May/June 2006by Marc Rapport

Before the Storm and After: DNR Officers Provide Crucial Help

DNR's Buck Sgt. Tony Spires (left) with Sgt. Robert Hodges, of the Louisiana State Police - photograph by Todd CambellTucked away inside a National Guard armory building atop a knoll in the Lexington County village of Pine Ridge is an emergency operations room that looks like something out of Hollywood.

In fact, it often appears on TV. This is the command center of the Emergency Management Division (EMD), part of the state Adjutant General's office. Its semicircles of desks and phalanx of computer and television screens are where leaders, planners and responders gather when big storms threaten South Carolina.

Connected by satellite and phone lines, backed up by generators and protected by double-pane windows and other specialty construction intended to absorb nature's fiercest blows, they track storms, issue warnings, advise on evacuation orders and help direct cleanup efforts afterward.

Participants in this process include such agencies as the S.C. Department of Transportation, State Highway Patrol, SLED, the governor's office, the National Guard, National Weather Service and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

SC Emergency Management Division"Our work is directed by the South Carolina Emergency Operations Plan, something we're constantly updating, practicing and refining," says Jon Boettcher, hurricane programs coordinator with EMD. "And one of our major partners in this effort certainly is the DNR."

DNR Director John Frampton is part of the executive team directing the entire operation. "From climatologists getting ready for the storm, to hydrologists dealing with the flooding, law enforcement on guard throughout, to geologists and biologists studying the storm impacts for years to come, DNR's diverse staff is doing everything possible to reduce vulnerability to disasters," says Frampton.

Then there are the troops. As many as 175 or so DNR officers could be involved in an agency deployment for a full-blown hurricane threat to the coast, says Maj. John Watford, who oversees DNR's law-enforcement operations. That's pre-storm and post-storm in the field, and doesn't include the other staffers at DNR's own command center at agency headquarters in downtown Columbia and at the EMD central command post in Pine Ridge.

"We take on a wide variety of roles," Watford says. "Search-and-rescue is a big one. We also help the Highway Patrol with traffic control during evacuations. And the Intracoastal Waterway and barrier islands are primarily our responsibility."

That means that once Department of Transportation gives the word, DNR officers go from boat to boat on the Waterway, advising crews that the drawbridges will be locked down when the wind reaches a certain point, trapping many watercraft where they are until the storm passes.

And on the islands, they go from home to home, advising people that it's time to leave and offering to help. If it's a mandatory evacuation, and residents decline to leave, they're asked to provide contact information for next of kin.

"It's grim, but it's necessary," Watford says. "Once conditions deteriorate enough, we pull our people back and ride out the storm. Some of these places can be twenty or thirty miles away. We can't help them after a certain point, not until after the storm."

After a hurricane passes, DNR can use its shallow-running boats to scour flooded areas for people in need of rescue (thirty-eight officers and nineteen johnboats were sent to New Orleans to help after Katrina) and also sends aloft helicopters and small airplanes.

"We can cover a lot of ground in a little time, assessing damage and seeing if there are areas where other agencies need to get in and help, as well as doing directly what we can," Watford says.

While all those DNR officers are involved, the agency's corps of volunteer law-enforcement officers helps continue coverage inland, such as patrolling the state's inland lakes and helping keep the woodlands safe.

South Carolina learned many lessons from hurricanes Hugo and Floyd, including where to deploy officers and how to help people evacuate from the coast, as well as how best to get to those who need help the most after the storm.

Bottom line: When it comes to hurricanes, as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi used to say, the best defense is a good offense. In this case, that means being proactive.

"Pay attention to weather forecasts," says Ron Osborne, director of the state EMD. "Pay attention to evacuation warnings. Keep an eye on the storm.

"State and local agencies of all kinds are working closely with the media to keep everyone as updated as we possibly can, but it's up to you to pay attention and to decide what you need to do to protect your property, and your lives."

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