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Hurricane Hugo: Evacuation plans have changed in 25 years, but route is the same

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Sam Hodge, the county’s emergency management director, remembers most of what happened 25 years ago this month when Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast. He worked so hard for the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department in the days prior to the storm, he slept right through its landfall in a shelter at Socastee High School. He woke up to a community that had a new benchmark in time: before and after Hugo.

Storm preparation in 1989 was done on the fly. Hodge said things have changed for the better. “There’s not any comparison because we learned so much from Hurricane Hugo,” he said. “My biggest fear is complacency: People who think it’s OK to stay versus the influx of people who aren’t familiar with hurricanes at all. We try to drive home the message of being prepared.”

Models show that storm surge could be far more damaging to property in Georgetown County than hurricane winds, and the county emergency management preparations have changed to reflect that. A monster hurricane would bring flooding up Winyah Bay, the Intracoastal Waterway and all the connecting rivers and creeks. Hodge said 75 percent of the county could be evacuated, not just residents of the Waccamaw Neck.

“That has drastically changed,” he said. “Part comes with new technology and knowing areas that historically flood.” Gates on the lakes at Litchfield by the Sea can transfer floodwater and prevent Highway 17 from washing out, he said, and the county has an agreement with a property owner at River Oaks on the boundary with Ricefields to cross his lot as an outlet for residents who get trapped by flooding on the west end of Waverly Road.

“The biggest thing we’ve looked at post-Hugo is evacuation,” Hodge said. “The exit route hasn’t changed that much.” Georgetown and Horry counties, known as the Northern Conglomerate, will always evacuate together. “We share the same routes,” Hodge said. “We have to evacuate together. The cutoff line for going south is Atlantic Avenue in Garden City. Everybody in Murrells Inlet, Highway 707, the Prince Creek area are all coming through Georgetown. That may change in the future, but this season we are stuck with our friends from the north coming through Georgetown County.”

The number of tourists in the area will influence the evacuation plan. A storm threat in July or August would require a longer evacuation time.

“Evacuation has to be complete before the onset of tropical force winds of 34 miles per hour,” Hodge said. “Keep in mind the law enforcement officers and National Guard troops at our 17 traffic control points have to be off the road. If we are looking at a Thursday afternoon landfall for a hurricane, we’d start evacuating Tuesday afternoon. It’s a beautiful day out there, and I’m telling you to evacuate. Depending on the occupancy load, the minimum time needed is 22 hours, the maximum time, 43 hours, and it may turn toward Wilmington.”

Voluntary evacuation for a hurricane is a thing of the past, Hodge said. Now, the governor issues an evacuation order, and it can be enforced by law. There aren’t enough officers to go knocking on doors, he said, but parents of young children could be held responsible for their injuries or deaths if they don’t evacuate.

Hodge said the question he’s asked most often is when do the bridges close. They don’t. But he remembers transporting a patient to Georgetown Memorial Hospital the afternoon before Hugo hit with gusts of 25 to 30 miles per hour. The ambulance was swaying so much, he said he thought about walking across the bridge on the way back to Murrells Inlet.

Hodge cautions people that Hugo was just a Category 1 storm when it reached Georgetown County. Its most damaging winds struck Awendaw and McClellanville. Gusts were higher at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter than in Georgetown. “We need to keep in mind the amount of damage done in Pawleys Island and Garden City from a minimal Hurricane Hugo,” Hodge said.

Every year that passes quietly brings Georgetown County one year closer to its next hurricane encounter. It’s a matter of time, Hodge said. The county has built an Emergency Operations Center on Highmarket Street next to the Georgetown Police Station that is rated to withstand 160-mile-per-hour winds. In case of flooding, the operations crew of 50 to 60 people would move to a facility at the old Choppee High School that has fiber optic cable and generators. “Hopefully, we’ll never have to leave,” Hodge said.

Lessons learned from Hugo, he said, are that people need to evacuate when a hurricane is imminent. “The biggest thing with reaching the 25th anniversary is the complacency of our long-time residents,” he said. “I live behind Belin Church and had a limb in my yard after Hugo. That’s all I had. A couple hundred feet behind me, boats washed up from Captain Dick’s. My parents lived on Stanley Drive on the creek. Water was up past the kitchen counters in their house. They pretty much lost everything.”

A big wooden railing from the Garden City Pier washed into Hodge’s parents kitchen. He attached it to the wall of his own house under a mural of Murrells Inlet, a reminder of Hurricane Hugo.

Next week: Building standards have changed in 25 years since Hugo.

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