It’s that time again. Spring is in full swing, and so are preparations for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season. The National Weather Service is preparing to recognize National Hurricane Preparedness Week in early May, and will partner with the state’s Emergency Management Division to sponsor South Carolina Hurricane Preparedness week beginning May 27.
But, as the state encourages citizen preparedness, how can individuals gauge the state’s success in responding to these disasters? One metric is the National Health Security Preparedness Index (NHSPI), an annual report issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at the University of Kentucky, is one of the lead researchers for the NHSPI.
“The index overall . . . pools data from a pretty wide range of sources to be able to characterize pretty broadly the level of health protections that are in state for the nation and for each state—specifically geared to be prepared for disasters, disease outbreaks and other large-scale emergencies,” says Mays.
Mays and his team organized the index into six general categories—including Health Security Surveillance, Community Planning & Engagement Coordination, Incident & Information Management, Healthcare Delivery, Countermeasure Management and Environmental & Occupational Health. In each field, states are graded on a 10-point scale, and then each score is averaged together for a composite health security preparedness rating.
Overall, South Carolina drew even with the national average with a composite score of 7.1. While that might seem unremarkable at first glance, Mays explains that it’s a significant improvement from the state’s performance five years ago, when the first index was published in 2013.
“[S.C.] made about a 15 percent increase in its health security score over the five year period, a significantly larger increase than the nation overall,” he says. “It was lagging behind; now it’s right in line with the nation, and in certain categories it’s actually leading the nation.”
Indeed, while S.C. trails a full point behind the national average in Community Planning & Engagement, it comparably distinguishes itself as a leader in the Health Security Surveillance and Healthcare Delivery fields. A deeper dig into the data also illuminates that the state’s sub-par Community Planning & Engagement Score is up nearly 43 percent from 2013.
In several categories, South Carolina’s scores in several areas saw the most significant improvement after 2015, when Hurricane Joaquin brought severe flooding to the state. According to Mays, it’s common, but not universal, to see states usher in improvements after experiencing significant weather emergencies.
“We do see that pattern in some states, but not all,” says Mays. “When you have real events, you learn really quickly where your strengths are and where your gaps are—where you need to make improvements. A lot of states really learn, take advantage of that experience and put improvements in place. That certainly does appear to be the case in S.C., in particular making some pretty notable gains in Health Surveillance and the Environmental Health area. We see significant improvements in laboratory testing capabilities, for example, and environmental monitoring capabilities, in particular, so I think that does appear to be the case for S.C.”
John Quagliariello, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Columbia, agrees that the state’s response to weather-related disasters has notably improved. He feels individual awareness, however, could still be higher.
“I think we’ve seen during Matthew and Irma that the evacuation numbers weren’t as high as was hoped for, given the potential impacts of the storms,” Qualiariello says. “We have a lot of people that have moved here from other parts of the country that may not realize the risks, especially those living along the coast, with storm surges.”
Between Hurricanes Joaquin, Matthew and Irma, the state has suffered three consecutive years of severe storm damage. While state agencies have made some adjustments to their response procedures, the advice they’ve given individual South Carolinians has remained consistent: prepare in advance, and take official evacuation orders seriously.
And, although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has yet to release its projections for hurricane activity in 2018, Quagliariello says it’s key to remember that it only takes one:
“Whether it’s an active season or a slow season, remember that it only takes one storm to cause problems to the state if that’s the storm that makes landfall here in S.C.,” he says.