Emergency teams waited as Dorian's threat grazed Bluffton

Things looked ominous on Sept. 3, with this graphic showing a 90%-plus percent change of tropical storm force winds in the Lowcountry in the following five days. COURTESY NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER

As hurricane impact goes, Dorian was mostly an inconvenience.

That doesn't mean nothing happened. Some sections of Bluffton lost power - one due to a tree that fell across power lines and blew up a transformer, as Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka reported during one of the town's informative video reports.

Unlike Hurricane Matthew, a weak Category 1 that is still costing money nine months after racking up $34.5 million in clean-up costs, other damages from Dorian reported by community managers and residents on social media were limited to downed trees, scattered branches, leaves and pine straw, and minor damages to structures like screened-in pools.

Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando said no town-owned property encountered any substantial damage.

"The town's Public Works team is vigilant to prepare for storms," he said, "and the team surveys each property and works to mitigate damage, such as trim trees, remove debris and so forth, prior to a major weather event."

Had Dorian affected the town in the way Matthew had, the town's damage-assessment team would have examined not only public infrastructure and town buildings but would have sent a team of town building inspectors to drive by most of the 13,000 homes and commercial buildings within the town's limits to determine damage and habitability.

"They would assess damage and notify the owners if the damage prohibits them from occupying the home or building until repairs are complete," Orlando said.

However, long before county and municipal officials worry about damaged buildings, they focus their concerns about keeping residents safe and that means gearing up the communications.

Bluffton Police Department's Emergency Manager Capt. Scott Chandler and Orlando both noted that communication was key to public safety.

"As with any critical incident, internal and external communication is key and paramount to public safety," said Orlando. "I am proud of the Bluffton team and each person who plays a part to protect our community. Since September 2016, Bluffton leaders and staff members have prepared for five storms. While each storm presents a new set of variables, the template for preparation, response and recovery has become more refined each time."

Bluffton does not operate in a vacuum, though, and as part of lessons learned from Matthew, officials throughout the county work as a team.

"Both the inter-agency and the intra-agency coordination is now a well-refined exercise for each stage of the storm," Orlando said. "For one, each municipality has signed a Memo of Agreement with Beaufort County detailing inter-agency coordination. That MOA itemizes how numerous storm-related tasks are implemented, and that each municipality will follow the county's standard operating procedures, ranging from issuing re-entry passes to major recovery efforts."

That communication took many forms - cell phone messages through Nixle from all of the area municipalities and law enforcement agencies, streaming video press conferences, emails and social media.

"Communicating the most accurate information in a timely manner is important. We want our citizens to be prepared and to be safe," Chandler said. "This may come across sometimes as over-reaction, but we are constantly updating our plan and our message to what the storm decides to do."

Once evacuation orders are implemented, staying or leaving becomes an individual family decision. One of the common concerns among residents was leaving their properties unattended because of the mandatory evacuation orders which took effect at noon Monday, Sept. 2.

Mandatory curfews were instituted for Wednesday and Thursday nights, and county residents heard from Beaufort County Sheriff J.P. Tanner that anyone found cruising around between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. would be having a long conversation with law enforcement officers.

According to Chandler, that message was taken to heart in Bluffton.

"There were no incidents directly related to Hurricane Dorian where we had to take law enforcement action. There were no issues with the mandatory evacuation," he said. "Those that did stay conducted themselves in an exemplary manner before, during and after the storm."

It's difficult, at best, to determine how many chose to stay or go. People who stayed for some of the other storms have been heard to say they would never do so again. Others, anxious because the reentry after Matthew was so difficult, have vowed never to leave.

"While I am unable to scientifically give a figure of those who did and did not evacuate, my observations based on traffic is that maybe 20 percent of the community evacuated," Orlando said. "The lane reversals were extremely helpful, and there were no issues with heavy traffic exiting or entering the Town of Bluffton."

Following Hurricane Matthew, local officials took a lot of heat for what residents saw as failure in several aspects of evacuation and reentry plans. Because of that, the county agencies have beefed up their use of social media, have spoken as one voice during every step of the storm, and implemented reentry plans that will allow a smoother, stage-by-stage process if needed.

According to Orlando, a new lesson learned was finding out that the town's current plan is solid.

"The Town has effectively incorporated lessons from prior storms. We have planned our work and we worked our plan," he said. "Many people comment they will always remember Mayor Lisa Sulka in the pouring down rain giving folks the latest storm update. Mayor Sulka is also stationed at the Bluffton Emergency Operation Center to respond to our citizens before, during and after each storm. It speaks to the love each elected official has for our community. Together, we are positioned, prepared and battle-tested to respond to any incident which the Town may face."

Which is a good thing, because hurricane season runs through October, and there are tropical storm systems out there right now.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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