Hurricane prep should include return plan - and a Plan B

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Residents who tried to return to Beaufort County on Oct. 9, before the official re-entry word was given, jammed I-95 and many spent the night in their cars. PHOTO BY BRIAN TREACY

The car is packed, the kids are buckled in, the pooch won't sit still, the radio is turned on, the GPS is activated and the cell phone rests on the console. Hwy. 278 and beyond awaits.

There's a very good reason why then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley issued a state of emergency and mandatory evacuation order on Oct. 5, nearly three days before Category 2 Hurricane Matthew battered the Lowcountry with high winds and pounding rain: human safety.

"This is not something we want to play with," Haley announced at the time. "I don't want to sit there and talk about fatalities. Our goal is to save anybody we can."

"If one person stays behind, it's one person too many," said Tom Dunn, emergency management coordinator in the Hilton Head Fire Department.

By most accounts, more than half of the islanders and Blufftonians heeded her call and hit the road. Technically, residents who don't comply with the order are lawbreakers - but unlikely to be arrested.

Even though the federal government suggests planning for a three-day exodus during an evacuation, Dunn strongly recommends packing for a longer absence. Most Lowcountry evacuees were away from home for nearly a week before re-entry was granted.

"I'm adjusting my message to tell folks to plan for a week, or at least a minimum of five days," he said. "If we can get you back in three, awesome. If we can get you back in one, awesome."

Of course, there's a sense of worry and concern about being away from home. After all, Matthew's price tag has turned out to be about $53 million, Hilton Head Town Manager Steve Riley said. Bluffton suffered about $5 million in damages. As of March 30, about 2.2 million cubic yards of vegetative debris was removed from land and waterways on the island.

That's a lot of natural and structural damage, and Lowcountry homeowners have been keeping their hurricane and flood insurance agents very busy for months.

The state-issued re-entry order isn't a rubber-stamp decision.

"Safe means there are no trees in the road, no live power lines in the road, and we have a functioning hospital emergency room to take patients," said Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, Beaufort County emergency management director.

And he cautioned, even after returning home, assuming you can access it, your home might be unliveable or have suffered water or structural damage. You might have no electricity, there might be no cell phone service, and the neighborhood pharmacy or grocery store might be closed or have no food.

"You need to have a Plan B," Baxley advised. "It may be awhile before the trucks can come in. I'll take you back to Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Floyd went into the interior of North Carolina and dumped a huge amount of rain, and it closed I-95, which was 130 miles inland from the coast, for several days. Well, no trucks could run to deliver all of our goods. Grocery stores that were unaffected by the flood directly were empty because their supply routes had been interrupted by a flood somewhere else."

Being aware as best you can in the Columbia hotel room or your sister's home in Atlanta is strongly advised - as is getting your information from credible sources, not a random Facebook page with a photo of Hilton Head showing a blue sky and landscaped grass.

"The local people will have the best, most updated information," said Lt. Joe Babkiewicz, Bluffton emergency management coordinator. Rely on local television and radio stations and their constant weather updates, and government sources.

"Where do you get your information from?" Baxley said. "If you get it from the government official sources, we're going to tell you what the situation is. We'll tell you that a bridge has been severely compromised. We'll tell you that there is no electricity in this geographic area ... and we'll let you know when it will be restored."

When anticipating your return following hurricane evacuation, plan ahead, be patient, be smart, stay informed and don't take risks.

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