Faced with massive re-entry after Hurricane Matthew, Beaufort County lacked a workable plan

More than 100 cars backed up on U.S. 278 in the Bluffton area on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, as the evacuation was still in place. No one was allowed in the county until the evacuation was lifted.
More than 100 cars backed up on U.S. 278 in the Bluffton area on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, as the evacuation was still in place. No one was allowed in the county until the evacuation was lifted.

Hours after Hurricane Matthew hit Beaufort County, local emergency management officials were faced with a massive undertaking and no detailed plan for how to cope with it.

The day after the storm, Sunday, Oct. 9, brought the first controlled re-entry into the county after a natural disaster since 1959. Law enforcement believed many areas still weren’t safe, yet miles of cars piled up at the county line with residents desperate to get home, running low on gas, food and — most of all — patience.

Now, more than a month after Matthew, county leaders acknowledge re-entry created problems they hadn’t anticipated.

Chief among them were the backups at the barricades at the county line.

“We got almost post-storm riots at these roadblocks,” Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in a recent interview. “It was getting that bad.”

Essential utility, tree and medical crews were stuck in the mess, unable to get into the county to work. There were reports of crowds chanting, “We want to go home,” at law enforcement.

But the county’s disaster response plan adopted this year is vague on the topic of managing returning residents. The written plan offers no guidance on how to manage traffic or procedures for filtering people home.

You can read the county’s 2016 disaster re-entry security plan here. Hover mouse over or tap at top right corner of document for full-screen ( ) and other options. Story continues below.

So county emergency management devised solutions on-the-fly to restrict access for safety, while dealing with the backup.

The division eventually decided to send people to temporary re-entry shelters at two high schools. But in part because it wasn’t included in the plan, the shelter system ran into opening delays and some resistance from other local leaders.

Tanner is in charge of the county emergency management division, which is tasked with leading disaster re-entry. He said the problems during Matthew will be addressed in a recovery plan before next hurricane season.

“I want the public to be assured that we are looking at what happened, and our re-entry plan will be picked apart from A to Z ,” Tanner said. “We’re starting to look at what worked, what didn’t, and we’re going to make the changes that are necessary.”

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said changes should be transparent to send a message to frustrated evacuees.

“People need to see their leaders acknowledging that they won’t do it the same way again so they (residents) don’t question whether to evacuate,” Davis said. “Right now we are rebuilding trust.”

I want the public to be assured that we are looking at what happened, and our re-entry plan will be picked apart from A to Z.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner

What we didn’t plan for on re-entry — and need to do next time

In interviews after the storm, most local leaders agreed on a few key areas that should be addressed in the county’s future re-entry plans:

▪  Preventing backups at barricades

The impulse to return home immediately after a disaster, despite local orders, is not unique to Beaufort County. Lines at barricades created problems in hurricanes Rita, Ike and Katrina, just to name a few.

Those who violate re-entry orders are motivated by worries of damaged homes, looting, loss of income and traffic on the way home, research from a coalition of Texas academics following Hurricane Ike in 2008 found.

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Chanel Cohen, of Hilton Head Island, for example, came home early and was stuck in her car on the side of U.S. 278 from noon until 7 p.m. on Oct. 9, the day after Hurricane Matthew. Her two small children grew frustrated in the car before they were sent to the re-entry shelter that night at Bluffton High School.

“We’re just ready to go sleep in our bed,” Cohen told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

If plans for sheltering early returners were put in place before the storm, the shelters might have been set up more quickly, and the backup that trapped people like Cohen could have been avoided, Tanner said.

The schools could also have been better equipped to act as re-entry shelters.

At Whale Branch High School, for instance, the generator blew out just a few minutes after the shelter opened. The sheriff’s office then decided to filter people to Battery Creek High School instead, but the change created another layer of confusion the night of Oct. 9.

The sheriff’s office also faced questions from other leaders about the impromptu plan.

In an Oct. 9 meeting with county leaders at the county emergency operations center, for example, state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort; members of the media; and others voiced concerns over the timing of re-entry and whether the schools had enough capacity to meet the needs of all those returning to get them home efficiently, as there could be thousands returning.

“Yes, these two locations many not be enough, but at least it’s better than what we currently have, which is people without power, without food at these checkpoints,” Tanner said in response at the meeting.

Tanner said weeks after the storm that he hopes future plans will include much more detail on how to handle early returners. He suggested plans could set aside resources for more shelters to be put into place quickly and with the capacity to meet the potential need.

▪  Allow some residents home sooner

Another common frustration on re-entry voiced by some local leaders and many residents: Sealing off the county line meant that people couldn’t return home, even if their neighborhood was safe, because other areas were not yet ready for residents to return.

We’ve got to try to find some way to get people home to safe areas sooner.”

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling

In Beaufort, for example, Mayor Billy Keyserling said he thinks the plan wasn’t effective because his city’s roads were cleared by noon on Oct. 9, but residents still weren’t allowed to return.

