COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley’s steadfast warnings as Hurricane Matthew barreled down on South Carolina earned praise from political experts, though the concern over flooding remains her current test.
Observers have hailed Haley’s early decision to evacuate residents along the South Carolina coast and for repeatedly keeping the public updated as the situation developed, usually twice a day.
The high marks come at a time when some Republicans are questioning their choice in businessman Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee after a video surfaced last week showing him making vulgar and sexually charged comments about women.
“I think with the current controversy that the Republican Party finds itself in, any display of strong leadership by a Republican woman who is an elected official is only going to highlight what the Republican Party could have had — and what they do have — in a presidential candidate,” Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer told The Post and Courier.
The storm is the third time in as many years that Haley has made decisions from the state’s command center in West Columbia during a crisis. She was credited for deftly overseeing ice storms in 2014 and record flooding last year.
Haley this week said Trump’s campaign was the farthest thing from her mind. “The only storm I have time for is this one in South Carolina,” she said.
When facing a natural disaster, executive leaders have to balance the uncertainty of the weather forecast with the need to move people out of harm’s way, said Brock Long, executive vice president with North Carolina-based Hagerty Consulting. The company provides expertise on emergency management and disaster recovery.
Long said Haley has done a great job executing the disaster plan and listening to her advisors while sending a clear and consistent message of voicing the dangers of the hurricane.
Last week — three days before Matthew struck — Haley announced staggered evacuations for coastal counties while calling for the reversal the eastbound lanes on Interstate 26 to avoid clogging the highway with residents leaving the Charleston area.
She urged them to travel at least 100 miles inland to be safe from the storm. Of the estimated 1.1 million people asked to evacuate, about one-third left their homes.
Political scientists pointed to a late evacuation call by then-Gov. Jim Hodges during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 as a learning experience for state officials. Hodges was sharply criticized at the time for not reversing the eastbound traffic on I-26.
Hodges said Haley has done a good job managing the hurricane.
“Let’s face it, every decision is a double-edged sword,” he said in the storm’s aftermath. “When you decide to evacuate, it raises some issues about inconvenience. But governors always have to think about public safety first. What’s most important is she got people out of harm’s way.”
Bob McAlister, who served as chief of staff for former S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, agreed with Haley’s early calls for evacuations.
“I dare say, with their pro-action on this and the way she’s handled it, lives have indeed been saved,” he said.
But there also have been angry residents in the aftermath, particularly in Beaufort County. Late Sunday, Haley lifted her evacuation order there, which many took to mean that it was safe to return home. But the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office was still in charge of the situation on the ground. Returnees were sent to checkpoints at two high schools, local media reported, to learn if their neighborhoods were safe to move back into. Many weren’t told that their movements were limited.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, a former chief of staff to Gov. Mark Sanford, said the episode is probably part of the lessons-learned portion from the storm in that while evacuations are “top-down” from the governor, return orders are “bottom-up” and controlled by local civil authorities on the ground post-disaster.
Joint recovery statements between the governor and the locals are probably something to ensure after the next disaster, he said, along with greater use of social media on return orders.
While Haley’s handling of the storm’s approach has been hailed, many said getting evacuees back to their coastal homes safely will affect how her leadership is remembered.
“Clearly, I think everyone agrees that she made the right decision to pull the trigger early,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. “The cleanup and the dealing with the devastation afterwards will be just as important to grading the governor on her response to the smart decision up front.”
The outcome could bode well for Haley if she decides to run for national office in 2020.
Bitzer said the seemingly daily “October surprises” from Trump have caused many Republicans to accept that they likely will not win the White House in November.
“She’s going to have to be looking at how does she keep her name recognition in the public and, I dare say, we’re probably already starting the 2020 presidential nomination contest on the Republican side,” he added.
Haley’s handling of the storm also has triggered a thawing with one longtime foe. State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, a repeat critic of the governor, said his first impulse about her evacuation order was that she “sounded possessive. More like a queen than a governor,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
But he later changed his tone.
“This event could have been much more tragic,” he added. “I personally thank you for your leadership during a very stressful time. To use an old South Carolina term it was, ‘Top Shelf.’”