Fire chief proposes off-island hurricane evacuation shelter for Hilton Head

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HILTON HEAD

Fire chief proposes off-island hurricane evacuation shelter for Hilton Head

By BRIAN HEFFERNAN
bheffernan@islandpacket.com
Published Monday, January 28, 2013   |  551 Words  |  

Hilton Head Island's Fire & Rescue Division needs an off-island hurricane evacuation facility for its staff and equipment, the division's chief told a town committee Monday.

Two of the three Town Council members on the Public Safety Committee expressed concerns about the need for such a building and its cost. No vote was taken on the proposal nor on any of the 34 other recommendations from the Fire & Rescue Division.

Division Chief Lavarn Lucas said the town needs a building where fire and rescue personnel can ride out a hurricane and be available after a storm passes to help recovery efforts on the island.

"We're not talking about a Taj Mahal," Lucas said. "A warehouse would be fine as long as it is large enough and we think it could withstand the storm."

The structure would need to house about 160 fire and rescue personnel, along with food, cots, trucks and other equipment, Lucas said.

Lucas didn't have a cost estimate for the building, which he said the town should pursue over the "long-term."

Finding a building on the mainland and retrofitting it to withstand a Category 5 hurricane would be cheaper than building a new one, he said.

Councilman John McCann, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, said an evacuation building should be shared by several other local entities -- the island's public service districts, town officials from Hilton Head and Bluffton and the Bluffton Township Fire District. Those groups also could help pay for the building, McCann said.

Lucas said he supported sharing. He acknowledged that getting the building would be a tough sell because of its costs and how infrequently it would be used.

Committee members Bill Harkins and McCann both said they were concerned about the cost and whether the building was even necessary.

Currently, if a hurricane strikes, the Fire & Rescue Division would evacuate to the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus in Bluffton for storms of less intensity than Category 4. For more powerful storms, the division would relocate to Barnwell. But from that far away, Lucas said, it could take days for personnel to return to the island because of road and traffic conditions.

Lucas said the USCB campus is not an ideal option because the college might be slow in canceling classes and the division would have to leave the school 24 hours after the storm passed.

Fire & Rescue has submitted a 114-page strategic plan to the Public Safety Committee. The document includes 54 items for the committee to consider. The 20 remaining items will be discussed by the committee Thursday, when it also is scheduled to make a recommendation to Town Council about the entire plan.

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