“In Beaufort and Port Royal you had people sitting there in their cars stopped along the highway, and they’re getting social media messages of people playing Frisbee or out walking their dog,” Keyserling said. “They’re saying, ‘Why can’t we come back?’ We’ve got to try to find some way to get people home to safe areas sooner.”

Tanner argued, however, that was not a simple prospect after Matthew.

“We can’t drop them in by helicopter,” Tanner said. “In order to get to Beaufort or any of the municipalities, you have to go through the unincorporated county, and a lot of those roads were not ready for the public.”

Tanner also said re-entry was slowed in part because checkpoints at the county line were manned by out-of-town state troopers who didn’t know local communities.

“If you’re getting a lot of people saying, ‘I live five minutes from here,’ that trooper there had no idea where people were talking about,” he said. “A local deputy may have been able to give people better advice, to adjust based on local knowledge.”

In the future, Tanner said the disaster plans should include local law enforcement stationed at the checkpoints.

Adding more re-entry shelters could also get evacuees home quicker, Tanner said.

Others suggested future plans should allow flexibility with the roadblocks based on the damage, rather than placing them at the county line.

Case in point: Sun City, a private retirement community with more than 14,000 residents.

Sen. Davis said residents were frustrated that barricades were set up just before the community’s entrance at the county line, even though they reported most of their neighborhoods were not as badly hit compared to other areas.

“You need to give people on the ground the ability to adapt to make common-sense changes,” Davis said. “If you had moved that roadblock back just a few hundred yards, you could have gotten a whole lot of people home and out of that line.”

▪  Establish better business re-entry plan

The county had a detailed plan in place for business re-entry passes that would allow early entry for professionals who could aid in recovery.

But in its first real test, the passes created some confusion.

The pass system was established in 2007 as a lesson-learned from other storms, said Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, director of the county’s Emergency Management Division.

But some business owners were confused by statewide re-entry passses launched this summer by the S.C. Emergency Management Division and the S.C. Department of Commerce. The state system allowed any business owner to register for a “disaster re-entry pass.”

The state passes weren’t honored in Beaufort County or the barrier islands after the storm.

“It didn’t work for us because there was no way to tell what kind of business you had,” Hilton Head Island Town Manager Steve Riley said. “You could have been a nail salon, or you could have been staff trying to get the nursing home back up and running. They all had the same pass that just said they were a business.”

Still, some local business owners were confused and attempted to return home early with the state pass on the belief that they would be let in but were turned away at barricades.

The county’s own re-entry passes, however, did allow some essential personnel into the county but also ran into other issues.

The passes are issued every three years, with a total 5,215 current passes valid through the spring of 2018, according to the county. The passes are exclusively for businesses that are essential to recovery efforts.

The categories include: immediate emergency responders and government support, “continued re-establishment” personnel such as hospital staff and road-clearing crews, and security passes for security teams such as those in private communities.

Many of the passes were given to private companies approached by the county in 2014 and 2015, though other businesses were able to apply for a pass, said a sheriff’s office spokesman.

But some business personnel who weren’t issued passes said they could have helped restore services to the area more quickly if they had been allowed to re-enter early.

The three-year period of the passes also meant that many new businesses weren’t included, while others had gone out of business.

“A lot of the businesses we gave passes to weren’t even around anymore,” Tanner said. “And some of the passes were getting to people that shouldn’t have had them. So maybe we need to make it every two years or every year instead of every three years. It’s something we’re going to look at.”

Other local leaders suggested technology could make the process easier, such as bar-code technology to verify and monitor re-entry passes.

“We’re still working on a 30-year-old system, which is a pass-card,” Riley said. “I feel like there is probably some system that we could look to, to do that more efficiently. So if we need the grocery stores open, maybe technology could help us distinguish who needs to come through and help us screen people that are lying.”

▪  Modernize re-entry communication

The post-disaster communication plans could be also be improved, county leaders say.

The written plan for disseminating information remains focused on older technologies and doesn’t account for the prevalence of social media in spreading post-disaster news.

Instead the plan focuses on traditional methods of spreading vital information: sending out messages to the press, directing residents to a 1-800 number for re-entry status and — a development added after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 — placing signs along highways with messages giving re-entry information.

Those communication methods helped spread some information, but many residents were frustrated by the lack of updates and looked to social media messages from their peers to fill in the gaps.

The 1-800 number also drew some criticism after it went for almost half a day without an update after the storm, frustrating evacuees looking for the latest information.

In future plans, the need for regular updates of the hotline will likely be included in addition to more attention to frequent social media updates about local conditions and re-entry plans, Tanner said.

Tanner said he also hopes to create plans to quickly post photo galleries of neighborhood conditions online, which could dissuade people worried about their homes from returning.

But though new communication plans are needed, there will also need to be some understanding on the part of the public, he said.

“We need people to have a little patience,” Tanner said. “When people did get home, I think a lot of them saw what we were dealing with, and then they got it. They understood.”

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh

This story has been updated to reflect the correct agencies involved in the state Business Reentry Certification system.