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Emergency plans take shape as Irma aims for Southeast

Hospitality and Tourism
Travis Boland
  • Travis Boland
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Gov. Henry McMaster, along with a number of state agency leaders, addressed the news media today in hopes of better preparing South Carolinians for the likely arrival of Hurricane Irma.

McMaster echoed his sentiments from Wednesday, urging people to prepare for the approaching storm.

This afternoon McMaster said the state’s planning for lane reversals on I-26 from Charleston to Columbia as well as major stretches of highways in the Myrtle Beach and Beaufort areas. McMaster added those lane reversals would go into effect at 10 a.m. Saturday if he announces a mandatory evacuation of coastal areas.

McMaster was unclear on what parts of the state would be under the evacuation order, waiting to see what track the storm would take over the next 48 hours.

He said it’s likely schools and government offices will be closed Monday and Tuesday. With the number of people expected to be on the roads, McMaster said he would like to have the paths as clear as possible.

During the press conference, it was announced 2,300 state law enforcement officers will be on the roads to assist motorists. Also, 800 National Guard troops have been deployed while that number is expected to climb to 2,500 by Sunday and 5,000 by Tuesday.

McMaster commented on his executive order that went out today calling for mandatory evacuation of health care facilities along the coast. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said there are 143 health care facilities in the region, and all have been contacted. 

As Hurricane Irma barreled toward the U.S. mainland and appeared on track to thrash the South Carolina coast by late Sunday, many are seeking safety in the Midlands as hotels begin filling up.

Hoteliers report today they are taking more reservations in preparation for the storm, Katie Montgomery, communications director for the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“We see that people are being proactive about getting out of the way of the storm,” Montgomery said. “Hotels are beginning to fill up, especially extended stay hotels.”

Montgomery said the extended stay hotels are popular because their units include some of the comforts of home such as kitchens and separate bedrooms. She estimated that 99% of the extended stay rooms in the Midlands are reserved.

It’s not a complete sellout as there are still rooms available in Lexington and Richland counties. “We have 13,000 rooms available in the Midlands area, and many of the hotels are trying to be as flexible as possible in accommodating everyone,” Montgomery said.

With people traveling to Midlands, roads are expected to become crowded. The S.C. Department of Transportation announced today it has restricted lane closures for non-emergency highway work on all interstate highways in South Carolina.

SCDOT reported on its Facebook page that it expects increased interstate travel from Florida and Georgia.

Columbia Metropolitan Airport reported that while it continues to monitor the storm, it is currently working at full operation. Airport spokeswoman Lynne Douglas said staffers are meeting about what possible impacts Irma could have on the airport. She added that an emergency plan is in place, and the goal of the airport is to make sure everyone is safe.

Travelers should check with their airline to get the final word of whether their flight will be delayed or cancelled, Douglas said.

Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control today advised owners and operators of reservoirs statewide to check their dams and take appropriate steps to safely lower the water levels today and through the next several days in preparation for potential problems caused by heavy rainfall from Irma.

"Owners of reservoirs with functional gates or flashboards should consider operating them to provide additional storage for the anticipated rainfall," said Jill Stewart, director of DHEC’s Dam Safety and Stormwater Permitting Division. "If there is a dam downstream of your dam and you are lowering your water level, please call the owner of that dam to advise him or her about what you are doing. Before and after the storm has passed, any accumulated trash and debris should be cleared from spillways."

In October 2015, a torrential storm dumped up to 2 feet of rain in sections of the state and triggered widespread flooding across the Midlands. Officials reported 19 dams in Richland County and three dams in Lexington County regulated by either state or federal agencies were breached.

The National Weather Service reported today forecasters think the hurricane will impact South Carolina as early as Sunday night lasting into Tuesday.

“Impacts would include periods of heavy rain that may lead to flooding, strong winds to tropical storm force or greater, and isolated tornadoes,” the weather service reported.

By the time Irma reaches the Midlands, it’s expected to be downgraded to a tropical storm. Still, forecasters expect more than an inch of rain could fall over the Midlands with winds ranging from 40 to 60 miles per hour.

On Wednesday, Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency, saying the hurricane now “may pose a significant threat to the state.”

The governor also ordered that “the South Carolina Emergency Operations Plan be placed into effect.” He ordered the activation of South Carolina National Guard at the discretion of officials.

Reach Travis Boland at colanews@scbiznews.com.

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