A hurricane that brings the Atlantic Ocean to your front door. A dangerous chemical spill on the I-526 stretch of Daniel Island that threatens the very air you breathe. A terrorist strike just across the river at the Wando Welch Port Terminal.
Daniel Island residents review maps brought by Berkeley County Emergency Preparedness Director Tom Smith of the island’s potential vulnerability to hurricanes and storm surges.
If these possibilities sound a little far-fetched, then here is your reality check. Yes, these events could happen here, according to the regional emergency preparedness officials who addressed last week’s gathering of the Daniel Island Neighborhood Association. The bigger question is, are you prepared?
"…I’d hate to say you are perfectly safe under all conditions (on Daniel Island)," said Tom Smith, Berkeley County’s director of emergency preparedness, to the captive DINA audience. "That’s not going to be the case."
Among the concerns discussed at the meeting was the impact of a hurricane-induced storm surge at high tide. According to Smith, normal Carolina tides run about three to five feet, but in October the level could reach up to seven feet. A high tide, plus a storm surge, could add up to big problems for Daniel Island residents.
"There are only six points on Daniel Island that are higher than 20 feet above sea level," said Smith.
"… If you’re at 20 feet and it’s a 17-foot storm surge, and high tide tonight is going to be 7 feet, when that storm surge is being pushed by that hurricane, you’ve got 24 feet of water to deal with… You do live on an island, and at a point where you are watching the weather, please evacuate on your earliest opportunity."
But while the community shouldn’t be needlessly frightened or alarmed by what could happen, experts stressed that being "in the know" is the best way to go.
"You have a straight shot to the open ocean between the jetties (from Daniel Island)," said Smith. "So remember one thing…develop a personal hurricane plan, practice an evacuation route and make plans and provisions to get out of the area early."
"If you fail to plan, you plan to fail when it comes to disasters," added Bob Connell, PhD, program manager of Homeland Security Grants for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. "And you don’t want to fail. If you just make some simple preparations, it makes all the difference in the world. It can save your life and your family’s lives."
Both Connell and Smith spoke about the devastating train wreck and subsequent chlorine gas spill in Graniteville, S.C. in January 2005. According to published reports, nine people died in the disaster and more than 250 people were injured.
"Folks died (in Graniteville) because they didn’t know what to do," said Connell. "…People came down and ran into the gas. Most people nationwide aren’t ready for those types of things, whether it’s chlorine gas, a hurricane or an earthquake. In fact, the American Red Cross says one in ten people nationwide is minimally prepared for a disaster."
"If the ‘mean and nasty’ is outside, stay put," said Smith, referring to an airborne chemical threat. "Go immediately and cut off the air handling and ventilation system and stay in place. Do the best to help seal things up. If you can find some tape, start taping up doors."
Smith told the crowd about a potentially catastrophic event that occurred just over the Cooper River from Daniel Island, near the Naval Weapons Station, last May.
"It was right in your yard…500,000 pounds of potential high explosive, that was self-reactant with water, was on fire and it was a mess," he said. "We kept a vigil on that all night."
In the end, thanks to the "heroic action" of firefighters and other workers, the blaze was extinguished, said Smith, but hazardous threats like this one remain a real possibility.
"Over that 526 bridge, and with the port right there, you’ve got every kind of nasty chemical known to man that travels up and down that waterway and is part of the sea port right there."
Connell and Smith recommend keeping a three-day supply of food and water in your home at all times. If the threat of a pandemic flu is a possibility, a two-month supply is needed. In addition, both guest speakers stressed the importance of having alternative communications plans.
"What would you do if cellular service was down?" Connell asked audience members. "Making plans for alternative communications is very important because cell phones may not be available."
Having a pre-selected meeting place for family members can also be helpful. In addition, it’s a good idea for neighbors to come together to prepare for potential disasters in advance so they can map out how certain situations would be handled, said Connell, especially when you consider that both the James B. Edwards Bridge and the Don Holt Bridge will be shut down at sustained wind speeds of just 40 miles per hour.
"Your emergency responders make up about 1 to 2 percent of the population, so you think about them trying to help you out, well, they may be tied up as well," added Connell. "It might be a significant amount of time before you’re going to get any help from a responder. If (they) can’t get in…who is going to help you? You’ve got to help each other."
Another preparedness tool that residents can employ is to register their cell phones for "emergency text alerts" through the state’s REACH program www.reachsc.com. Berkeley County Councilman Tim Callanan, also in attendance at the DINA meeting, hopes that the county will soon come up with its own automatic alert system, similar to one currently in operation in Charleston County.
"What concerns me…is that the island is surrounded by ports," said Callanan. "If there is ever an incident with the ports…could we get the message out fast enough if we had to, to have a fairly quick evacuation?... How often are you watching TV or listening to the radio? If you have that communication device on your hip, that seems like the most logical place to disseminate information quickly."
Smith also wanted Daniel Island residents to know that there is not an emergency shelter located on the island "because of the area and how close it is to sea level". The nearest shelter would be housed within the Cainhoy Elementary Middle School. If bridge closings are a factor, Smith said the only evacuation route available would be Clements Ferry Road.
"Time and distance is your best ally," he said. "Put time and distance between you and that storm. Don’t hang around here. And remember to take your pets with you."
Disaster Preparedness Online Resources
Map your neighborhood
Information on how neighbors can come together to come up with a plan to prepare for disasters – www.BeReady.SC.gov.
What’s your RQ?
Take a quiz to determine your "readiness quotient", or how prepared you, your family, or your business are for a disaster – www.whatsyourrq.org.
Phone emergency alert notification
Register your home phone or cell phone for emergency alert notification of any potentially threatening situations within your zip code – www.reachsc.com.
Disaster kit planning
Find out what you should be putting aside in your home disaster kit, as well as other pertinent information on preparing for potentially life threatening situations – www.ready.gov.
Get the facts on how to understand hurricane lingo (warnings, watches, storm strengths, etc.), as well as critical information on how to prepare and evacuate in the event of a storm – www.fema.gov or www.co.berkeley.sc.us/departments/emergency_preparedness/index.php.