Outbreak means new challenges for SC hurricane preparations

Meg Kinnard The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina has already been affected by one named storm before the official start of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, but state and county officials say this year’s preparations have been a bit different thanks to the unique challenges presented by the coronavirus outbreak.

Tropical Storm Bertha made landfall along South Carolina’s coast shortly after forming Wednesday morning. The storm brought gusty winds and heavy rain to the state but no major problems, like the coastal evacuations and sheltering operations sometimes necessitated with major weather events.

With a hurricane season that stretches into fall, when some have forecast a potential resurgence of the outbreak that has led to more than 100,000 deaths nationwide and more than 480 deaths in South Carolina. In April, state Emergency Management Division Director Kim Stenson said officials didn’t yet have a good plan in place if a storm were to hit during the outbreak, particularly for people potentially displaced from their homes in the aftermath.

At the time, Stenson said his agency was working to configure solutions for how to potentially handle thousands of evacuees in an age of social distancing, calling it “a good question” as to how such situations would be handled.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, although officials have pointed out that the state typically isn’t impacted until later in the season. According to the National Weather Service, most hurricanes affecting South Carolina have historically occurred later, from August through October. The earliest hurricane to impact the area was recorded nearly 70 years ago, in February 1952.

As it is during the coronavirus outbreak, Stenson’s agency acts as a statewide clearinghouse for coordination of emergency response during hurricanes, a centralized hub for the tracking of shelters and resources, as well as the dissemination of public information. Spokesman Derrec Becker said dealing with the outbreak has been “very much a part of discussions and planning” in the run-up to this year’s season, including in its hurricane guide, which Becker said will have specific outbreak-related information.

Counties along South Carolina’s coast, accustomed to being on the frontlines of storm season, acknowledge difficulties due to the outbreak but express confidence in their preparations.

In Horry County – home to Myrtle Beach, among the drivers of South Carolina’s $25 billion-dollar tourism industry – spokesman Thomas Bell said officials have been making plans for dealing with a major hurricane if one comes amid the outbreak, including urging residents to make sure they evaluate their own plans.

“Everything from sheltering, to evacuations, to the staffing of our county emergency operations center, is being considered in terms of potential changes,” Bell said. “One thing we are stressing to residents of Horry County is to review their hurricane plans and understand they could ultimately look a bit different for this season.”

In Charleston County, spokeswoman Kelsey Barlow said officials would follow state and federal guidance in amending its hurricane response plans in light of the pandemic, working on plans to implement social distancing and PPE use in shelters, if necessary. The current budget was set before the outbreak, and Barlow said considerations for such a possibility may change in future budget years.

“Since COVID-19 didn’t exist when the budget was developed for the current fiscal year, we did not account for purchasing PPE as a part of our hurricane planning,” Barlow said. “Moving forward this is something we will take into consideration in future budget years.”

Confident about the county’s current supply of personal protective equipment, Georgetown County spokeswoman Jackie Broach said Georgetown County is working to shore up its inventory and also has a policy to keep at least $8 million in an emergency fund to be used in instances including disaster recovery.

Broach also said officials had changed planning for how they would shelter evacuees, working with state officials and organizations like the American Red Cross to accommodate social distancing and entry screening requirements.

“COVID-19 obviously presents some extra hurdles,” Broach said. “We’ve been successful through multiple events, and there is nothing like real-world practice.”