Sept/Oct 2019When the Wind BlowsText by Melissa Griffin: Assistant State Climatologist, Photos by Wes Tyler: Former Assistant State Climatologist

Whether you call them September gales or hurricanes, these powerful storms barrel out of the Atlantic leaving a scarred trail of destruction that thirty years of recovery can't fully erase.

Hurricanes. It seems like a simple word for such a destructive force of nature. Before the 20th century, these storms were often called the September Gales, typically striking the United States coastline during September, the peak of hurricane season. The combination of heavy rains, tornadoes, storm surge and strong winds is what makes hurricanes one of nature's most powerful phenomena.

From June 1 to November 30, citizens living along the 187-mile South Carolina coastline and interior portions of the Palmetto State keep a wary eye toward the tropics, on alert for the next storm that could be just beyond the horizon.

History of Major South Carolina Hurricanes

Since 1850, more than two hundred tropical cyclones (tropical storms and hurricanes) have impacted South Carolina, and of those storms, forty-four made landfall along the coast, including four major (Category 3 or higher) hurricanes, three of which were Category 4 storms: Hazel (1954), Gracie (1959) and Hugo (1989).

Hurricane Hazel is one of the most memorable storms in South Carolina history. Hazel made landfall as a Category 4 storm near Little River, located near the state border with North Carolina. When the storm made landfall on October 15, 1954, Hazel had 106 mph wind gusts and a 16.9-foot storm surge along the Grand Strand. Sixty years ago, Hurricane Gracie made landfall on St. Helena Island with 130 mph winds and continued to the north-northwest across South Carolina. Despite making landfall at low tide, the storm surge still reached up to eight feet and caused substantial damage along the coast from Beaufort to Charleston. Close to ten inches of torrential rains created flooding through much of the state and severely damaged crops in the Lowcountry and Midlands.

After Hurricane Gracie roared through the state in 1959, many people did not believe a storm of similar or higher intensity and magnitude could happen again along the South Carolina coast.

They were wrong.

Hurricane Hugo

Rows of houses that are missing walls and roof tiles with debris everywhere on a gloomy day after Hugo hit. Some houses look as if they’d been blown up against others.

What started as a cluster of thunderstorms off the coast of West Africa on September 9, 1989, turned into a raging storm that traveled thousands of miles across the Atlantic and wreaked havoc on portions of the Caribbean before turning toward the United States East Coast. Named ‘Hugo' on September 11, the storm briefly intensified to Category 5 status on September 15. Along its path, Hurricane Hugo ravaged parts of the Leeward Islands and Puerto Rico. After passing over eastern Puerto Rico on September 18, the storm began to accelerate to the northwest. Then, Hugo moved over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream - re-intensifying before heading straight for the South Carolina coast. On September 20, an evacuation order was issued for those on the Charleston peninsula, and by the morning of the 21st, a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the islands and beachfront communities.

Around midnight on September 22, 1989, Hurricane Hugo made landfall near Sullivan's Island as a Category 4 storm, with estimated windgusts of 140 mph. For hours, those in Hugo's path sat in the darkness, listening as the fierce wind whipped at their homes and the trees cracked under the force of the relentless gales. When daylight broke, responders and residents emerged to assess the damage.

At the time, it was the nation's costliest hurricane on record, with an estimated monetary loss of around $7 billion. Today that would translate to close to $14 billion.

Hurricane Preparation

A row of beach houses on the shore with missing pieces. One house’s roof is mostly gone or caved in while the rest sits crumpled.

The best time to prepare for a hurricane is before the season begins on June 1. The peak of hurricane season occurs near the beginning of September, and comes to an end on November 30. If you have not taken actions to prepare, here are some tips to help you get started.

  • Know your risk to hurricane hazards such as storm surge, inland flooding, tornadoes, strong wind, rip currents and large waves.
  • Develop an evacuation plan based on your evacuation zone and needs.
  • Assemble a disaster supply kit, including food and water for each person in your household for three days. Make sure to fill any prescriptions and keep extra cash on hand.
  • Take time to strengthen your home against strong winds. Cover windows, trim trees and secure loose outdoor items.
  • Take pictures and videos of your valuables to detail them for insurance purposes, and make sure to keep your important documents together for quick access.
  • Write down your plan. Doing so will help you avoid mistakes and quickly enact your plan in the event of an emergency.

Devastation Across the State

Two boats sit ashore, standing upright and leaning against each other.

Between the winds and the storm surge, Hugo destroyed a large portion of South Carolina's coast and parts of the Midlands and Pee Dee regions. Downtown Charleston and locations in the southern Lowcountry were spared the worst of the hurricane and did not experience the severity of the impacts observed in McClellanville and areas north. This region was the hardest hit, suffering extensive damage from the wind and storm surge.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the highest storm surge occurred around the time of high tide in the Bulls Bay - Moores Landing - Sewee Bay area, where the high water mark reached 20.2 feet. Lincoln High School, which served as a shelter for residents, was flooded by the storm surge, sending evacuees scrambling for higher ground within the building. Boats harbored in marinas along the Intracoastal Waterway ended up in heaps on the mainland. Beachfront homes were destroyed, and structures as far back as three blocks were severely damaged. Massive beach erosion occurred from Folly Beach in Charleston County to as far north as Myrtle Beach in Horry County, where the sand was pushed inland, measuring up to ten inches deep along U.S. Highway 17. Due to the magnitude and extent of the storm surge, salt water contaminated many freshwater lakes and streams, effectively killing many of the freshwater fish in the region.

