Myrtle Beach congressman urges SC governor to add I-73 funds to Florence aid request

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As flood waters threaten to cut off the Grand Strand, a South Carolina congressman pushes for funding for Interstate 73.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, on Tuesday wrote to S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster urging him to amend his request for federal aid for Hurricane Florence recovery to include funding for I-73 as an adequate evacuation route.

“While South Carolina has made improvements to hurricane evacuation planning, our inadequate and outdated infrastructure exacerbates the safety risks and economic impacts of a natural disaster in the Grand Strand,” Rice said in a statement. “Insufficient roadways have put 250,000 of my constituents at risk of having absolutely no lifeline to the rest of state for up to two weeks, with limited access to food, water, medical supplies, and other necessities. … (F)unding an adequate evacuation route for the Grand Strand needs to be a top priority.”

McMaster on Thursday formally requested $1.2 billion in aid from the federal government as the state deals with continued flooding from the storm. Included in that request was $18 million from the Federal Highway Administration.

And on Friday the state was approved, at McMaster’s request, for $8 million in Federal Highway Administration “quick release” funds. That money will allow the Transportation Department to accelerate repair work in areas where roads have been damaged, according to S.C. Transportation Secretary Christy Hall.

“The governor has always been supportive of the I-73 project and agrees with Congressman Rice that Hurricane Florence has highlighted the need to complete it,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes wrote in an email. “(B)ut at this time, we are unaware of any avenue through which the governor can request disaster relief funds for new construction projects.”

Rice has struggled to get the $2 billion, decades-in-the-making project going, which would connect 75 miles of road from the North Carolina border to South Carolina’s tourist hub of Myrtle Beach.

Flood waters on Tuesday threatened to close U.S. 501 and U.S. 17 — the only remaining lifelines in and out of Horry and Georgetown counties. S.C. Department of Transportation officials desperately worked to place sandbags to keep the roadways dry.

Rice said more than 400 truckloads of bottled water and military food rations had been shipped to the area by the National Guard, and swift-water rescue teams awaited orders to evacuate people people from flooded homes.

The primary evacuation route for the Grand Strand is the four-lane 501 highway, followed by SC 9, multiple sections of which have been closed due to flooding.

While lane reversals on 501 modestly reduced evacuation times, a quicker, more efficient route is needed, Rice wrote.

“South Carolinians lost their lives trying to evacuate on inadequate roads,” Rice wrote. “Imagine the consequences if Florence has come ashore as a Category 4 storm as predicted, and all of our roads were now closed. We can no longer ignore the danger.”

Rice’s full letter can be read here.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, on Tuesday tweeted he expected the U.S. House will pass a $1.6 billion disaster recovery bill Wednesday to help the Carolinas rebuild from Hurricane Florence.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith last week used washed out roads, caused by widespread flooding spawned by Hurricane Florence, to take a swipe at McMaster over infrastructure funding.

Campaign spokesman Brad Warthen said Smith is a proponent of the I-73 project.

“And while he sees that as a priority, he sees fixing our existing infrastructure as an even greater priority,” Warthen said.