On Saturday, June 10, a bustling crowd of Beaufort County homeowners and their families assembled under a tent outside the Home Depot in Bluffton for the city’s second annual Storm Ready Expo. Hosted by the South Carolina Department of Insurance, the Expo was intended to encourage inclement weather preparedness at the beginning of hurricane season, which began June 1 and continues through the end of November.
“It’s an educational community outreach event,” said Ray Farmer, Director of the SC Department of Insurance, of the event, which was co-sponsored by The Home Depot and iHeartMedia. “We learned last year that a hurricane can hit this area. It was a Category 1 when it hit, but it caused an awful lot of damage, so our citizens need to take the opportunity to be prepared for whatever might come our way this year.”
Beaufort County was one of the areas that was most affected when Hurricane Matthew swept through South Carolina’s coast in October 2016. In response to the extensive property damage that resulted from Hurricane Matthew in Beaufort County last year, the DOI is stressing the importance of factoring in the potential for storm-related damages when choosing insurance policies.
On Thursday, June 8, the evening prior to the Expo, the DOI also hosted the annual Coastal Property Insurance Marketplace Information Session and Public Hearing at the Bluffton Municipal Building, at which DOI representatives answered the public’s questions about the coastal insurance market in preparation for storm season. The Storm Ready Expo, in contrast, invited various representatives of insurance agencies to share information in a casual setting.
“We just are taking this opportunity to gather with insurance companies and other common sense vendors that you could use in preparation for a storm,” Farmer said.
In addition to the various insurance agencies present, other vendors at the expo included the SC Wind and Hail Underwriting Association, The Red Cross, Kidde, BEHR Paints, and Serv Pro, among others. Also in attendance was Beaufort County Emergency Management Division, represented by Major David Zeoli, who reflected on Beaufort County EMD’s handling of emergency protocol surrounding Hurricane Matthew last year.
“Our department was in charge of the evacuation and the recovery. The evacuation, simply put, we felt went flawless, to the point that it worked perfect according to plan,” Zeoli said.
While Zeoli was proud of the evacuation procedures, he said that there was room for improvement with re-entry procedures, as many evacuees received mixed messages about re-entry from various social media and traditional media outlets, which caused public confusion and severe backups on highways.
“We’re . . . looking into a possible way to better our re-entry passes, and better ways to bring people back in as far as social media, because social media got ahead of us last time, and we’re not going to let that happen again.”
Zeoli views social media as both a useful tool and a challenge in weather-related emergencies. As the public takes to Twitter and Facebook to share information as weather events unfold, Zeoli says it can be hard to establish a voice of authority, especially during evacuations. But he says his division—along with the entire Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office—has tried to improve its social media presence this year across various platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Nixle. Additionally, Beaufort County EMD launched a free app that Zeoli promoted to Beaufort County residents at the expo.
“[It] will give them all of the evacuation routes. They can actually write a plan with that app,” he said.
From apps to insurance policies, the resources presented by the vendors at the expo were united by a common theme: to encourage individuals educate themselves about the resources available to them. Farmer said he believes the public has become more vigilant after seeing and experiencing both the effects of the Thousand-Year Flood in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew, but he continues to stress the importance of avoiding complacency when it comes to storm readiness.
“You know, we haven’t had a large event since Hurricane Hugo, but Hurricane Matthew just serves as a reminder: yes, we can be hit . . . so we just need to take the time to plan, prepare and protect ourselves and our families,” said Farmer.
The DOI hosted another Storm Ready Expo in Myrtle Beach on Saturday June 24, and EMDs from several other coastal counties have hosted their own storm readiness events this month. Although Hurricane season extends through November, Major Zeoli asserted that now is certainly the time to prepare.
“Now is the time, when the sun is shining, to prepare for when it’s not. Do it now when the sun is shining. That’s the best way I can say it,” Zeoli said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts there will be 11-17 named storms this season, where 12 is average. There’s no way to know if any of those storms will affect South Carolina, but it can’t be ruled out.