Hurricane Earl: How will it affect S.C.?

08/31/2010 12:00 AM

09/01/2010 11:51 PM

Don’t panic. Be ready.

Emergency management officials in South Carolina preached that mantra Tuesday as they awaited the expected turn that could steer Hurricane Earl’s powerful winds and heavy rains away from the state.

All the forecasts call for the turn, but with a Category 4 hurricane aimed in the general direction of the South Carolina coast, emergency managers face a balancing act.

“We try to calm people down but at the same time let them know not to let their guard down,” said Cathy Haynes, Charleston County’s emergency preparedness director. “We don’t want to be caught short, but we don’t want to overdo it. It doesn’t make our decision-making process easy.”

People are feeling the same way from South Carolina through Maine. If Earl turns as expected, land masses that jut out into the Atlantic -- Cape Hatteras, the Massachusetts capes and eastern Maine -- could see blustery days Thursday and Friday. If Earl moves a little to the west of projections, those areas could feel the force of a major hurricane.

Officially, a hurricane watch was posted Tuesday afternoon for much of North Carolina’s coast Tuesday, with a tropical storm watch from Surf City down to Cape Fear. That means hurricane-force or tropical storm-force winds are possible in those areas in the next 24 to 36 hours.

South Carolina likely won’t get anything but huge waves on Thursday and Friday. Another, smaller pulse of waves is expected on Saturday as Tropical Storm Fiona follows to the east of Earl’s large wake. The beaches should be back to normal Sunday and Monday of the long, Labor Day weekend, according to National Weather Service forecasts.

Or better yet, Midlands residents might want to stay near home this weekend. The weather service is expecting temperatures in the low 90s, lower than normal humidity and little chance of rain through the weekend.

All of the coastal forecasts depend on Earl turning to the north and riding up the Atlantic along a trough created by a low pressure system crossing the northern U.S. late in the week. Storms that track parallel to the coast like Earl tend to cause Chicken Little dilemmas. Forecasters want to trust their computer models, but they know hurricanes can be capricious.

“On these storms, a small (forecasting) error of 100 miles could be a huge difference,” said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center.

At noon Tuesday, Read declared it was “too early to rule out anything other than Earl is a big storm.”

But such was the trust in the forecast that neither the South Carolina state nor the coastal county preparedness offices were on emergency status Tuesday. Haynes focused on warning people about rip currents caused by high surf.

“It’s the last big blowout weekend of summer, and a lot of people will be going to the beach,” Haynes said. “They need to be careful.”

While national media reports consistently referred to possible Earl impact on “the Carolinas,” it’s telling that both The Weather Channel and the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent their first advance teams to the Outer Banks, not Myrtle Beach.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce hadn’t fielded any concerned calls about the hurricane Tuesday, president and chief executive Brad Dean said. He suspects calls may pick up as the weekend approaches. Many weekend travelers make their decisions at the last minute based on the latest weather forecast, Dean said.

If the forecast track holds, the center of Earl will roll about 250 miles east of Myrtle Beach during around midday Thursday. On Tuesday, tropical storm force winds stretched out about 200 miles from the center. Horry County could get 20-25 mph winds with waves in the 5-8 foot range, according to forecasts.

Swellinfo.com, a Web site that caters to surfers, is expecting “double-overhead” waves Thursday afternoon at Folly Beach. That translates to about 12 feet high, and it also means heavy beach erosion throughout the coast. South Carolina officials will be happy if Earl behaves as expected and only causes dangerous waves that wash away sand.

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