Beaufort County officials said today their response to Hurricane Irene will not be hampered by the resignation of William Winn, a 32-year county employee best known for his expertise in hurricane response.
Winn, the director of public safety, resigned earlier this month amid allegations he made discriminatory comments to a job candidate for the building codes director position.
Winn was removed from his position Aug. 1 and no longer supervises the employee, and his salary was reduced, according to county administrator Gary Kubic.
He will remain at the county through Dec. 31 to finish ongoing projects and will continue to help guide emergency response if the county is hit by a hurricane this season, Kubic said today.
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"We have a qualified, trained team in place, and William is playing the same role he did last year. There has been no change," Kubic said.
So far, Winn has left preparations to Todd Ferguson, director of emergency management, and is serving instead as a technical adviser.
Ferguson said he is in regular contact with Winn, who "is part of our team."
"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."
The county began making preparations Monday, should Irene hit the South Carolina coast later this week. Crews cleared storm sewer intakes and checked electronic road signs used to guide motorists in the event of an evacuation.
The county has also been consulting with the S.C. Emergency Management Division and the National Weather Service in Charleston since Monday and will continue to closely track the hurricane.
"We're still five days away from potential landfall. Nothing has changed. The tracks continue to show the storm shifting to the east, which means the impact on our area becomes lesser and lesser, as it currently stands," Ferguson said. "But that doesn't mean we let our guard down. We are monitoring it extremely closely and will continue with our increased readiness, reviewing our response plans and communicating with various agencies we rely on for support to coordinate response and preparation. If we need to increase our posture, we will, but at this time there is no reason to do so."
For example, county employees have been contacting road construction crews to make sure they can move equipment off site quickly, so as not to impede a possible evacuation.
"They have their own response plans and we meet with them every two weeks and are now in touch with them on a daily basis to advise them of what's going on," Ferguson said. "At this point, we're not even thinking evacuation. Right now it's not imposing an immediate impact on Beaufort County. Residents should be vigilant and watch the local weather. Listen to officials if safety announcements are being made. Know your evacuation routes, and stay in tune with what is going on."
Projections from the National Hurricane Center in Miami show Irene could make landfall on the North Carolina coast, then move north into the Chesapeake Bay area on Sunday.
The updated forecast released at 11 this morning said Irene currently was centered about 70 miles south of Grand Turk Island. It was moving west-northwest at 12 mph with maximum sustained winds near 100 mph.
Forecasters caution that predictions made days in advance can be off by hundreds of miles. For instance, some models show Irene could remain offshore along the East Coast.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow staff writer Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.