Weathering Extreme Storms: Preparation Starts Early

Communities along the South Carolina coast are well acquainted with severe weather. Matthew, Irma, and Florence are just a few of the named storms that wrought havoc — or threatened to — in recent years. But preparing for extreme storms here begins well before hurricane season.

Communities along the South Carolina coast are well acquainted with severe weather. Matthew, Irma, and Florence are just a few of the named storms that wrought havoc — or threatened to — in recent years. But preparing for extreme storms here begins well before hurricane season.

“Starting around April and May, we start reminding customers that hurricane season is about to be upon us,” said Pete Nardi, general manager of Hilton Head Public Service District (PSD), which serves more than 19,000 customers in the north- and mid-island areas of Hilton Head Island.

“We don’t go around with any false bravado, we manage expectations,” he said. The key is getting people to understand what they might be facing. This means warning customers that utility services may not be available after a storm. “If you’re told to evacuate the island, go. You might not be able to flush a toilet. You might not have any tap water. You might not have any electricity.”

It also means reminding residents of steps they can, and should, take to protect their property during an evacuation. “Before you leave, do you know where your shutoff valve is? Can you valve off? Those kinds of updates are key for residents,” he said.

If a mandatory evacuation is ordered, PSD is ready to act. “The utility is in sync with all the other first responder agencies, which is really key for us,” said Nardi. PSD is closely tied to city and county emergency management teams in an emergency support capacity — and they plan all year long, sunny skies or not. “That’s things like where are we going to be staged,” he noted.

There is a base camp for all first responders on the mainland, but “our utility is actually the home of the Emergency Operations Center for the town,” said Nardi. It’s collocated at PSD’s facility in a Category-3-rated building with generator power.

The Emergency Operations Center functions according to a Joint Information Center (JIC) concept, a component of National Incident Management System (NIMS) protocol. All emergency support functions — including the utility — feed information to the Emergency Operations Center, allowing municipal-wide updates for the community. “It helps reduce the stress for the first responders that are going through the event and it helps give the customers, the public, a one-stop shop [for information],” he explained. That, in tandem with social media and an automated information line, help keep everyone informed before, during, and after a storm.

In the event that even the first responders have to evacuate the island, “we all evacuate together,” said Nardi.

He recalled Hurricane Matthew, which struck the island as an intense Cat-1/weak Cat-2 hurricane. It was the island’s first evacuation since 1999. “A lot of people were new to the island; it was a new experience for them,” he said.

For PSD, it was a successful exercise of the JIC/NIMS concept. During that event, “we worked through our operational conditions,” he said, from Condition 5 (normal) through Condition 1 (emergency management). “Once the hurricane hit, because of where we were located, we got back on the island very quickly,” he recalled, to conduct damage assessment and begin recovery.

“Plan A,” he said, “is to not have a hurricane.” But, if that plan fails, having a well-planned and tested Plan B, as PSD can attest, is essential for weathering extreme storms. WW

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