Opinion Extra

Lakshmi: 10 years after Katrina, is SC prepared?

Isle of Palms, SC, after Hurricane Hugo in 1989
Isle of Palms, SC, after Hurricane Hugo in 1989

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in late August 2005 with winds of 120-150 miles per hour. The devastation in coastal Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi was of tragic proportions, with parts of all three states under water, widespread loss of power and numerous people having to be rescued. Thousands lost their homes and businesses, major bridges suffered damage, and people were displaced for months. In the end, Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest and costliest in history. More than 1,000 people lost their lives, and the economic cost topped $100 billion.

Ten years later, is South Carolina ready for a major storm?

Most coastal South Carolinians are cognizant of the danger of hurricanes. Since 1900 three major hurricanes have made landfall. Hurricane Hugo made landfall in September 1989, left 100,000 homeless and at that time was the costliest hurricane ever, doing $10 billion in damage. If another hurricane of that magnitude were to strike South Carolina, the damage would be much larger because our coastal population has grown significantly since 1989, and with that growth has come more homes, more businesses and more recreational areas. A category 4 hurricane would severely damage most coastal structures, including the residences, high-rise condos, hotels, golf resorts and piers that have been built on or very close to the beach.

Hurricanes form in warm tropical oceans as water evaporates and forms clouds and the winds that circulate around the center trap more moisture from evaporation. The hurricane obtains its power from the evaporation of ocean water. Hurricanes are categorized from 1 to 5 based on wind speed, with category 5 storms having the highest wind speed.

They uproot and displace any objects that are not held down tightly and even permanent structure that do not have deep and strong foundations. Storm surge results in coastline flooding, which transports debris, trees, shrubs and branches inland. Coastal flooding also damages and destroys roads and bridges. Hurricanes also bring very heavy rainfall, and the combination of storm surge and heavy precipitation erodes the land and finishes the job the wind started, undermining structures with shallow foundations.

As a significant portion of the economy of our state depends on coastal tourism, it is imperative that coastal residents be well-versed in the damage that can be caused by hurricanes and the precautions that can be taken to minimize this damage.

The first and most important goal is to protect lives, and that means evacuation is essential. Among South Carolina’s plans to aid evacuation are the mobilization of the National Guard and deployment of the Highway Patrol to ensure quick movement of vehicles inland.

If coastal developers have done their jobs right, there should be efficient drainage of water so that flooding damage can be minimized if not eliminated. In anticipation of high winds and storm surge, moveable items should be secured and windows and glass doors boarded up. Proper understanding of the coverage of insurance for flooding and hurricane damage is a good idea.

Now the hurricane season is once again upon us. We have already seen a few tropical storms form and move toward United States. We are keeping an eye on Erika, to be followed by Fred, Grace, Henri ….

Dr. Lakshmi teaches in the USC Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences; conact him at vlakshmi@geol.sc.edu.