Hurricane Matthew evacuation gets high marks, thanks to lessons from the past

Traffic was light during the evacuation of Beaufort County just after Gov. Nikki Haley’s evacuation order went into effect on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016.
Traffic was light during the evacuation of Beaufort County just after Gov. Nikki Haley’s evacuation order went into effect on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. Staff photo

About this series: In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in Beaufort County, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette asked local leaders and others to weigh in on what went well and what could have gone better. Lessons emerged that may better prepare us for when the next hurricane hits.

Hurricane evacuations in Beaufort County’s past brought traffic nightmares.

Drivers took more than four hours to travel the 35 miles from Hilton Head Island to Hardeeville during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, The Island Packet reported. In Hurricane Floyd in 1999, some evacuees were stuck more than nine hours getting from Beaufort County to Columbia.

But the evacuation for Hurricane Matthew was different.

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Local traffic was so light by the mandatory evacuation that lane reversals planned to fix those backups were quickly removed. Roads were already clear.

The operation received praise from experts who say state and local leaders improved on past problems clearing the coast.

One of those experts is Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. Cutter worked on a study of failures during the state’s Hurricane Floyd evacuation and is conducting a survey on evacuation behavior during Matthew.

“Without a doubt this was handled much better,” Cutter said.

Here’s why:

Evacuation order was early and clear

Gov. Nikki Haley announced the evacuation on Tuesday, Oct. 4, while Hurricane Matthew was still more than 1,000 miles and four days away.

The Republican governor said the early announcement was, in part, to avoid the traffic debacles of Hurricane Floyd.

Then-Gov. Jim Hodges was criticized for not making the call soon enough to ease traffic flow, with trips taking as long as 15 hours to get from Charleston to Columbia during the evacuation, The Island Packet reported at the time.

Hodges, a Democrat, waited until about a day and a half before Floyd was predicted to hit the state to make the call, and confused residents by first calling for a voluntary evacuation, only to change the order to a mandatory evacuation hours later, according to Cutter’s study.

The sequencing of the call led a majority of 520,000-plus evacuees in the state to leave within the same six-hour period as motorists from Florida and Georgia were being funneled north on South Carolina roads, Cutter’s study showed.

Better weather-forecasting technology and more effective planning contributed to Haley’s ability to call the evacuation much earlier, Cutter said.

Haley also took advantage of a new evacuation zone system that distinguishes higher-risk areas so the entire coast doesn’t evacuate at once.

The governor’s process was staggered, allowing heavily populated areas in the southern part of the state, such as Charleston and Beaufort counties, to evacuate before more inland and northern areas.

Haley has also been praised for her communication during the evacuation. On most days, she held two news conferences, flanked by experts from essential departments.

“Gov. Haley did a good job of calibrating the situation and providing clear and honest information,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who served as a chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford. “I think it lent her credibility. She established a connection between her and the people.”

New technology

Modern communication tools also made the evacuation more efficient.

In the Floyd evacuation, a lack of adaptability in motorists’ routes contributed to gridlock, according to Cutter’s study. For example, drivers continued to travel on U.S. 17 along South Carolina’s coast when there were a number of clear back routes available.

The prevalence of GPS is a “game-changer” helping solve those problems, Cutter said. The technology can guide drivers to the fastest alternative routes, predict estimated arrival times and help people plan when to evacuate.

Other apps and websites also helped in the evacuation. For example, Haley recommended websites such as Expedia and Airbnb to help evacuees find hotel rooms before they left home, eliminating another layer of stress for them.

Social media also spread the evacuation messages quicker than traditional media could in the past, convincing some residents to leave after they learned from their friends that outgoing traffic was light, said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.

Better traffic management

Traffic management for evacuations is also much better than it was in 1999.

In South Carolina, the large agencies involved in an evacuation regularly practice evacuation drills and have updated plans to curb problems seen in past storms.

...We just didn’t have a traffic problem.”

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner

For example, the state began using lane reversals in high-traffic areas and blocked exits that are known choke-points in the first days of the evacuation, such as the exit from Interstate 95 onto Interstate 26 to Columbia, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation.

In Beaufort County, lane reversals were set up for Hurricane Matthew on U.S. 278 on Hilton Head Island and U.S. 21 in Beaufort, though light traffic made them unnecessary.

“All the way through the evacuation we never had to put law enforcement in intersections because we just didn’t have a traffic problem,” Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.

But some, including Hilton Head Island Town Manager Steve Riley, contend lane reversals are still good to have at-the-ready for future storms.

“If it had been tourist season, we would have needed the extra lane,” Riley said. “Because it was not peak season, it was a smoother process than we ever would’ve expected.”

Most locals left early

Most evacuees from Beaufort County also helped by obeying officials’ calls to leave early.

There is not yet an estimate for the number of those who evacuated locally, but statewide traffic counts showed about 350,000 vehicles evacuated the South Carolina coast, according to the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

About 1.1 million people live on the state’s coast in total.

In Beaufort County, traffic counters show that most local evacuees followed officials’ advice and left early.

The busiest times for people to evacuate were between 7 and 10 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, and between 6 and 11 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5 , before the evacuation order went into effect Oct. 5 at 3 p.m., according to counters from the state Department of Transportation.

However, there were some areas where evacuation rates concerned emergency management officials, including parts of Bluffton and unincorporated northern Beaufort County, Tanner said.

“I don’t understand those people that stayed, and there were more here than I would have liked,” said Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka. “But we did everything we could to tell them they needed to leave, that they were putting our people at risk.”

On the barrier islands — the most at-risk areas in the county — emergency management officials were generally pleased with the evacuation rate.

On Fripp Island, for example, law enforcement knew of only four people left during the storm; and on Hilton Head Island, there appeared to be a small percentage of people who stayed, Tanner said.

That might have helped the county avoid the most serious losses during Matthew, Tanner said.

“No one died as a result of this storm,” he said. “With the amount of damage we had, that is amazing.”

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh