COVID-19 could change the way Horry County handles hurricane evacuations.
Should a storm threaten the Grand Strand this year and force evacuations, county officials said the area’s storm shelters will be unable to accommodate as many people as they normally would because of the need for social distancing.
“Please understand it’s different this year,” said Randy Webster, the county’s assistant administrator over public safety. “We’ll provide as much help, guidance and direction as we can, but folks need to take responsibility and understand what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.”
Webster explained the changes in the shelter program to county council’s public safety committee on Tuesday morning. Even though the county has added three schools to the list of potential shelters this year, the spacing limitations mean they have the capacity to hold about 6,000 evacuees. In a normal year, that number would be around 8,000.
This is the second year in a row that the county has made major changes to its hurricane shelter program. Last year, the county determined that no local schools could serve as hurricane shelters if the incoming storm was above a Category 1 in strength. A Category 2 storm has sustained winds of 96-110 mph.
In that situation, Webster said Coast RTA buses would drive through an evacuation zone and pick up passengers, who would then be transported to Ocean Bay Middle School. That school would serve as a transfer station, and evacuees would be taken from there to inland shelters.
“I need people to understand that if you get on a bus to go to a transfer station, you will be taken out of Horry County to another facility,” he said. “They’ll be brought back when it’s safe to do so.”
Even if local hurricane shelters are opened to evacuees this year, the process for receiving a bed there will be much different from the one used in years past, said Amy Brauner, the American Red Cross’s executive director for eastern South Carolina.
The Red Cross, which manages the shelters in partnership with the county and the school district, would check the temperature of each person entering the facility. Guests would also need to fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Should anyone exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, that person would be quarantined in a separate wing and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) would manage that area.
“We’ve been preparing for this,” Brauner said. “We want to make sure that we’re there for our community.”
The Red Cross shelters would run at about 60% capacity. There would be multiple hand-sanitizing stations and beds would be placed at least six feet apart to provide for social distancing.
But Brauner said the shelters should not be a first option for evacuees.
“We have been trying to get the message out to the community,” she said. “Now is the time to prepare for hurricane season. Know where you’re going to go.”
Horry County has three hurricane evacuation zones. They are known as Zone A, Zone B and Zone C. Depending on the severity of a storm, the governor could order an evacuation for some or all of the zones. In 2018, all three zones were evacuated for Hurricane Florence.
Zone A covers all areas east of U.S. Business 17 (Kings Highway) up to the U.S. 17 intersection and all areas east of U.S. 17 to the northern county line. Zone B encompasses all areas south of S.C. 707 and Longwood Drive, including all areas in Longwood Plantation (Blackmoor) to the Waccamaw River and all areas between U.S. 17 and U.S. 17 Business. Zone C covers all areas between U.S. 701 and S.C. 544 south of Browns Chapel Avenue and Highway 814, plus all areas east of S.C. 31 (Carolina Bays Parkway) to S.C. 90 and all areas east of S.C. 90 to the county line.
During Tuesday’s meeting, councilman Gary Loftus expressed concerns that residents might not understand if they are impacted by an evacuation order.
“I don’t think people realize what they really are,” Loftus said of the zones. “We need to get the word out to let them know that A, B, C means something.”
County officials did note that an evacuation order simply means residents are required to leave a specific zone. They don’t have to leave the county.
They said some people stay with friends in Conway during storms. Others leave the area entirely. Webster said residents who live in evacuation zones need to make plans now for all possibilities. He called public shelters a last resort.
“We want to encourage folks to have a better plan,” he said. “Plan to leave. Plan to shelter in another location. Shelter with a friend. Shelter in an area that you can be safe in, but don’t necessarily plan to go to a school.”
County officials also stressed that there are still some unknowns in their preparations. For example, if an evacuation is ordered for a hurricane that’s a Category 2 or stronger, the county would open the transfer center and work with Coast RTA on getting buses moving. But once those residents leave the transfer station, there’s no established destination for them — at least not at this time.
“We’re going to have huge challenges this year with this,” Webster said. “Hopefully, we won’t have a storm and we have to do this. I’ll be honest with you. I’m a little nervous about how all this is really all going to work because we’ve not done it in this environment.”