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‘Extraordinarily lucky’: How Georgetown is faring and officials’ response to critics

A sign advertises seats on the ark in a store in downtown Georgetown, S.C. 
Residents of Georgetown County are continuing to watch for the forecasted flooding that has not yet arrived. Georgetown officials have reduced estimates for the severity flooding from the waters that has ravaged areas of Horry County. Friday, Sept. 28, 2018.
A sign advertises seats on the ark in a store in downtown Georgetown, S.C. Residents of Georgetown County are continuing to watch for the forecasted flooding that has not yet arrived. Georgetown officials have reduced estimates for the severity flooding from the waters that has ravaged areas of Horry County. Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. jlee@thesunnews.com

Floodwaters touched few parts of Georgetown County though local and state officials worked extensively to prepare for flooding, building AquaDams along U.S. 17 and warning residents to leave.

Streets were dry and water came into some parking lots at high tide Friday on Front Street in Georgetown. The worst of the flooding was expected in the middle to late portion of the past week. But county spokeswoman Jackie Broach said Georgetown County has dodged two bullets this month — Hurricane Florence and flooding.

“We are all kinda starting to breathe a sigh of relief,” Broach told The Sun News on Friday. “We’ve just been extraordinarily lucky.”

On Saturday, the county moved to Operation Condition (OPCON) 3 status as the focus shifted from response to recovery. When asked about criticism officials have received for being too cautious, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster staunchly defended state and local actions during a Facebook Live hosted by the South Carolina Department of Transportation on Saturday.

“I’d rather have people complaining than going to funerals,” he said following an airplane tour over the area with Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber and South Carolina Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall. “We are not going to gamble ever with a single South Carolina life.”

Broach noted there were spots of the county that had flooded, mainly in the Plantersville area and spots along the Waccamaw River in Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet.

“They are going to be hurting for a while,” she said.

Though the flooding was not as bad as expected, Broach said it was better to be prepared.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “But so much better than having not prepared.”

McMaster reiterated that stance Saturday.

“You prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and that’s what we did and we’ve always done,” he said. “You can buy more stuff, you can even buy a new car or you can buy a new house, but you can’t get another momma or another brother or another sister.”

Georgetown County officials made plans based off the S.C. Department of Natural Resources flood approximation map, Broach said. “That is the only thing basically that we go by so we have to plan for the information that they give us,” she said. “Weather is always unpredictable.”

Barber lauded the efforts of state and local officials and said they’d be even stronger in response in the future.

“If you said we were over-prepared, the next time we are going to double that because we want to save every life,” he said during the Facebook Live stream.

As of Saturday afternoon, the SCDNR map showed minimal flooding in the county. Following the aerial tour Saturday, McMaster had attained further knowledge of how the floodwaters had dispersed.

“We see that the water has spread out dramatically as it’s come closer to Georgetown, which has reduced the threat a good bit,” he said. “But we are highly prepared and we can see water on the side of the roads where the Aquadams have been put up. So I think we’ve been about as well prepared as possible, which is a great tribute to our great Team South Carolina. Our people from one end to the other left no stone unturned.”

SCDNR Hydrologist Scott Harder said that trying to model a floodwave is a dynamic task, especially in areas like Georgetown that have marshland and floodplains.

“There’s going to be some uncertainty with the models,” Harder said. “It’s a best guess with the data and tools we had at the time.”

Only a handful of businesses on Front Street were open Friday, and many were still lined with tarps and sandbags. However, by Saturday Georgetown County Emergency Management was providing tips on how to dispose of the sandbags.

Eddy Chacon, owner and chef at Alfresco Bistro, opened up Friday night after being closed for more than two weeks. He said bills were piling up and he couldn’t afford to stay closed any longer.

“I can’t keep waiting and waiting,” he said. “It’s been tough because bills are still coming and coming.”

Chacon said employees have quit since he stayed closed through the storm and the aftermath.

Georgetown County began preparing for possible flooding after Hurricane Florence threatened areas throughout the county. AquaDams were installed by S.C. Department of Transportation and U.S. National Guard crews between the two bridges on U.S. 17 in Georgetown and just north of the bridges.

The amount of resources put into preparing is not available yet, officials said.

Leland Colvin, SCDOT deputy secretary for engineering, said the cost of the AquaDam installation has not been calculated. He said SCDOT is accumulating the amount for potential FEMA costs and emergency relief funds.

The AquaDams will be taken down at some point after the water crests, Colvin said.

“We’ve got a machine coming out of Louisiana to roll them up,” he said. “The process will take less time than putting them up.”

McMaster said officials still have their guard up as the recovery is far from over, but overall Georgetown County fared much better than initially anticipated.

“We were Team South Carolina, now we’re Family South Carolina, because we dealt with a silent assassin coming down,” Barber said. “We did not know what was coming down river.”

The Sun News’ David Wetzel contributed to this report.

Hannah Strong: 843-444-1765, @HannahLStrong

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