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Hurricane Irma: Residents prepared to face storm threat
By Nikki Best
While government and emergency management officials were tweeting and posting to Facebook as fast as they could to disseminate information about the threat of Hurricane Irma, Palmetto Ace was posting too.
On Sept. 6, they reported being sold out of portable generators, sand, D batteries, small propane canisters, large propane canisters and gas cans. On Sept. 7, they had very limited quantities of empty sandbags, lantern oil, water, and flashlights. That night, the storm’s forecast shifted. Pawleys Island was out of the woods.
“Everyone was sharing the posts and there’s different groups in Georgetown that kept in touch with all the different businesses and what was going on,” said Amy Strope, marketing coordinator for the store. “I thought that was really cool and really helpful.”
A spike in sales is typical for stores on the Waccamaw Neck when a hurricane or other disaster is approaching, but for hardware stores the need for specific items shifts with each weather disaster. “You can go down the list and think about it, but probably flashlights and batteries are your number one,” Charles Biddix, owner of Palmetto Ace, said. “Anytime there’s a hurricane scare or warning or one coming, it cleans us out either way.”
That sentiment was echoed by David Altman at Pawleys Island Supplies and Marty Allen at Pawleys Island Outdoors. “We sold a lot of gas cans, a lot of flashlights and batteries,” Allen said. “Everybody wants to be able to see.”
Altman also listed flashlights and batteries as popular items people were scrambling for. Sales volumes were like Fourth of July or eclipse week all over again. “Flashlights, batteries, lamp oil,” he said. “We ran out of batteries on Wednesday. We ran out of propane and ran out of fuel. We were the only ones at one point that had fuel here.”
Every storm is different. “Last year for Hurricane Matthew all the chain saws and Stihl type stuff that sold after the hurricane came through was because of all the clean up stuff,” Strope said. “We had to get in a few different shipments of chain saws, but this year I know we have a bunch down there because it didn’t do nearly as much tree damage.”
Like flooding, tree damage is a terror that goes along with hurricanes. Altman has lived on Waccamaw Neck his whole life and believes the area got lucky this time. “Could be worse,” he said. “If you’ve seen the [Florida] Keys down there, it’s awful.” The threat of damage is real and Altman knows it.
He’s stayed through every hurricane during his life, but said he might evacuate if a Category 3 or higher was coming straight for Pawleys Island. Yet he rode out Hurricane Hugo on his back porch in Hagley. “I know during Hugo I sat on my back porch it just smelled like Christmas trees everywhere,” he said. His porch is glass enclosed. “I opened up the doors and let the wind blow through and you could just smell it. Whooosh, snap, snap, snap. I mean, then you went out and trees were down everywhere.”
There’s no generator at the Altman household. A good barbecue grill is all that’s really needed to get through a storm, he said. “My mom and dad bought a generator for Hugo,” he said. “We used it over at their house, and after Hugo they never used it again. When Matthew happened last year, we pulled it out and of course it was torn up. It hadn’t been used and it sat there for 30 years.”
Despite the possibility of limited use generators, they’re a close second to flashlights when it comes to storm-prep demand. This year though, it was hard to find them. The situation was unique since there were back-to-back hurricanes in the region, Biddix said. “When you have a hurricane already taking place in one place, they’re absorbing all the generators and all the batteries and flashlights,” he said. “Then all of a sudden Florida’s getting hit and they’re absorbing them. Now we’re third in line. We had a hard time finding them.”
Ace isn’t the only store that sells generators. Several small engine repair shops also have generators and the big box stores do too, Biddix said. “There’s several of us around here,” he said. “We’re not the only game in town.” The store has always had a no return policy on purchases of storm related items, the box stores do too. This year is no different, but people still try to return items, generators in particular. The calls and in person visits started Tuesday. “We’ve always done no returns on storm related items,” Strope said. “The same thing goes for our beach and summer item stuff. You get a lot of tourists that come in and they think they can buy a beach chair for the weekend that they’re here and then they want to return it.”
Generators are a bit more pricey than beach chairs though. The last minute shipment of 46 Generac 5500 generators sold out at $749 each, but larger capacity generators can cost upwards of $4,000. Before the special shipment, the store went through its stock of Honda generators. “I’d say we probably went through 70-80 generators,” Biddix said. “It happened last time for Matthew.” And for the other “I” storm of the decade, Hurricane Irene.
All the generators Palmetto Ace sold were portable versus larger, hard-wired standby versions. Portable generators run on a combustion powered, usually gasoline or diesel, engine that turns an onboard alternator, which generates electrical power, similar to a car. Power outlets on the unit allow a user to plug in extension cords, tools and appliances. Their cost varies according to complexity and the ability to generate wattage.
“A little Honda 2000 generator will do more than you think,” Biddix said. A generator that small can run a lot of regular household items without overloading, but almost any portable generator can’t handle items that require 240 volts. “Like your heat and air or water heater. If you’re going to run heat and air you’re going to have to put in one of those big generators, hardwired to your house.”
“The [Honda] 3000 we had last year, I’m telling you it ran the big freezer, two refrigerators, all the lights in the house and the microwave. Everything except the water heater and A/C,” Strope said.
Standby generators, which can power an entire home, run on propane or natural gas. An automatic transfer switch shifts from the grid to the generator. “When we have power outages here, thank goodness we have the generator. We just keep right on running,” Biddix said.
Memories of storms past, images of Hurricane Harvey and the early warnings for Hurricane Irma spurred customers to start shopping sooner. This year customers weren’t in a line 10 or 12 people deep waiting for a delivery truck to bring in new supplies. “Compared to last year, I think people started planning a few days more ahead of time instead of waiting until the storm hit,” Strope said.
“Matthew was still fresh in their minds,” Biddix said.
Following a hurricane, it’s usually all about clean up, but for some there’s a silver lining to the clouds of a hurricane. Pawleys Island Outdoors sometimes gets a spike in sales after the gales have died down because in the calm after the storm, many discover those winds may have whipped up perfect fishing conditions. “The creek’s the real fishing, and it’s the best after a storm,” Allen said.
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