Emergency breeds problematic politics
Thankfully, Hurricane Florence’s actual impact on Charleston was negligible. Unfortunately, our neighbors in the Pee Dee and North Carolina weren’t as lucky. They’ll be dealing with this for months and years to come. Those of us old enough to remember Hurricane Hugo know — we remember. New comers and young people should take heed. Charleston will take the brunt of one of these hurricanes in the future. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Historically speaking, we are nearly due.
Politically speaking, hurricanes are very difficult for elected officials to navigate. One mistake can end their career or literally cost lives. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster was criticized for his early call to evacuate the entire coast in an alarming press conference several days before the state was to feel even the slightest effects of the storm. The next day McMaster reversed course and cancelled the evacuation order for the southern coast from Edisto Island to the Georgia line. Had he not done this, many elderly people living in retirement communities in places like Sun City would have been forced to rapidly relocate which would have been an extremely difficult and potentially dangerous situation for all involved. Charleston remained part of the state where residents were ordered to evacuate.
McMaster was ridiculed on the internet as a “premature evacuator.” His decision was questioned by members of the national media and even personalities on the Weather Channel. Charleston school children missed four days of school for a storm that never really affected us. Parents were forced to miss work and businesses closed. Even grocery stores and pharmacies shut down, effectively abandoning their customers. It was a stressful and expensive mess.
McMaster, facing re-election in a matter of weeks, was in an unenviable situation. We had a category four, potentially category five, hurricane very near us. Even though official National Hurricane Center forecasts never had the storm tracking this way, any change in our direction would have left little time to evacuate, especially given the fact that our roads are outdated and can’t handle our growing population. It should be noted that the Governor of North Carolina, the state consistently seen as the bullseye for landing, did take a more cautious approach to evacuation orders, but it’s hard to compare given that state’s superior road system.
Ironically, many evacuees from Charleston were forced to drive through dangerous weather conditions caused by then Tropical Storm Florence on their way back home. For them, the drive home ended up being more dangerous than simply staying put.
McMaster’s decision to evacuate Charleston probably ended up being the wrong call. That said, he faced a nearly impossible situation to successfully navigate. Wasted money and severe inconvenience are one thing. Hundreds of injures and deaths are another.
McMaster does deserve criticism though. His September 10 press conference describing the storm and announcing the evacuation was over the top in tone. In an almost frantic voice he proclaimed that a major hurricane is heading our way saying the winds were expected to be worse than Hugo. This was never the expectation for most coastal areas. Within minutes of his press conference, cars lined up by the dozens at local gas stations and stores sold out of supplies. This was four to five days before any storm effects were to be anticipated. The area’s new residents seemed genially scared and frightened, so did McMaster. Leadership demands a showing of confidence and strength. McMaster did neither. Even President Trump, not known to always (or ever) say the right things, made clear that the federal government was ready and prepared. Whether it was or wasn’t, he demonstrated the confidence the situation required.
Sadly, some parts of the state were hit hard and still face the threat of devasting flooding. Tragically, we lost some lives in the Pee Dee. McMaster seems appropriately focused on recovery and even spotted stranded travelers on top of their car attempting to escape rising waters during a helicopter tour.
In this era of warming waters and rising tides, hurricanes are more of a threat than ever. It’s now a part of our lives. Not occasionally, but seemingly yearly. Battling climate change is not something we should be debating any more. It’s time to listen to scientists and take their recommendations seriously.
It’s also time to stop pretending our roads and infrastructure aren’t a disaster waiting to happen. The Charleston area needs more roads, our interstates need more lanes and 526 needs to be extended. Sooner or later, a major hurricane will hit us. Currently, we don’t have the infrastructure to safely and timely get us all out. This needs to be a priority for McMaster if he wins a second term or for James Smith, should he be elected in November. This can’t be ignored and isn’t a partisan issue.
We need our leaders to lead or we need new leaders.
Lachlan McIntosh is a political consultant based in Charleston. He consults for Democratic and independent candidates throughout the United States. He is a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party and aid to Governor Jim Hodges. www.mcintoshconsultingllc.com.