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Gov. Henry McMaster is extraordinarily bad at hurricanes. Why is that? | Opinion

Governor Henry McMaster talks about Hurricane Dorian and I-26 reversal

Governor Henry McMaster and state officials held a press conference on September 3, 2019 to provide an update on Hurricane Dorian and the evacuation process.
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Governor Henry McMaster and state officials held a press conference on September 3, 2019 to provide an update on Hurricane Dorian and the evacuation process.

Did you know there is a greater chance of a tornado forming in the upper right quadrant of a hurricane?

I learned this from a National Weather Service briefing Sunday on Hurricane Dorian, and I share it with you now because it’s really hard to come by new pieces of trivia when you’ve experienced four hurricane evacuations in four years.

At this point, Beaufort County residents are nothing if not seasoned professionals at handling the lead-up to a storm.

We know from the time the little disturbance in the Atlantic is named until it passes our latitude, we will be experiencing life in three-hour increments, in between National Hurricane Center updates.

We know about cones of uncertainty, hurricane watches, storm surges, rip currents. We know which grocery stores we can rely on after an evacuation has been ordered, which restaurants will likely stay open and that we should get gas before everyone else does.

We know what our world looks like after a hurricane has hit.

We also know that when South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster orders an evacuation, we should absolutely definitely take it seriously because we’re smart people and that’s what smart people do ... but also maybe we’ll wait and see.

Maybe we don’t actually need his “advisement” on this.

Maybe he’ll change his mind.

Maybe he’s not even convinced this is the right call to make.

This is not only unfortunate, it is dangerous.

When it comes to making a decision about whether to evacuate after a state order has been issued, a lot of factors come into play for the average person, according to Susan Cutter, director of Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at University of South Carolina.

How dangerous is the storm? How close is it?

Can we afford to evacuate? Can we physically evacuate?

Can we accept the risk if we stay? Will we be fine if we lose access to electricity, utilities, medical care and first-responders for a while?

Are our friends and co-workers evacuating? Are our families pressuring us to evacuate from afar?

Can we trust the person who is telling us to leave in the first place?

“There are ways to deliver the message,” Cutter said in a phone call Tuesday, “and (McMaster’s) messaging is not the best ... he’s not delivering the message in a way that is resonating with the coastal residents, and as a result he’s not being viewed in some instances as credible, and that’s a problem.”

There are three truths to accept here before we go further. One is that you can’t make everyone happy. Whether a governor calls for an evacuation or not, he or she is bound to be heavily criticized.

The second is that hurricane predictions are constantly changing, so timing is everything.

And the third is that there are best practices when it comes to ordering an evacuation.

All three of these truths exist at the same time, and it is this lens through which I’m considering McMaster’s abilities when it comes to hurricanes.

The first time our governor was faced with the decision to evacuate Beaufort County was in 2017 ahead of Hurricane Irma.

His handling of it reminded me of when I was 7 and my mother took a trip to New York, leaving my father in charge of three girls.

In other words, “Daddy, that’s not how you make a ponytail! You’re pulling my hair! Ow!”

To be clear, I’m not likening government to parents or constituents to children. I’m comparing someone with unsure, clumsy hands to someone who is deft and nimble.

Gov. Nikki Haley set a high bar in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew was making its way toward us.

She was calm, direct, clear, communicative and, though she stressed the changing nature of circumstances, certain about what needed to be done and how to do it.

She was empathetic. She was in charge.

And she seemed to be heeding the advice of top experts in South Carolina Emergency Management Division, Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety, people about whom Cutter could not say enough good things.

Instead of ordering the entire coast to evacuate, Haley started the evacuation in phases, allowing for flexibility.

That is an example of a best practice that is not happening under her successor.

“Haley did an outstanding job in understanding emergency management and making the right calls at the right time,” Cutter said.

From the get-go it was clear something was off during Irma.

McMaster’s public briefings were more about equipment and troop deployment than answering the one question Beaufort County residents had, which was “Do we need to leave?”

He appeared reluctant to order an evacuation and more of the opinion that, hey, if you feel unsafe you ought not wait for the government to tell you to evacuate.

There is a right time to offer opinions on self-determination and jabs at the so-called nanny state, but during a potential evacuation in the face of natural disaster? No.

McMaster’s directives ahead of Irma were muddled, and he didn’t seem able to read the room — at least not the room in Beaufort County, where we were still feeling pain from Matthew.

We weren’t asking McMaster to tie our shoes for us. We were asking our leader to strike a match, to flip the switch and make it so everyone can be on the same page, so regular people can miss work and school with impunity and have time to figure out their logistics.

McMaster waited until just two days before the storm was due to arrive to announce his decision.

He was widely criticized for this.

Then in 2018, he over-corrected. He called for an evacuation ahead of what, luckily, became a toothless Tropical Storm Florence for this county. Less than 24 hours later, he rescinded the order, causing confusion and raising the ire of our business community, which suffered as a result.

This year, he went from 0 to 60.

Even off the coast, Dorian poses a major threat to the county.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, McMaster said it was too early to talk about evacuations. Four and a half hours later, however, and without a significant change in storm-path projections, he was giving us less than 24 hours to leave and reversing lanes on 278 even though we have not yet needed that.

As the DOT traffic counts show for Monday, not many people used the lane reversals.

Not many people appear to have evacuated, in fact — and therein lies the problem.

So that’s three times. No charms for McMaster.

Why is this such a problem for him?

Is he not getting sound advice from state agencies? By all accounts, he should be.

Does he have a philosophical aversion to government intervention? Are there crafty politicos in his ear telling him how each decision will play to the electorate? To donors? Is it Big Industry? Small Industry? Big Tourism? Little Tourism?

Is it stubbornness? Hurt feelings? Decisions made in haste or anger? Or is it just that his management and communication styles are getting in the way?

I don’t have the answer. But I do know this: Some boys cry wolf and other boys don’t know what to do when they see one.

McMaster needs to figure out why evacuations are tripping him up when it comes to communicating with the public.

And he should do so before the next storm comes.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Dorian

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Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”
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