How S.C.’s Different Responses to Florence and Michael Reflect Lessons Learned

South Carolina’s response to news of Hurricane Michael, as opposed to its response to Hurricane Florence, showed a thoughtful adjustment by state officials, suggesting that some important lessons were learned between the two storms. Tracking the path of a hurricane is an imprecise science and Hurricane Florence did cause tremendous damage to parts of the Carolinas. But Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision to react so quickly before the path of the hurricane became more clear might best be described as premature evacuation.

While it is true that the ultimate goal of any natural disaster response is to save lives, almost everyone can agree in retrospect that McMaster’s early mandatory evacuation order in response to Hurricane Florence was not necessary, at least for counties south of Horry. It is better to be safe than sorry, but when schools and businesses in Charleston close for five days while the weather remains peaceful and sunny, some recalibration of storm protocol might be in order.

Let’s compare it to going into an exam on Shakespeare and mistaking The Tempest for Much Ado About Nothing. For most of the state, the disproportionate response to Florence’s impending arrival definitely qualified as the latter. (Regrettably, in the days following the storm, areas surrounding Kershaw and Conway did receive substantial flooding.)

Compare the early drumbeat of official warnings pre-Florence to the relative silence before the coming of Hurricane Michael, a storm every bit as ominous and no less potentially devastating. Hurricane Michael did strengthen much more quickly, but even as the storm demolished the Florida Panhandle, state officials in South Carolina remained out of the public eye. Schools and government offices in Charleston for instance did close, but only for only a day.

This more prudent, “wait and see” approach had significant advantages over jumping the gun, particularly since Michael’s initial effect on South Carolina was similarly minimal. There was no mandatory evacuation or lane reversal, and while most of the state received a little more rain and a lot more wind than during Florence, the measured response to Michael did not expose state residents to any greater harm.

Hindsight is 20/20, and it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback when you’re not tasked with making a difficult decision in the heat of the moment. Governor Rick Scott of Florida did not call for an evacuation for Michael from the state level, a choice that may well expose him to criticism. Each state’s governor has the ultimate — and very difficult — job of whether to declare a state of emergency when a hurricane threatens, and it is unfair to hold McMaster personally responsible for his response to Florence when his decision, at most, represented a temporary inconvenience that cost some businesses a few days of revenue.

So, to his credit, McMaster seems to have learned from Florence, leading to a much more appropriate response when Michael threatened. That suggests a willingness to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the future, a trait that is commendable in any elected official.

Imagine what the reaction would have been had the the state’s response to Michael been the same as it was to Florence. Many residents would no doubt begin to take future mandatory evacuation orders with a grain of salt, with ideas that our elected officials had no idea whether a major hurricane was going to hit. Something like, “The last two times there was an order to evacuate, it was sunny and all we received was a little bit of wind. Why should we leave this time?” And then, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the next Hugo would strike. For that reason, it is of tremendous import that mandatory evacuations are ordered sparingly, only when officials are reasonably certain that a direct strike by a major storm is imminent.

That lesson was undoubtedly learned by McMaster and other state officials who coordinated the evacuation plan when Florence threatened. Today, we have been doubly blessed in the Lowcountry, having been largely spared by the last two major storms to threaten our state. As we pray for the residents of the Carolinas and Florida who were not so fortunate, we should also pray for continued wisdom in our elected officials so that they might properly discern when a mandatory evacuation is truly necessary.

This article, written by Dwayne Green, first appeared in the Charleston City Paper on October 17, 2018. View Dwayne’s full archive of articles at the Charleston City Paper as a guest columnist.

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