What a difference 17 years makes. It was in 1999 that then-South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges ordered an evacuation of the South Carolina coast in anticipation of Hurricane Floyd. The memories of Hurricane Hugo were still recent enough in people's minds that very few took the Governor's admonitions lightly. Coastal residents boarded up their windows, put plastic over their electronic appliances, and headed towards the interstate with intentions of a speedy evacuation.
There was only one problem. For Charleston residents, Interstate 26 was the primary means of egress, and just about everyone was leaving at the same time. Many evacuees will recall bumper to bumper traffic and moving at a snail's pace, as destinations which formerly took minutes to reach, suddenly took several hours. Ironically, as thousands of cars labored to make their way out of the Lowcountry, the opposing lanes of the interstate remained mockingly empty. Almost no one was driving into the coastal areas via I-26, yet for some reason frustrated drivers were not able to access those lanes to escape a potentially life-threatening storm. It was one of the many criticisms Gov. Hodges and his emergency management team received in the aftermath of the Hurricane Floyd.
Fast forward to Hurricane Matthew, and Gov. Nikki Haley, along with her hurricane response team, have finally gotten things right. Being extremely proactive, some would say to a fault, Gov. Haley declared a state of emergency and ordered an evacuation of coastal residents in South Carolina's low lying regions. That extra time allowed schools to close, residents to pack, and travelers to begin their departures in a more orderly fashion. Most importantly, the reversal of I-26's opposing lanes allowed them to also be used by evacuating residents and considerably lessened the pressure on the primary routes out of Charleston. From a personal standpoint, travel out of Charleston on Thursday afternoon took barely more time than it would take in a non-emergent situation. Clearly state officials learned from the last major hurricane to threaten the South Carolina coast, although the Floyd debacle occurred long before many current officials were even in office.
There are some business owners who took to social media to criticize the governor for ordering an evacuation so early, claiming that such a decision would hurt their businesses. While there is some validity to that position, especially in instances where a hurricane ends up doing minimal damage, Haley can't be blamed for erring on the side of caution. It's much better to have businesses prematurely shut down for the threat of a dangerous hurricane than to ignore weather forecasts and leave residents in harm's way. We're fortunate that Hurricane Matthew weakened and didn't hit the Charleston area directly, and we are also fortunate to have a state response team that took the threat very seriously.
If the purpose of emergency precautions is to protect life, and not merely to protect business profits or enhance travelers' convenience, then Gov. Haley and her staff did the right thing by being proactive with regard to Hurricane Matthew and should be commended. Hurricane Floyd ended up being a false alarm in terms of damage, and Matthew could obviously have been a lot worse. Hindsight in natural disasters is always 20/20. But the damage and hardship of Hugo left lessons that we continue to reflect on today. For those of us who took the warnings seriously, we should definitely thank the governor and her crisis management team for learning from the mistakes of past administrations. When it comes to matters of life and death, it is much better to be safe than sorry.