HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - When a hurricane is barreling towards the Grand Strand coast, there's little time to second guess how you're going to get to safety.
Something as simple as a $1.99 map and 30 minutes of your time could steer your family clear of a chaotic hurricane evacuation this summer. The problem: emergency management officials fear you still don't have a plan in place.
Belle Barlowe, of Myrtle Beach, knows how helpless you can feel when the call for an evacuation comes during the middle of the night and you have little time to gather up your valuables.
"We didn't even have time to pack," she remembered. "We just put the kids in the car, put the dog in the car and left the kitty there."
Imagine the panic she felt leaving home at a moment's notice. Now multiply that by the 376,000 people Horry County could have to evacuate from the coast for a major hurricane.
"It could be a complete disaster… utter disaster," Belle said.
The moment you find out a storm is targeting the South Carolina coastline, local and state emergency management teams are hard at work making preliminary preparations to enact the state's hurricane plan.
From 72 hours before the storm is expected to make landfall to when it makes landfall, emergency management works down a checklist of tasks that helps prepare shelters, put workers on standby for evacuations, test emergency radio systems, alert support teams like the South Carolina National Guard and make sure you're aware you could soon have to leave the coast.
Preparing area roads like US-17, SC-9, SC-22 and US-501 and alerting workers is a task that takes three days of preparation all by itself, according to Lance Cpl. Sonny Collins with the South Carolina Highway Patrol.
"Should we have to evacuate 501 – and if that encompasses a lane reversal – you're talking about 12-18 hours of work before the hurricane even arrives," Collins explained.
When a mandatory evacuation order is given by Governor Nikki Haley, Collins says it's anyone's guess how smoothly it will go. SCHP plans for the best, but knows tie-ups like accidents are uncontrollable. They're the situations, however, SCHP plans for during its annual hurricane evacuation exercise.
"What we've done is pre-planned and looked and said, 'Where would the likelihood of a collision occur because of traffic and such?'" he explained. "We need to pre-plan by staging emergency equipment in that area – should it be fire trucks, tow trucks and EMS."
After a mandatory evacuation is ordered by the governor, Alicia Sanders with Horry County Emergency Management says at least 27 hours is needed to evacuate residents and tourists between the beach and SC-31. That's if the evacuation is problem-free.
"That's from the time the evacuation starts to the time it ends," Sanders said.
This year, Horry County is simplifying the way you're evacuated for a hurricane through its "Know Your Zone" campaign. No longer will Horry County be evacuated according to geographical boundaries. Now, residents and tourists will evacuate by Zone A, B, and C.
The change comes as a partial response to a new FEMA study.
"This is probably the most change we've had since Hurricane Hugo 23 years ago," Sanders said. "They've re-evaluated the entire coast as far as elevations and water coming in, and all the evacuation zones have completely changed."
According to Horry County Emergency Management, the new zones are as follows:
ZONE A: All areas east of U.S. Business 17 (Kings Hwy), up to intersection with U.S. 17 (Kings Hwy) and then all areas east of US 17 (Kings Hwy) to the Northern county line.
ZONE B: All areas south of Hwy 707 and Longwood Drive, including all areas in Longwood Plantation (Blackmoor) to the Waccamaw River and all areas east of U.S. 17 Bypass (Mark Garner Hwy) to U.S. 17 (North Kings Hwy) and all areas east of U.S. 17 (North Kings Hwy) to the northern county line.
ZONE C: All areas between Hwy 701 and Hwy 544, south of Brown's Chapel Avenue and Hwy 814, plus all areas east of Highway 31 (Carolina Bays Parkway) to Highway 90 and all areas east of Highway 90 to U.S. 17 to the northern county line.
To see the zone maps and, visit the Horry County Emergency Management website.
The biggest changes to the way Horry County will now evacuate for a hurricane involve communities in Zone C. New surge and flooding maps have pushed evacuation zones further inland, to include large communities like Forestbrook, Bucksport and parts of Carolina Forest.
"A lot of people have come into the evacuation zone that weren't previously there," Sanders noted. "It's always been able to happen, we just weren't sure until now to what extent that could be."
Sanders and the team at the Horry County Emergency Operations Center know how large of an undertaking an evacuation is. They gave us these numbers to help you understand what they're up against, too:
Horry County Emergency Management says a large number of people will choose roads like US-501, US-31, US-22, US-17 and SC-90 to evacuate. When an evacuation is ordered, you should expect traffic to be as congested as a holiday weekend moving at 40 miles per hour, at best.
If you're still not convinced you need to evacuate when an order is given for your zone, Collins has some advice for you.
"We can't make you leave when that evacuation is ordered. We're not going to physically remove you from your house," he warned. "But you also have to understand when those evacuations are ordered and those storms are coming on shore, emergency officials can't go out after a certain point."
Emergency management workers stress that's why it's so important for you to evacuate when you're told and not wait until weather conditions deteriorate.
"Your options as a citizen: Do I want to make sure I'm safe by evacuating the coast? Or am I going to take a chance – which could ultimately result in some pretty tragic circumstances?" he said.