Red Cross, city makes final preparations as Hurricane Florence eyes Sumter, Lee, Clarendon

Shelters open in Sumter, surrounding area as officials begin emergency operations


In a now-closed middle school, where some banners encouraging student success and photos of children here and there remained on the walls, families found the media center to be their new temporary home.

A sign next to the front door of Mayewood Middle School still hangs to say, "Our school is too cool to do drugs." Next to the old sign, a new one was hung this week that labels the unused campus as an American Red Cross shelter for Hurricane Florence, which is bearing down on Sumter County with the center forecast to pass near on Saturday morning.

Over at Sumter's Emergency Operation Center, officials from the American Red Cross, Sumter Fire Department, Sumter County EMS, Sumter Police Department, Sumter County Sheriff's Office and the local Department of Social Services office were preparing for 24-hour operations with tropical storm-force winds from Hurricane Florence expected to arrive in the Sumter area Thursday evening or Friday morning.

The EOC began 24-hour operations at 7 p.m. on Thursday, said Erik Hayes, director of the Sumter Emergency Management Office.

Those officials, who are trained to work at this capacity, will be monitoring the storm and helping to answer emergency calls and coordinating response efforts before, during and after the storm, he said.

In these kinds of emergency situations, Hayes said, it is best to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Based on the latest reports from the National Hurricane Center, the storm is going to pass through South Carolina, he said. But no one is certain if Florence will be a hurricane or tropical storm at that point, he said.

Sumter is expected to experience a tropical system of some kind, he said, though the severity is yet to be determined.

Hayes said Sumter will experience fast winds, and rain bands will bring periods of heavy and light rain. Power outages and downed trees are expected with any tropical system, he said.

Looking around town, Hayes said, it is evident that many Sumter residents have heeded the warnings from officials and are getting prepared for the storm.

If you do not have to be out during or after the storm, stay inside, he said.

Residents should stay away from doors and windows and stay in the most interior part of the structure they are using for shelter, he said.

Keep battery-operated flashlights and radios, medications, water and food on hand, Hayes said.

For those using generators, never operate them inside a structure, he said, and keep them outside in a well-ventilated area.

Hayes urged drivers to not drive through standing water during or after the storm to prevent stranding their vehicles and themselves, he said.

And be mindful of emergency personnel and lineworkers when driving, Hayes said.

Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order on Monday to close public schools in 26 counties, including Sumter, Lee and Clarendon, so facilities and buses could be used for shelters and evacuation transportation.

Mayewood may be among the best situated for the job. The school on East Brewington Road was closed for good at the end of last school year because of low enrollment. Its students now attend the combined K-8 R.E. Davis College Preparatory Academy just more than a mile up the road.

Anyone is welcome to stay at the shelter during the storm. The Red Cross provides three meals a day, snacks, water, cots and, most importantly, safety within concrete walls and fortified ceilings.

Steve Shumake, disaster action team coordinator for the Central SC region of the Red Cross, said evacuees should bring their own pillows and blankets, 4 to 7 days of necessary medications, any medical equipment they need and children's activities and comfort items.

"We try to facilitate ... anything that makes a smooth transition from home to shelter," he said. "Try not to bring pets. It's just more than what we can do there. But service animals are welcome."

Shumake said Red Cross volunteers are all trained to help those they serve cope with disaster.

"They've been taught to be good customer service people, to be listeners and to be aware of things that may be emotional needs," he said.

Volunteers can connect people with mental health or spiritual case workers if needed, he said.

Betty Baun said she has been volunteering for the Red Cross since the '80s. The Sumter resident weathered Hugo, and she said the first thing people have on their minds when they arrive at the shelter is what their house and belongings will be like when they return home.

Sue Blackwell, a Manning resident, has been a volunteer since 1992. She has volunteered in California and responded to Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina and New York City for 9/11.

"I like helping people, and I've had people help me so this is my way of giving back," she said.

She said a big part of the job is "getting to know people and how to judge people in a lot of different ways and learning how to come to their needs."

Blackwell's help came after a fire. That may not necessitate evacuating to a shelter, but still, she said, "you lose things."

Due to the expansive nature of Hurricane Florence, Red Cross volunteers are stretched thin across the state, Shumake said. The organization is asking for people not to donate food and clothing because that takes time and resources to sort and distribute in addition to what they already have. To help, donate money, which will go directly toward supplying vital items such as water. To donate or to register to volunteer, go to