Hurricane Matthew was in many ways a great dry run on what to do — and what not to do — when a hurricane hits Beaufort County.
The good news is that everyone passed the major test. No lives were lost when the Category 2 hurricane left significant damage here overnight on Oct. 7-8.
Clearly, we benefited from decades of disaster and recovery planning by local governments, property owners’ associations and utilities. But this was the first time that a lot of that planning has actually been put to the test, and from that we can learn a lot for next time.
From the office of Gov. Nikki Haley to the local level, we aced the evacuation. It’s been a long time since we had to evacuate, and hard lessons learned in 1999 for Hurricane Floyd made life much better for everyone this time.
Since the beginnings of emergency planning in this county, the focus in the public’s eyes has been on evacuation. When, where and how to get out has been hammered into the public, and rightfully so. For Hurricane Matthew, the public and the many agencies involved did a great job.
We now know it helped to leave early. And that translates into more days away from home, and more time in motels and restaurants, meaning more expense. The public must get used to that, and make personal and business plans accordingly. That is now required as the coastline has boomed from rural outpost to population center.
But Matthew gave us something completely new to chew on.
Re-entry was an issue for the first time, and we have a lot to learn.
Start with communication. When the state says it’s clear to come home, and the county says it is not, we have a major problem.
And the whole issue of setting up blockades at the county line needs to be revisited.
But, we all must honestly accept that there will be no perfect, painless way for re-entry after a hurricane hits.
If the sheriff knows that residents absolutely cannot get back on the barrier islands, and should not be returning to many other areas because they would overtax the basic water and sewer services, what is the sheriff to do other than be the bad guy?
We’re confident it will go better next time, but the public must do its part. It is unreasonable to expect to get back as quickly as the public wanted to be here.
Again, there’s no perfect solution. Some streets were being cleared literally minutes before the public was allowed back onto Hilton Head, for example. And some POAs urged a later re-entry. But this hurricane, and recent history after storms elsewhere, shows that people will all but riot to get back home. Utilities, POAs and local governments have to strike a balance, which they seemed to have done. They should never underestimate the hurricane-like force of a public lined up on the streets to get home. And they must remember that a lot of people cannot afford evacuations.
One key solution to the angst is improved communication.
This was our first Facebook hurricane, and it showed. The general public was way out ahead of many authorities in pumping out information — and often misinformation — at the speed of life. More online updates by more agencies is needed.
And in the postmortems that are yet to be conducted, authorities should spend some time in delineating who is in charge. Is it each mayor? The governor? The sheriff? The County Council? Show the public the plan, prior to evacuation.
As we examine today the things that went right and things that could be improved, we are again overwhelmed by how well it worked and how much recovery took place in such a short period of time so quickly. That is the result of years of meticulous planning, neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping strangers, and lessons learned the hard way in previous evacuations.
Hurricane Matthew caused great hardship and expense to many. Its long-term impact on the working poor is among many things we don’t know yet. But it can still serve as a dry run to learn from, if authorities and the public will patiently and factually take advantage of it.