Hugo's fierce winds were felt across the state as the storm raced inland, with hurricane-force wind gusts (87 mph) reported as far inland as Charlotte, North Carolina, nearly two hundred miles from the coast. Sustained winds of 78 mph, with peak gusts of 98 mph, were recorded at the Charleston International Airport. The winds at Shaw Air Force Base reached a peak gust of 109 mph as the eye passed near the facility. There were areas along Hugo's track across the coastal plain where almost every tree was snapped off or uprooted. The high winds shattered unboarded windows, peeled back roofs from homes and buildings, overturned or destroyed mobile homes, while falling trees brought down powerlines, crushed cars and blocked roads. Portions of the state were without power for more than two weeks.

Plan Before The Storm
By Joey Frazier

When a storm or flood event hap-pens, threatening lives and property around our state, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources plays a vital role in the official response, including rescue and recovery missions. On the frontline during those times, of course, are the SCDNR's law enforcement officers - always a welcome sight especially when weather-related trouble is brewing outdoors. Their swift operations may almost seem magical, how they know exactly where to be, when to be there and what equipment might be needed to ensure the safety of citizens. In reality, that magic happens behind the scenes long before the officers are deployed and before the agency's climatology team makes the forecast.

Maria Cox Lamb, the SCDNR's Flood Mitigation program director, has the information that makes it possible for warnings and rescues to happen fast. By collecting data during every flood-related event, Lamb is able to build computer models that predict where waters will rise, when and by how much. With this precision data, the SCDNR Law Enforcement Division is better able to calculate where to place resources ahead of a storm and when to deploy personnel during a very fluid, changing event.

"The Flood Mitigation Program works extensively with SCDNR law enforcement to ensure they have as much information as we can provide to assist them in planning their response and for staging resources," Lamb said.

Satellite image of Hugo approaching the East Coast, South Carolina right in its path.

With every rain event, data also pours in from a highly sophisticated and strategically-placed network of river and stream gauges that feeds real-time water-level reports to the SCDNR's team of scientists and first responders. This advanced technology allows precise preparation and response when the rain starts to fall.

Captain Donnie Pritcher was on the coast when Hugo came ashore, so he knows firsthand how quickly weather-related emergencies can change.

"It was unlike anything I've ever been through," Pritcher said. "The wind was blowing trees down, and debris was flying all around."

"The amount of water that came in with the surge was unbelievable," said Captain Henry Stackhouse.

The one good thing Hugo did was to make first responders keenly aware of the need for a storm plan in advance of landfall and the need for better information as the event unfolds.

"We now have a hurricane plan, and our equipment can be staged into the coastal area even before evacuations start," said Major Gary Sullivan.

Of course, the law enforcement team more recently learned that hurricanes are not the only weather-related events that can threaten the safety of the people of South Carolina.

"Since 2015 we have been responding to flooding annually," said Lamb. "The consistency of the flooding has allowed the program to better understand and respond to community needs, and allow for recovery to begin at a more rapid pace."

Joey Frazier is the editor of South Carolina Wildlife.

Because Hugo moved through South Carolina at a high rate of speed, there was no widespread reported flooding. The highest rainfall totals associated with the storm were measured in the Lowcountry, with a storm total maximum of 10.82 inches on Edisto Island. Widespread totals in the Pee Dee and Midlands did not exceed four inches, and although flooding was not a significant impact from Hugo, the combination of the rain and wind resulted in substantial agricultural losses. At least $2 billion of the $7 billion in estimated losses was from crop damage to peach orchards, pecan trees, cotton and soybeans. The state's timber industry suffered severe damage, with an estimated one-third of the forests in Hugo's path destroyed. Twenty-three of forty-six counties reported substantial timber losses, including more than 90 percent of the timberland damaged in Berkeley, Charleston, Florence, Lee, Sumter and Williamsburg counties. The Francis Marion National Forest lost approximately 9,000 square miles of trees. Only the young growth trees survived the storm, and most of the trees in the forest today do not predate 1989. The loss of the old longleaf pine trees displaced wildlife, including the nesting grounds for one of the largest populations of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Shortly after Hugo, a survey of the population determined that nearly 65 percent of the birds were either missing or killed during the event, decimating the local clusters of the species.

Palmetto trees line a sand covered neighborhood covered in debris. Power poles lining the street are leaning sharply to the left at a 45 degree angle.

Since 1989, there has been significant population growth and development along the South Carolina coast. Many who have moved to the beautiful shores of the palmetto coast have never experienced the wrath of storms like Hazel, Gracie and Hugo. Those who lived through those events have the images of the devastation of the storm surge and winds etched in their minds. It has been three decades since Hugo tracked through the state, and if you know where to look, you can still see the scars left behind.

Those scars serve as a reminder that it is not a matter of "if" another big one will happen, but a matter of "when."


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Featured Video

How did Hurricane Hugo affect the wildlife in South Carolina? Take a look at a historical video produced with one of our biologists in 1989. He talks about how the loss of habitat hurt the red-cockaded woodpecker and other bird populations in our state.