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Hurricane evacuation: O'Connell wants state to restore lane reversal plan

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Council members want to be informed in the future if changes that affect the county are made to state emergency plans.

A provision that allows traffic to head south in one of the northbound lanes of Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck was removed from the state hurricane plan this spring due to budget cuts and lack of staff to manage the process.

The change was not brought to council for approval, and Council Member Glen O’Connell said he only found out about it recently.

Sam Hodge, the county’s emergency manager, and Sel Hemingway, the county administrator, explained that it’s not normal procedure to get council approval when state or federal plans change, even if the plans were previously adopted by council.

O’Connell argued that in this case the matter should have gone to council.

“It was adopted as part of the county’s emergency plan, so we changed the county’s emergency plan without telling County Council,” O’Connell said. “Can you understand why I’ve got a problem with that?”

The lane reversal plan, put in place after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, reverses the lanes between Prince George and Black River Road to help speed evacuations.

It was removed after an annual meeting between Georgetown County Emergency Management, the sheriff’s office, Georgetown City Police, Highway Patrol and the state Department of Transportation.

According to information presented to council, Highway Patrol officials received a letter from the Georgetown Police after the meeting asking, with consent from the sheriff’s office, to remove the lane reversal from the state plan. A letter of consent was then requested and provided by Georgetown County Emergency Management.

Georgetown County doesn’t have the signs, signals and other traffic control devices needed to conduct a lane reversal, so people have to be available to direct traffic, Hodge said.

There isn’t enough staff to handle it and all the other duties that have to be seen to during an evacuation, he said. In addition, the lane reversal doesn’t have a big enough impact to justify keeping it in place.

“You may relieve a little pressure on Waccamaw Neck, but it compounds issues farther on,” Hodge said.

Traffic is forced back into two lanes just outside Georgetown, creating a bottleneck that leaves motorists sitting on the road anyway, he explained.

“You end up going through a lot of trouble to put this lane reversal in and you’re not getting much out of it,” said Richard Jenkins, a traffic management engineer with the highway department.

Folks are safer sitting on the road 30 miles away from the coast than 3 miles away, O’Connell argued. The benefit to getting folks over the Waccamaw River bridge faster should be taken into account, he said.

“I see what you’re saying,” Jenkins said. But state officials are tasked with getting folks at least 100 miles away from the coast. They have to stay focused on the big picture, he added

Highway Patrol Capt. Rob Woods asked council to consider the negative impacts lane reversal on Highway 17 has farther inland, in areas such as Kingsburg where Highway 51 from Georgetown County intersects with Highway 378 from Horry County.

“There are lots of pieces to this and if you move one from one area to another, it’s going to have a negative impact,” he said.

Also, evacuation procedures have improved since Hurricane Floyd, so comparing the situation then to what motorists would experience now is ineffective, Woods added.

Bert Cassels, who helped develop the lane reversal plan, asked County Council to keep the plan on the books, even if it’s not used.

“If it becomes necessary to execute it, the plan will be there rather than four or five years later trying to come up with another plan that, in essence, will be the same plan everybody has forgotten about,” he said.

The lane reversal process can still be used later, even if it’s not included in the plan, Hodge said, but the best option is for citizens and visitors to evacuate when the order is given and not wait until the last minute.

The change to the state plan was promoted locally in several public forums, including local hurricane programs and property owners association meetings, Hodge added.

O’Connell was not appeased.

“If you can go to the list of places you went to and not come here … . Don’t tell me that kind of stuff,” he said.

Hemingway intervened. In the future, he said, council will be made aware of meetings where the plan will be discussed, as well as any changes being considered.

“I don’t think we’re going to get this changed and revisited for this [hurricane] season, but we will certainly look at it again and take the advice of council,” he said.

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