The planned evacuation route out of southern Beaufort County didn't get shorter or faster this year, but the widening of a section of U.S. 278 should make it smoother.
If a hurricane forces an evacuation, the highway can now accommodate droves of westbound cars without emergency management officials reversing one eastbound lane, as was the plan in years past, said Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, county emergency management commander.
Now that a 5-mile stretch of U.S. 278 from Simmonsville Road to S.C. 170 has been widened from four lanes to six, drivers can use three westbound lanes from the Cross Island Parkway all the way to S.C. 170, Baxley said.
The improvements won't expedite evacuations because the roads narrow again in Jasper County, he said, but they do make for a simpler route.
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The widening of S.C. 170 from two to four lanes from S.C. 46 to U.S. 278 is expected to be completed by August, but Baxley said it will not change storm plans. Neither will the new flyover, which will link the Bluffton Parkway to U.S. 278 when completed by October 2015, he said.
"The parkway is already a key player in the evacuation plan, and adding more traffic to it doesn't help," he said. "The only way we would utilize the flyover is if we had a major disruption of traffic."
Plans for road improvements in northern Beaufort County are underway, but Beaufort city staff said it's too soon to know whether construction will begin during hurricane season.
Once contracts are awarded for the Boundary Street Project, which will narrow lanes and add landscaped medians and bike paths, city and county staff will review timelines to determine whether the project will affect evacuations and daily traffic flow, city manager Scott Dadson said.
"Hurricane evacuation will certainly be part of our overall planning," he said.
The project is scheduled to be finished by June 2015.
Wherever residents live, they should try to get on the road as soon as possible when severe storms threaten, Baxley said.
"If you wait for the mandatory order, you're going to be in heavy traffic," he said. "That's just that."
Retirees, in particular, can take advantage of their flexible schedules, reducing traffic for those who must stay and work until weather forces an evacuation, Baxley said.
Before a hurricane strikes, residents should plan where to go, where to stay and what to bring -- and then share the information with someone out of town.
When people can't contact loved ones during a storm, they sometimes look for them when the weather passes, Baxley said. But before going on a search after a storm, make calls first to relatives and friends "to prevent an influx of people looking for those safely situated elsewhere."
"And when the storm threatens," he adds, "leave early."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.