May/June 2006by Marc Rapport

Danger Developing: S.C. Growth Raises Bar for Safety from Storms

Heavily Developed Beach Front - photograph by Michael FosterFreddy Vang lays a map of the United States across his desk and points out the color overlays depicting every kind of natural disaster that could occur in a given area.

"You might note that South Carolina is prone to everything but volcanoes," observes the deputy director of Land, Water and Conservation Division for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, "and especially hurricanes."

Indeed, with 200 miles of coastline and storms coming from both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, South Carolina is one of the most likely states in the country to be affected by tropical weather.

High winds and, even more deadly, storm surge and flooding can destroy property and take lives, and they have done so in this state, over and over again.

The most recent "big hit" was Hugo in 1989, which took more than thirty lives in South Carolina, from drownings in storm surges on the coast to electrocutions during cleanup in the piedmont. The numbers have been much higher in earlier storms. For instance, the 1893 "sea islands storm" killed thousands (estimates vary from 2,000 to 5,000 or more) in Beaufort County alone.

Of course, storms like that don't sneak up on people anymore, but what would have happened had Hurricane Floyd not veered at the last moment in 1999, to become primarily a huge rain event in eastern North Carolina? In what has become perhaps the state's most historic traffic jam, thousands of motorists were stranded for hours on South Carolina highways and interstates trying to get out of its path.

"We learned from that and now have one of the most detailed, current and tested evacuation plans in the country," says Jon Boettcher, hurricane program manager at the state Emergency Management Division.

The earlier experience of Hurricane Hugo, meanwhile, brought home the need to plan for emergency response in the inland counties as well as on the coast, and the overall ability of weather forecasters to predict storm tracks continues to evolve.
But there's still one growing problem.

"A big problem we have now is that the period of relative inactivity coincided with a period of rapid growth in this state, especially along the coast," Vang says.

"Now we're in an active period again, and all these areas are built up," he says. "That makes evacuations harder, and development also helps eat up wetlands so there's more potential for property damage, too.

"That's a big problem. Swamps and other wetlands helped soak up much of Hurricane Floyd's big deluge, but what happens when a storm like that hits again and the wetlands are gone?" Vang says. "Just ask the folks in New Orleans and Mississippi."

Hope Mizzell, state climatologist, also notes the rapid population growth on the coast and laments, "As much as forecasting has improved, I don't think science will ever keep up with development.

"You look at our state, and we're not nearly as developed as, say, New Orleans, and look how far out we still have to start evacuations," says Mizzell. "What if it takes forty-eight hours to evacuate Hilton Head, for instance? At two days out, with the current technology, there's still a two-hundred-mile-wide variance in the projected path, and that's the whole coast of South Carolina."

The state's SLOSH (sea-lake overland surge hike) maps speak starkly of what havoc could result in such low-lying areas. "A Category Three could put somewhere in the neighborhood of seventeen to nineteen feet of water on Hilton Head," says Boettcher at EMD. "A hit like that at Charleston could put seventeen feet of water on the Battery." And that's not taking into account the waves and wind atop that surge.

The Grand Strand also is an area of concern. Brushed by many of the big storms that have hit North Carolina and above, people still remember the Category 4 bruiser that hit in 1954 - Hurricane Hazel.

"What if Hazel were to hit the coast now? We know it had a big impact on the Grand Strand. Look how much more it's built up now. Probably thirty to forty percent in the past ten or fifteen years alone," says Maj. John Watford, the operations chief for DNR law enforcement.

"We know the property damage would be great, but we can keep the loss of life to a minimum," he adds.

Storm surge and inland flooding are the major causes of deaths in tropical storms, so clearing off the coast and observing basic, but critical, rules of the road, such as not driving through flooded streets, are stressed repeatedly by public safety officials.

"People also need to evacuate when they're asked to, and to prepare themselves to do without stores and gas stations and power for a few days, too," Boettcher says. "Our citizens know the dangers, and we want to help make sure they know how to meet them."

There could be new ones, however.

While landslides enhanced by developed hilltops and mountainsides are generally associated with California and the mountainous tropics, they're not out of the question in South Carolina's uplands.

"In 2004, it happened just across our border in North Carolina. There was a debris flow triggered by the rainfall from Ivan," Mizzell says. "Would our topography make us less vulnerable here? Maybe. But you can't rule it out."

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