The enduring image for those who experienced the evacuation and return to Beaufort County during Hurricane Matthew might be a line of cars piled up miles behind a road block, waiting to return home.
Beaufort County emergency officials are hoping to make the re-entry process simpler to understand, communicate and execute during the next disaster.
A proposal being rolled out this month creates additional levels of re-entry passes and invites more involvement from municipalities. The updated procedures also include provisions for Beaufort County residents to return ahead of out-of-towners who might flock here to make a buck from storm damage.
Emergency officials drafted the updated procedure after input from various parties in response to re-entry confusion after Matthew blasted the area in October 2016, said Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, commander of Beaufort County Emergency Management Division. In the days following the storm, cars were backed up for miles along U.S. 278 with people waiting to return to the county.
The re-entry plan was reassessed.
“We enhanced it; we adjusted it; we did things we thought were appropriate based on what we learned from Matthew,” Baxley said.
Baxley said he consulted other counties’ plans, fellow emergency management directors and local officials in crafting new guidelines.
The proposal would now offer four levels of re-entry passes for public safety officials, government personnel, hospital employees, contractors and others who need to return early to prepare the county for the public’s return. The final tier ahead of the general public would include residents, business owners and property owners.
Municipalities would have more say and a share of the work in issuing re-entry passes. Pass requests would be considered by a committee that would include representatives from the county’s municipalities ahead of hurricane season.
Only two types of passes existed under the previous guidelines. Those who hold earlier re-entry passes will be asked to request new ones, Baxley said.
Access to certain areas of the county can be restricted to certain pass-holders based on conditions, Baxley said. Emergency officials will use social media and other outlets to communicate which pass-holders are allowed where.
Policymakers for the county and each town will review the draft, offer potential changes and consider signing an agreement adhering to the re-entry policy ahead of hurricane season.
“I think it’s going to have buy in from all of the various entities involved in emergency response,” interim county administrator Josh Gruber said. “We should have everyone hopefully all on the same page with how things are going to operate in carrying out re-entry. There should be better communication, better coordination.”
Emergency responders, key hospital emergency room personnel, utility workers and elected officials would be eligible for emergency response passes based on a color-coded system.
Below the emergency response passes, the proposed levels of re-entry are:
▪ Tier 1, public safety: Those needed for rescue efforts, road clearing, initial damage assessments, to restore water and electricity, to work on roads and bridges and to secure military bases, gated communities and other key facilities.
▪ Tier 2, essential support: Those needed to continue to restore hospitals, other medical facilities and government operations. Hospital administrators will be given a specified number of these passes from the committee.
▪ Tier 3: Includes utility workers and those essential to gated communities or other planned developments, including security, managers, public works staff and engineers.
▪ Tier 4: Business owners, county residents and those who own property here.
In some cases, including with uniformed firefighters and law enforcement, passes aren’t necessary. Utility workers with proper employee credentials, uniforms and marked vehicles would be allowed through under Tier 3.
A business license would get business owners through, and residents and property owners can produce a driver’s license or tax bill.
Agencies will be assigned to one of four re-entry tiers based on an assessment by Beaufort County emergency officials and the steering committee.
Under the proposed rules, individuals, agencies or companies can request a re-entry pass through their municipal representative. Those requests would go before the review committee and, if approved, the town could print its own passes for tiered re-entry.
The updated procedures can change as issues are identified, Baxley said.
A County Council committee heard the proposed plans Monday. Port Royal has the agreement on its Town Council agenda this month.