State park managers in preparatory mode ahead of Irma’s approach

The approach of Hurricane Irma has spurred preparations at both state parks on the Grand Strand: Myrtle Beach and Huntington Beach.

Phil Gaines, director of S.C. State Parks, said Wednesday afternoon that emergency action plans already are moving forward for all state parks as the projected path for Hurricane Irma becomes more clear in the next few days.

He said a “thorough, step-by-step process” by the staff in each park progresses at certain points at they emerge.

“We are starting to prepare for the worst, and hoping for the best,” Gaines said. “You can’t wait for the last minute to prepare.”

Such planning includes mobilizing park system equipment statewide in case their use is needed, as the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew prompted last October.

He said state park officials stay in touch with local emergency planning personnel and attuned to weather forecast updates, and with all that information, “notch that up” in helping safeguard park personnel and guests.

Dawn Dawson-House, director of corporate communications for S.C. State Parks, based in Columbia, said Wednesday that the park system “has its own protocol and process” in preparing for such a storm. Also, the state parks system follows the operation condition status as issued by county emergency managers, in this case, for Horry and Georgetown counties, respectively.

Dawson-House cited, for instance, Horry County, already being in a Level 4 OPCON as of late Wednesday morning.

If OPCON levels move on in severity to 3, 2 or 1, by emergency management teams in both affected counties, “then we follow what they say,” Dawson-House said.

She also said that with visitors in both parks, including vacationers in campgrounds, “we will plan and respond accordingly” for steps toward ensuring everyone’s safety.

Dawson-House said each state park has a process for actions to take “in the inevitability of a hurricane,” such as what to do with administration; where to keep, move and store vehicles; how to get people out of the park; and notifying patrons with campground reservations for upcoming weeks.

“All of that is taken into consideration,” Dawson-House said, also noting S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s state of emergency declared earlier today.

Gaines also said the Myrtle Beach and Huntington Beach “upper coast” state parks differ from Edisto Beach and Hunting Island “lower coast” state parks, near Charleston and Beaufort, respectively, with their island settings and other variables such as bridges for access.

Still, though, for the Grand Strand’s two state parks, “it’s a tense time,” Gaines said, bringing up the hardest part of waiting and watching” in anticipation of what develops, all part of “living in South Carolina,” and dealing with “these natural phenomenons” when fierce weather erupts.

For more details on park operations, check with each site, open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily at this time of year:

— Myrtle Beach State Park, on U.S. 17 Business, along south city line, across from Seagate Village. 843-238-5325, 843-238-0874 for nature center, or www.myrtlebeachsp.com.

— Huntington Beach State Park, on U.S. 17 between Murrells Inlet and Litchfield Beach, across from Brookgreen Gardens. 843-237-4440, 843-235-8755 for programs, or www.huntingtonbeachsp.com.

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