s process.
She’d registered her business through SCEMD and thought she might be able to get onto Hilton Head early. She and her husband tried late afternoon Monday but were turned away; others with similar-looking credentials — a “memorandum of agreement for business re-entry” — were also turned away, she said.
But Gardo wasn’t upset.
“Who knows where we could have even driven,” she said. “I was not offended. ... When we went (to the checkpoint) the next time at 1 p.m. (Tuesday), they said, ‘Go.’ ”
When asked if she wished she’d know about the county’s process, Gardo said it would have been nice to have more information but that it wouldn’t have mattered to her personally.
“(The hurricane) was a disaster,” she said. “You had no idea if there were trees in the road.”
Gillis said customers were asking him about the status of their storage units, which was frustrating because he couldn’t tell them anything. And others were calling to request units so they could begin cleaning up — that was aggravating because he had no way of helping them.
His business would be useful to support recovery efforts, he said, adding that he thought it was classified accordingly to allow him early entry onto Hilton Head.
But after his round of calls to the state and county, he didn’t try his luck at the checkpoint.