How S.C. would react to Hugo now

wwashington@thestate.comSeptember 22, 2009 

IMAGE COURTESY OF NOAA
  • Hugo on the move

    The track of hurricane Hugo as seen from satellite. Courtesy NOAA.

The realization would crash down on South Carolina with the force of - well - a hurricane: We're about to be hit again.

Two decades to the day after Hurricane Hugo tore into the state, ripping apart homes, tossing boats onto roadways, blasting through the Francis Marion National Forest and, ultimately, killing 26, consider how Hugo Redux might play out today:

NO. 1. BETTER FORECASTING

A tropical storm develops not far from the western coast of Africa. It had been merely a tropical wave, like so many others that roll off the coast, but this one keeps churning. Only two days after it is named, it reaches hurricane force.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, the hurricane season has been relatively quiet. There was Hurricane Bill, but forecasters - using sophisticated equipment that was not available two decades ago - quickly determined that storm would curve north and miss the East Coast.

Bill does kill. Some who did not heed dangerous wave warnings were washed away. But the forecasters who said the East Coast would not be struck are on the money.

The speed and accuracy of their predictions are taken for granted.

"Since Hugo, there's been a significant improvement in the computer models," said Steve Naglic, a South Carolina forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We only had a handful of models 20 years ago. Now, we've got dozens of them."

Those models provide a cone of possibility on a storm's path.

The result, Naglic said, is "improved accuracy in the timing and the strength" of a storm.

Nonetheless, forecasting a hurricane's strength, its intensity, remains tough, Naglic said. Water temperature and changing atmospheric conditions quickly make some puny storms powerful and other potent storms weaker.

NO. 2.: MORE PEOPLE

In the weeks after Bill, South Carolinians turn their attention to football, as they do each September.

But as the sports excitement grows, forecasters and journalists interrupt the revelry: There is a hurricane out there, they point out, that has blasted St. Croix, Guadeloupe and Montserrat in the Caribbean and now threatens Puerto Rico.

No one misses the parallels between this storm and that thing 20 years ago, which wrecked so many lives.

That's storm's name is suddenly on everyone's lips again: Hugo.

Not another Hugo, longtime residents are saying. Please, no.

However, in the 20 years since that dreadful storm, tens of thousands of newcomers have joined those longtime residents. And many of the newcomers are as familiar with hurricanes as longtime South Carolinians are with winter blizzards.

South Carolina's population increased by 28.4 percent from 1990 to 2008, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The state's coastal counties, those most vulnerable to damage from a hurricane, drove much of that population growth.

Horry, Georgetown, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Beaufort and Jasper counties grew by a combined 39.5 percent during that period.

The state's non-native population has increased by almost 64 percent, growing to 1.8 million from 1.1 million.

The state's booming population since Hugo presents special challenges to the S.C. Emergency Management Division.

"We try to do a lot of public outreach," said Derrec Becker, public information coordinator for Emergency Management. "Invariably, we'll run into someone from Ohio who doesn't appreciate how vulnerable South Carolina is to a hurricane. Yes, hurricanes can kill you."

NO. 3: BETTER EVACUATION PLANS, SHELTERS

South Carolinians watch news reports of what the hurricane did to Puerto Rico and fear, deep down, this storm is Hugo's evil twin.

A dozen people are dead on Puerto Rico, and forecasters say the storm is heading toward the East Coast.

The storm's track has it heading toward Florida. But forecasters, using computer models that are much improved since 1989, think it will curve north and strike somewhere in South Carolina.

The storm is huge and expected to gain strength as it approaches the coast.

Residents wonder whether they should evacuate or stay put.

Most of those who survived Hugo two decades before are packing up.

Then, individual town mayors had the option of ordering an evacuation or not ordering one.

But Hugo sharpened the state's focus in that regard.

The governor, in consultation with emergency management officials, can issue a voluntary evacuation and, later, a mandatory one.

With Hugo II bearing down on the S.C. coast, the state's governor today would issue a voluntary evacuation for the entire coast. Somewhere between 1 million and 2 million people would head west.

With better forecasting and a coordinated lane-reversal system, there is no replay of the snarled Hurricane Floyd evacuation in 1999, which infuriated South Carolinians and damaged Gov. Jim Hodges' re-election bid.

Some evacuees are heading to family or friends. Others are going to one of the 247 shelters that are set up to receive evacuees.

There will be no repeat of the almost-catastrophe at Lincoln High in McClellanville, when residents went there to escape Hugo.

In a place where they thought they would be safe, they had to climb onto tabletops and bleachers to avoid rising water.

Now, shelters are located well away from low-lying or coastal areas.

And emergency officials have learned from Hurricane Katrina, too, when some old and sick evacuees suffered in a storm-ravaged New Orleans Superdome that had no power.

"We'd like to think that would never happen in South Carolina," said Charles Platt, director of the Emergency Management Division.

Emergency management officials say all the S.C. shelters have switches to allow generators to be used when the power goes down.

State officials hope evacuees have heeded requests to bring along food and medicine - enough to last for a few days. But emergency officials also have their own supplies.

The state has acquired a 184,000-square-foot warehouse in Winnsboro and stockpiled enough meals and bottled water to feed 50,000 people for three days or 100,000 for a day.

The idea is to be able to feed people for a little while if the federal government stumbles in its initial response or if the storm so devastates the infrastructure it is impossible to provide immediate outside aid.

HUGO'S LESSON: 'IT'S GOING TO BE A MESS'

While Hugo caused $4.2 billion in insured losses, increased population and development since then means a similar storm today would cause $15 billion to $20 billion in damage, according to the S.C. Insurance News Service.

But property damage is not the primary fear when a hurricane approaches.

A big, powerful storm making landfall on a low-lying coastal area means devastation and, most of the time, death.

There are those who don't heed warnings. And there are others hurt as they try to give post-storm assistance.

The days after the storm are fraught with danger, as floodwater, fires, downed power lines and trees pose ongoing threats.

Big storms mean big problems, says Emergency Management director Platt. Nothing goes completely as planned.

"Any time we have large, land-falling hurricane, it is going to be a mess," he said.

But the lessons of Hugo, 20 years ago, will offer hope if South Carolinians have to endure the trauma of another monster storm.

"No matter how bad it is," Platt said, "it will get back to normal."

Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.

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