Tropical Storm Irma moves through county

  • Blue lights from a Blackville police officer’s patrol vehicle flash to warn motorists of a downed tree at intersection of Reynolds and Lartigue streets.

Barnwell County caught a glancing punch from Tropical Storm Irma on Monday, Sept. 11, experiencing some downed trees and power outages but no significant damage, according to Barnwell County Emergency Management Director Roger Riley.

The storm was initially a Category 5 hurricane as it approached the Florida Keys and then turned north along the western coast of that state. Last week forecasters thought South Carolina would be hit full force by the storm as it trekked northward but Irma had other plans. The storm lost intensity and edged westward into Georgia.

South Carolina still experienced high winds all across the state and storm surge along the coast as Irma came into the state as a tropical storm – but nothing like initially feared.

Locally, winds tracked at the Barnwell County Airport varied between 12 and 25 mph on Monday with the strongest gust of 56 mph recorded at 12:03 p.m.

Final rainfall total on Monday topped out at 5.6 inches at the airport, said Riley.

The winds caused over 30 trees to fall in the county, pulling down power lines and causing outages.

The county remained under a tornado watch all Monday. A tornado warning was issued for Barnwell County on Monday evening but no touchdown was determined. Riley explained that the atmospheric conditions were ripe for formation of a tornado but neither his office nor 911 dispatch received any calls that a tornado had developed.

Crews from both Edisto Electric and SCE&G worked through the storm to restore power to local customers. Additional crews from other states, including Arkansas, were called in after the storm.

Edisto Electric’s service to Barnwell County spiked when two substations went down. At noon Monday their outage page recorded 4,315 customers without power – approximately 90 percent of their customers locally. Thirty minutes later that number was cut down in half. By mid-afternoon, the numbers were closer to 1,300. Tuesday morning Edisto Electric’s outage website noted 910 customers without power.

SCE&G in Barnwell County recorded 1,111 customers without power on Monday at noon, which was 16 percent of their local customer count. By Tuesday morning, the number of SCE&G customers without power was down to 14, according to their website.

Boiling Springs Road near Kline was the only road closed over the weekend and that was due to concerns over a nearby dam, said Riley. The road has since reopened.

Barnwell County’s schools and government offices were closed both Monday and Tuesday. That decision came on Friday, Sept. 8 as Irma was expected to arrive on Monday and damage assessment would be needed on Tuesday.

Barnwell Elementary had initially been designated as a shelter to open on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 10 a.m.; however, when decisions were made regionally to evacuate only South Carolina’s barrier islands and not all the coastal counties, Barnwell County moved back to a “standby” status, said Riley.

Several churches opened their doors to evacuees and locals. Calvary Chapel Fellowship in downtown Williston opened their church as a shelter over the weekend for locals and evacuees.

Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Blackville and Siloam United Methodist Church on Highway 3 offered space for campers to park at their churches, although both reported Tuesday that no one did so.

Statewide, 25 shelters were opened and 885 evacuees were sheltered as of noon Monday. To put this in perspective, Barnwell Elementary alone is rated for 900 evacuees. By Tuesday, state officials said approximately 1,059 people were sheltered. Gov. Henry McMaster said most of those shelters were closing Tuesday although some shelters would remain open to house evacuees “from our neighboring states” of Georgia and Florida.

Barnwell County’s Emergency Operations Center was officially activated Saturday morning on a limited basis although all the strategic partners had been preparing and communicating earlier in the week. Those partners included law enforcement, fire, EMS, American Red Cross, SC DHEC, Axis 1, schools, public works, Savannah River Site, and others. On Thursday, Sept. 7, Barnwell Urgent Care was added and designated as a “triage” hotline to take pressure off 911 dispatchers for non-emergency care questions.

U.S. Highway 278 is one of the designated evacuation routes but traffic flowed smoothly. Traffic was monitored by local and state law enforcement.

Ahead of the storm some stations experienced shortages but were refueled overnight. Governor McMaster urged motorists not to “panic-purchase” and said there was plenty of fuel in the state.

As Tropical Storm Irma continued westward and dissipated, Barnwell County’s Emergency Operations Center returned to “normal” status of Opcon V at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

“I want to thank all the agencies that gave up their nights and weekends to keep Barnwell County safe,” said Riley. “I also want to thank The People-Sentinel for getting our messages out. It was a tremendous help.”

Meanwhile, forecasters and emergency planners continue to watch the Atlantic where Hurricane Jose is churning waters.

“We are monitoring Hurricane Jose in case we have to do this again next week,” said Riley.

Local, state and national officials are now turning their attention to recovery efforts particularly in Florida but also in Georgia and South Carolina, as well as Texas impacted by Hurricane Harvey.