By Bill Connor
The South Carolina Floodwater Commission may well prove to be one of the more important legacy-defining efforts of Gov. Henry McMaster’s administration. After all, what’s more important than developing and putting into action plans aimed at alleviating and mitigating disastrous flood impacts to South Carolina: A state which has experienced not one, but four catastrophic and frankly unprecedented flooding events from hurricanes and other tropical storms in less than four years. That four-year span began in late 2015 with the 1,000-year flood event from Hurricane Joaquin which killed 19 people. Property losses to the state from Joaquin were estimated at $1.5-billion. Hurricane Matthew followed in 2016. Irma in 2017. Florence in 2018.
The Governor’s commission, established last Oct. and chaired by global energy and environmental expert Tom Mullikin, was not only necessary, but brilliant. The S.C. Floodwater Commission is easily the most unique gubernatorially created body of its kind, nationwide. As Gov. McMaster said in his State of the State address, “There’s not another one.”
Ten task forces (aka subcommittees) comprise the Commission, everything from a Grid Security Task Force – chaired by Maj. Gen. Bob Livingston, the soon-retiring adjutant general of S.C. – to Smart River and Dam Security, Artificial Reef Systems, Economic Development, Federal Funding, Stakeholder Engagement, Landscape Beautification and Protection, Living Shoreline, and Infrastructure and Shoreline Armoring Task Forces.
I was chosen to chair and direct the Commission’s National Security Task Force (NSTF) with a mission of identifying potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with flooding events as they impact the many U.S. military bases and national guard installations statewide, primarily those located along our 187-miles of coastline, and the impact to the adjacent communities which serve them. The NSTF is to then make recommendations to prepare for and minimize those risks.
We have begun this effort in earnest through a series of teleconferences and in my briefing, last week, to both Governor McMaster and Commission Chairman Mullikin during the Commission’s first “working meeting” in Charleston.
Though the approach is different, this kind of work is not entirely new to me. Having served as the senior U.S. Army North representative to S.C. during the aforementioned four flooding events, I recognize that as floodwater events become more extreme and more frequent we have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to lead the state and the nation through this critical and evolutionary effort. Our goal is to save lives and property.
Like the Floodwater Commission’s other task forces, the NSTF is composed of the best-of-the-best in terms of experienced individuals serving. The NSTF includes emergency management representatives from all of the military bases along with representatives from civilian emergency management. For example, Director Kim Stenson, who leads the S.C. Emergency Management Division, serves on the Task Force along with the S.C. National Guard adjutant general as well as key partners like the Army Corps of Engineers.
Fellow commissioners like retired Marine Col. Steve Vitali, a wartime logistics and strategic-deployment planning expert, and W. Thomas Smith Jr., also a U.S. Marine Infantry leader and an internationally recognized military technical consultant, are two of my subcommittee’s key executive staff-members. Vitali serves as operations officer. Smith is the task force’s executive secretary. Beyond these two are approximately 30 disaster response experts – including extra-agency liaisons – from federal installation commanders (or their representatives) to state emergency managers like Stenson, military engineers and others.
We also work closely with other task force chairs, like, for example, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who is in charge of all project stakeholders, statewide. And we have involved representatives from Federal Emergency Management from U.S. Northern Command and the base commands in an advisory or liaison capacity.
As disparate as this all may seem, it is all a single-team effort with the single-minded motivation and universal focus of protecting property, saving lives, and otherwise mitigating human suffering in the next floodwater event.
As mentioned, the NSTF’s primary focuses are our military bases. But it’s not simply the health, safety, and security of those bases and their personnel during flood events. Federal military bases help provide immediate response capabilities, which are unique to the military, in order to save lives and mitigate human suffering or property damage. Military bases are also used to bring in FEMA support and other military support requested to help the state. These military bases are not simply ‘islands’ unto themselves, but an integral part of the Palmetto State. The estimated economic impact of the military to S.C. is $24.1-billion. And with some 62,520 federal military employees (with an annual payroll of $2.6-billion) and approximately $2.1-billion in DoD contracts currently handled by 752 S.C. firms, South Carolina truly is a military state.
The relationships between the military bases and the surrounding civilian communities has never been stronger. This is a reality I have, yet again, experienced in my short time thus far directing the NSTF and serving on the broader S.C. Floodwater Commission. We are working. We are preparing. And we will ensure that we have done everything possible for our fellow South Carolinians, military and civilian alike, to better enable us to weather the next storm.
– Col. Bill Connor, an Orangeburg-based attorney and U.S. Army Reserve Infantry officer, is chairman of the National Security Task Force, South Carolina Floodwater Commission.