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Hurricanes: ‘Survivors’ enjoy the ride during disaster drill

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Word spread quickly around Georgetown County’s airport Wednesday: Gov. Nikki Haley had scheduled an appearance. It was another complication during a chaotic day of drills designed to test state readiness for a hurricane.

The governor, it turns out, was not coming to Georgetown, but organizers had to find a way to accommodate her and the accompanying television cameras as they reacted to a devastating coastal storm that left the Waccamaw River bridge destroyed and the county airport a shambles.

The S.C. Air National Guard brought in air traffic controllers – something the airport doesn’t have now – and got 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. Black Hawk helicopters carried out search and rescue operations. A crew rescued two evacuees, Raymond Elling and Cindy Grace, from the Pawleys Island Nature Park.

Firefighters from Midway Fire and Rescue warned Elling and Grace to get on one knee when the Black Hawk got overhead. The downdraft would be 80 miles per hour from the rotors.

“It was a surreal feeling being pulled up on the tether into the Black Hawk,” Elling said. “I didn’t realize how short the roof was because it’s such a massive machine.”

Elling said the copter performed a simulated hard landing at the Georgetown County Airport as part of its mission. “The pilot turned the helicopter sideways and you could only see the ground out the side door,” he said.

The Black Hawk also picked up evacuees from the fire training tower at Midway Fire and Rescue on Willbrook Boulevard to simulate rooftop rescues. Chief Doug Eggiman was among the volunteer evacuees from the tower. “I can cross that off my bucket list,” he said. “It was very cool. It worked very well because that’s the kind of mode we could potentially be in: the bridges are out with serious flooding and storm surge, no roadways. Anytime we work with them it’s good because it gives us an opportunity, even though this was a hurricane scenario, to call them for other emergencies. It could be in a wilderness area like North Island where access is very difficult and you would have to carry a stretcher for two or three miles through dense woods. In addition, they become familiar with us and get the lay of the land. There are a lot of positive things from the drill. Training with live victims gives you an appreciation of what they are going through. That can make you a better rescuer.”

Sam Hodge, the county Emergency Management director, said Georgetown was doing more than any other county in the state. 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.

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

On the final day, the Highway 17 bridge over the Waccamaw River was destroyed and supplies had to be airlifted to 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. A chemical spill at 3V Chemical off Pennyroyal Road south of Georgetown Wednesday added to the chaos.

County spokeswoman Jackie Broach said the three-day drill was a valuable experience for county personnel. “We had minor issues of communications between agencies,” she said, “but cooperation was great between S.C. Emergency Management, the National Guard and Air Force.

“We hope the public takes something away from it too. While we’re using this time early in the hurricane season to practice, we encourage the public to do the same, think about evacuation routes, where they are going to take their pets, what they need to take with them. Now is the time to plan for a hurricane.”

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