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Hurricane season: Disaster in the forecast for June drill

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

As if the winter ice storm wasn’t bad enough, Georgetown County is bracing for the start of hurricane season on June 1. The coastline will be devastated, the Waccamaw River bridge destroyed and the county airport a shambles.

None of that will bother tourists. All the damage will be part of a statewide drill. But what will attract attention will be military aircraft, including some Blackhawk helicopters that will rescue storm victims from Pawleys Island.

“We’re doing more than anyone in the state,” said Sam Hodge, the county’s Emergency Management director. That level of participation should boost public awareness of hurricane preparation. Equally important, he said, it will boost awareness at the state level of the county’s disaster needs.

Hodge took part this week in a table-top hurricane drill in Columbia conducted by the governor’s office. “Georgetown County was the focus of that exercise,” he said. “There’s a lot more awareness at the state level of Georgetown.”

The statewide drill will run June 2 through 5. The first two days will be focused on storm preparation and evacuation exercises. Those are opportunities to “get all the team players involved,” Hodge said.

The hypothetical storm will hit on the third day. “The big thing for us in Georgetown is our airport is going to get taken out,” Hodge said.

The S.C. Air National Guard will bring in air traffic controllers – something the airport doesn’t have now – and get the airport back in operation as if it were a major hub. The Guard will bring in F-16s to fly reconnaissance missions along the coast to assess storm damage. The digital imagery will go to the county’s emergency operations center.

The Blackhawk helicopters are scheduled to carry out search and rescue operations. One scenario has them rescuing evacuees from the Pawleys Island Nature Park. They wanted to pick up victims from the roof of the gazebo in the park, but that was ruled out. Hodge said the roof-top drill is likely to be run at the Midway Fire and Rescue station on Beaumont Drive. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff at Pawleys,” he said.The town of Pawleys Island plans to let the rental companies know about the timing of the drills so they can tell people staying on the island.

On the final day, the scenario will destroy the Highway 17 bridge over the Waccamaw River and supplies will be airlifted from Georgetown by a C-130. The cargo plane can only land at the airport four times because of the effect of its weight on the runway, Hodge said.

And once things are under control, there will be a traffic accident outside Georgetown involving a bus and a chemical spill. “There are a lot of moving pieces,” Hodge said.

The county was the scene of a National Guard and emergency preparedness drill this winter. Hodge hopes to get a larger, regional National Guard drill to come to the county in 2015. “It’s good for the economy,” he said.

Forecasters have predicted “below normal” hurricane activity this year, but this will be the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo and the 60th anniversary of Hurricane Hazel, which caused significant damage along Waccamaw Neck. And Gov. Nikki Haley noted at this week’s drill that only one storm made landfall in 1992, but it was Hurricane Andrew that devastated South Florida.

“The first week in June may not be the best time to be flying up and down the beach,” Hodge said. “But I think it’s going to bring great awareness of hurricane season.”

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