South Carolina is much better prepared to handle the challenges of a hurricane now than it was during Hugo and Floyd, the last two major storms to hit the state, according to university experts who have studied the state’s hurricane preparedness.
State and county emergency preparedness officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday as evacuations began on the coast ahead of Hurricane Matthew. But Susan Cutter, director of the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute said the state is in better shape to deal with a major hurricane than it was in 1989, when Hugo left 60,000 people in the state homeless.
Emergency management has become more “professionalized” in the years since then, and officials have technology that provides access to much better information about the strength and track of hurricanes than then, she said.
“So it means that we’re much better at planning for and responding to events than we were 30 years ago,” Cutter told The Greenville News.
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“At the same time, however, we have increasing populations living in high risk areas, which influence our evacuation procedures, because there are more people living in harm’s way,” she said. “So we have to take a little bit more time to make sure those people are informed and move out of harm’s way.”
Her team has been studying hurricane preparedness extensively since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
They conducted surveys to help the state understand why some people evacuated and why some stayed, which has helped improve evacuation procedures, she said.
“Instead of evacuating the entire coast, we are able to target evacuations in specific areas more than 30 years ago,” she said.
Plus, people are better informed now because of social media and cell phones.
“So I think there’s a little bit more awareness of the approaching hurricane,” she said.
Buildings also are built much better to withstand high winds and storm surges, according to Weichiang Pang, a civil engineering professor at Clemson University.
He collects data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and runs it through Clemson’s supercomputer to simulate the amount of damage that would occur under various scenarios at specific locations.
Insurance companies use the results in determining the risk and cost of coverage, he said.
Vulnerability to storm damage can be predicted based on construction material and the height and shape of structures, among other factors, he said
“New buildings typically are designed for much better wind resistance,” Pang said. “However, here (in Charleston) we have so many buildings that are older.”
In 1989, there was no statewide building code. Each county had its own code, many of them outdated. Now the state has a statewide building code that incorporates suggestions that grew out of research in Clemson’s wind tunnel.
The new codes don’t require using different types of building materials but call for changes as simple as using more and larger nails to hold buildings together.
New buildings and renovations in the Upstate are designed to handle winds of up to 90 mph, under the code. Buildings along the coast should be able to withstand at least 135 mph winds. It’s possible to build them to hold up under winds of up to 150 mph, according to Clemson research.
Other changes include developing more effective window shutters and design changes based on a better understanding of how wind loads affect windows, doors, frames and fasteners
Building codes have been updated every three years, continually making new structures better able to survive a hurricane, Pang said.
A program called South Carolina Safe Home, administered by the state Department of Insurance, provides cash incentives for owners of homes and buildings to make such improvements, and many homeowners have taken advantage of the program, Pang said.
“I don’t think our current building (technology) has quite reached the level that we can have wind resistance totally, but in general, I’d say it’s better that since Hugo," he said.