Aiken County was only one of the local governments that responded to Winter Storm Pax. Yet its role was pivotal in clearing roadways, maintaining law and order and removing debris. The legal basis for its activities is therefore instructive.
The legal machinery was set in motion on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 12, as the ice was accumulating. Council Chairman Ronnie Young declared a state of emergency in accordance with Section 11-46 of the Aiken County Code of Laws. This proclamation directed County Administrator Clay Killian and emergency response personnel “to take all necessary and appropriate measures to provide for the safety of the public.”
Under this declaration, laws and regulations impeding emergency responses are suspended, the personnel and functions of County departments may be reorganized to better cope with the situation, and goods and services can be contracted for or requisitioned outside of normal channels. One critical result of this declaration was the award of a contract to Southern Disaster Recovery on Feb. 13, for debris removal, bypassing normal procedures. This allowed Southern Disaster Recovery to quickly mobilize instead of waiting for approval at the next Council meeting.
Providentially, County staff had already prepared for Council a recommendation to award a multi-year contract to Southern Disaster Recovery for emergency services. Due diligence was already completed on this contractor. In the meantime, County crews were mobilized to perform the “first push” to reopen critical roadways. Starting on the evening of Feb. 11 as the storm began, crews worked around the clock until the evening of Friday, Feb. 14, to cut and toss debris from the roadways.
“I can’t say enough in praise of our crews,” said Killian. On several occasions roads had to be cleared more than once.
With major routes passable, the scope moved to debris removal and disposal. This task is vast. Along the main arteries cleared during the first push, there is an estimated 250,000 cubic yards of debris. Estimated debris across Aiken County tops a million cubic yards. This effort will take weeks.
Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines, debris removal along roadways falls into two categories: “First Pass” for removal along state maintained roads and “Additional Passes” along all other public roadways.
The amount of debris removed in these passes is dependent on roadway type: up to 50 feet from the edge line, or to the right of way limits, on interstates; 40 feet on federal or state Roads; and 20 feet on secondary roads.
Two additional hurdles must be crossed: a Presidential Disaster Declaration is required to release FEMA funds for state and county emergency response efforts, and a Memorandum of Agreement is needed between the South Carolina Department of Transportation and Aiken County to facilitate FEMA reimbursements for County efforts along state roads. For work on local roads, the County will seek reimbursement directly from FEMA.
The County will be reimbursed 75 percent from FEMA for its efforts. If, for example, total county costs were $4 million, then $1 million will need to come from local sources. Killian hopes that the remaining 25 percent will be split between the state and county, so a $4 million bill will ultimately cost the county $500,000. To pay this share and provide cash to pay contractors such as Southern Disaster Recovery until FEMA reimbursements are received, County Council initiated on Feb. 19 an ordinance appropriating $2 million from fund balance to cover these costs.
Ultimately, total financing needs could grow, but the use of internal financing can prevent additional borrowing or tax hikes.
Also on Feb. 19, Council passed resolutions ratifying the state of emergency, ratifying the emergency contract with Southern Disaster Recovery, and formally authorizing the Memorandum of Agreement between Aiken County and the S.C. Department. Even in emergencies, the rule of law must be observed.
Of course, Aiken County was only one player in the disaster response. The state, the municipalities and the tireless utility crews fighting to restore power all contributed to the cause. Private initiative – merchants stocking extra chain saws, tree cutting entrepreneurs assisting homeowners and businesses, roofers repairing damage and neighbors helping neighbors – also made essential contributions toward a return to normalcy. Looking back at the County’s response, Killian has reason for quiet satisfaction. “The County’s policies and procedures worked as intended,” he said, “we have a framework that works.”
The cleanup effort will continue for weeks, if not months, and a lessons-learned review is needed to identify improvements for next time. But overall, the County’s response and its underlying legal and procedure underpinnings proved robust under trying circumstances.
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.