“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when a hurricane is going to hit Bluffton.” That was the message Capt. Joe Babkiewicz stressed at a hurricane information meeting recently hosted by the Bluffton Police Department.
“The biggest thing is, people say I don’t have to plan for the hurricane because it’s not going to happen here,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Babkiewicz showed a map of the Southeast with tracks of hurricanes from the past five years. Attendees could barely see the land for the mass of spaghetti trails covering the mid-Atlantic to the Caribbean and up into the Midwest.
Babkiewicz, who oversees the Emergency Management and Training Division of the Bluffton Police Department, said that once a storm hits the town of Bluffton, all emergency services stops.
One resident who did not evacuate during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 experienced that challenge first-hand.
Babkiewicz received that call in the Emergency Operations Center.
“It’s one of the worst things. I’m on the phone with this lady. She broke her ankle. A tree came down and literally split the house. The only thing we could tell her was ‘are you able to get somewhere safe?’ and that’s what she did,” he said.
When the storm was over, it took first responders some time to get to her because of all the trees that were down around her.
Sgt. Mike Danyov, also a member of the emergency division, said the woman was trapped for nearly 36 hours at a point where every emergency vehicle and all first responders were directed to get off the road and take shelter.
“(If) something happens to you, you can’t get to us and we can’t get to you. So you’re stuck,” Danyov said.
When residents return to their homes, it’s a good idea to check on those neighbors who didn’t evacuate.
The bigger the storm, the more distant the rescue
Babkiewicz and Danyov said that because of lessons learned from Matthew and 2017’s Tropical Storm Irma, the town and county have developed working relationships with the various municipalities and businesses. In the event of another major storm, officers will take shelter at Evicore, the medical services company next to the BPD.
“That building is able to withstand a Category 3 hurricane,” said Babkiewicz. “Anything more than a category 3 hurricane and our entire force is evacuated to Barnwell. We’re not even going to be in town if anything more than a category 3 comes through. So now, if you decide to stay, your closest emergency support is over 99 miles away.”
Those living along the water or in equally low-lying areas in the county need to evacuate.
“The most dangerous part of a hurricane is the storm surge – the energy that pushes the water from the ocean or bay onto the land,” said Babkiewicz. “Hurricane Katrina was a Cat 3 storm, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. It caused 2,500 deaths from the storm surge. It was so unpredictable.”
When it comes to making a statewide determination of the dangers, the governor first declares a state of emergency and then orders evacuations. Both Bluffton police officers said it is best if residents leave before an evacuation order is given.
“The key to evacuation is north and west, and remember, everyone from Florida and Georgia are also moving north and west,” said Danyov. “Take the backroads if you know them, but have a full tank of gas. Make sure you have two routes.”
Don’t count on your GPS alone. If cell towers go down or power goes out, there will not be a signal to receive. Print out a map or get an old-fashioned map book.
Who you gonna call?
“The biggest issue we had following Matthew was miscommunication,” said Babkiewicz.
Because neighbors who stayed behind showed photos of them and their undamaged homes on social media during Matthew, and the fact the governor declared an all-clear for the state in general, residents rushed to return to Beaufort County, not realizing local law enforcement was not allowing people to return to their homes due to safety issues.
“Wait until it’s safe. If we keep you out, it’s not to inconvenience you, it’s not to flex muscle. We’re doing it because we feel like it’s unsafe,” said Danyov. “If you find yourself at a point where somebody in uniform like ours or somebody in the military tells you to turn around, go ahead and turn around.”
A number of options are available for getting the correct information from reliable sources, including county, town and local law enforcement pages on Twitter and Facebook.
“Listen to the news. Don’t just listen to any news. Listen to local news. If you recall the nightmare about coming back from Matthew – some people spent 24 hours on 278,” said Babkiewicz. “An all-clear by the governor doesn’t mean the local law enforcement has cleared the area.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.