Thursday, October 6, 2016

Some Charleston business owners say evacuation call may have been premature

Erring on the side of caution

Posted by Kinsey Gidick and Dustin Waters on Thu, Oct 6, 2016 at 5:24 PM

click to enlarge Businesses boarded up their windows Thursday in advance of Hurricane Matthew - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • Businesses boarded up their windows Thursday in advance of Hurricane Matthew

A hurricane warning is now in effect for the Charleston area, as local officials continue to urge all those still on the coast to evacuate before Hurricane Matthew makes its way off to South Carolina waters late Friday evening. Emergency management experts warn that the dangers of the storm continue to be significant flooding from storm surge, persistent and prolonged rainfall, along with persistent and prolonged tropical storm-force winds. Mayor John Tecklenburg said that a citywide curfew could be declared if necessary.

“It really goes against my grain and against my nature to be inhospitable, but we’re asking everyone to please leave town. It’s that time,” Tecklenburg said Thursday.

According to recent projections, the Charleston area is expected to receive more than 10 inches of rain over the next several days, and storm surges from Hurricane Matthew are estimated to be between 4-8 feet. Coupled with high tides, Mayor Tecklenburg said that the potential flooding situation faced by the Lowcounty could be worse than the historic flooding experienced last October.

“Charleston isn’t going to be a great place to hang out over the next couple of days,” said Tecklenburg.

As of Thursday morning, an estimated 175,000 people had evacuated the coastal area, filling hotels throughout the state. But while many have chosen to seek shelter upstate, some locals have decided to remain in Charleston through the duration of Hurricane Matthew, and several business owners have called the evacuation orders to Gov. Nikki Haley premature.

“Part of my decision to stay is that I have a restaurant on King Street that I wanted to keep open. So far, it hasn’t been going so great because I think Haley jumped the gun a little bit on the evacuation,” said Rebecca Gibson of Sermet’s Downtown, which will be open for dinner and cocktails Thursday night. “From a business perspective, I’m sure everybody on this street is thinking, ‘Wow.’ I wish she would have made the announcement today.”

And Sermet’s isn’t alone in deciding to weather the effects of Hurricane Matthew.

“We did not close during Hurricane Hugo, and we haven’t closed during any of the major storms that have happened recently,” said Jennifer Brimmer of Fast and French on Broad Street. “We’ve decided to stay open to feed the locals.”

Others say that those who decided to allow their employees to evacuate were wise.

"A lot of restaurateurs could stand to lose a lot of money," said Mickey Bakst, GM of Charleston Grill which shutdown along with Charleston Place Hotel on Wednesday. "The hotel will lose a fortune. But the mayor said evacuate, the governor said evacuate, so for the well being of our customers and employees, my boss, Paul Stracey, decided to close." Meanwhile, Bakst said he knows of another hotel operator that’s staying open and the staff reaction is not nearly so cheerful.

"His employees are forced to work and they’re angry," added Bakst. "I applaud my boss's decision for caring about the security of his employees and guests. And to his employees, he’s a hero. I know my staff at the Grill was very grateful to be able to go and take care of their homes and families."

Chef Kevin Johnson at The Grocery is of two minds about Haley's Wednesday evacuation decision. "I was surprised to be honest with you," Johnson said. "But we have a history of things not going well when people evacuate. It was so early based on the forecast coming late Saturday night — that it was 72 hours ahead of any storms — but I understand that we don’t have the precedence. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to deal with a storm like this and the population has grown. It's better to be a safe than sorry." 

Johnson says that he felt it was only right to allow his employees a chance to get out. "We felt like it was in good conscience, that it was fair to our employees to oblige them and give them time to do what they needed to do."

Johnson closed up Wednesday and doesn't expect to reopen The Grocery until Sunday. "It will hurt money wise, and to a certain degree you never get it back," Johnson says, but he doesn't have any regrets.

Bakst agrees. "I know other restaurateurs that are upset that the evacuation was so early, but you can replace things. You can’t replace people." 

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