By Ruben Lowman
Horry County officials have announced major alterations to the county’s hurricane emergency management plans and protocol that have already been heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Horry County Council discussed hurricane planning, mitigation and recovery logistics during a council meeting last Tuesday, July 14, amidst an increasing level of nervousness among county officials about the potential mix of COVID-19 and major storms as the hurricane season moves into its most active months. August, September and October have the highest frequencies of tropical storms and hurricanes along the east coast every year.
Randy Webster, the county’s assistant administrator for public safety, announced that the evacuation plans and public shelter protocol would be significantly adjusted to adhere to social distancing guidelines put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Let’s use these shelters as a true last resort. If there’s a place that you can go, that’s the recommended process now,” Webster said.
The altered evacuation protocol means county residents who are seeking public shelter during a Category 2 hurricane or higher would be bused outside of the county as the storm approaches and until it is deemed safe to return.
Horry County Emergency Management spokesperson Thomas Bell also said that screenings for the coronavirus will be administered to those seeking shelter and personal protective equipment will be available.
Echoing Webster’s comments, Bell said that residents should examine their own plans and evacuation strategies differently this year, to compensate for the restrictions that will be in place.
“Especially with COVID, we really want people to take a hard look at what their hurricane plan is. Your previous plan might not be the best plan this year,” Bell said. “See things through the lens of COVID to better prepare yourselves and anyone that might be a part of your hurricane plan.”
Horry County Council previously discussed some of the strategic changes that would need to be implemented to continue to protect the county’s residents at a Public Safety Committee meeting the week before on Tuesday, July 7.
Bell said that lessons learned after Hurricane Michael in 2018 forced the county to analyze their strategy going forward. The new busing protocol was first rolled out last year, but it was not necessary to implement.
As part of this alteration public shelters will now only be available in Horry County for Category 1 hurricanes or tropical storms, Webster said.
In this scenario, the Red Cross will continue to operate the shelters as they have been, only with added social distancing measures in place. For example, whereas the shelters generally allot around 20 square feet per person, they will now need about 60 feet per person. The shelters will continue to be public schools around the area, including North Myrtle Beach High School and Loris High School.
For any storms with stronger winds than Category 1, residents seeking shelter would be bused by Coast RTA to transfer stations, where they would then board motor coaches in groups of between 45 and 60 people and transported to safe locations that will be determined as the storm approaches.
Webster put it simply so residents would be clear of misinterpretation about the new changes.
“If you get on the bus and it’s a Category 2 or higher storm, you’re leaving Horry County. Now is the time to start figuring out what to do.”