It’s that time of year again. In eight days, hurricane season begins – that six-month long, annual Southeastern ritual of daily watching the Weather Channel, browsing the NOAA website, and praying any storm doesn’t hit the coast. For us, it’s not an event of climatological intrigue; it’s life and death.
Everyone in the Southeast fears getting hit by “the big one.” For Charleston, SC, the last one was in September of 1989, a quirky storm by the name of Hugo. I lived in Virginia Beach at the time and remember watching it closely. Hugo’s eye made landfall about 20 miles northeast of downtown Charleston around midnight on the night of September 21 as a Category 4 hurricane. Thankfully, the eye wall hit in a less populated area. Had it come ashore 20 miles further southwest, downtown Charleston would’ve been totally under water. Even still, the devastation affected thousands as the storm traveled up I-26 to Columbia. It took Charleston three weeks to regain electricity and communications and years to rebuild certain areas.
We haven’t had a major hurricane hit this area since. We had a close call, though, with Hurricane Floyd in 1999 (see picture above). I WAS here for that one. At the time, I lived in an apartment a few miles from the Ashley River, and we were under mandatory evacuation orders. I’m sure you remember watching the news, and seeing how our area became famous for the most horrendous hurricane evacuation attempt in history. (The good news is – many municipalities, including ours, have learned from what we did wrong.)
As I evacuated in an old car with my eight year old son and my most prized possessions (important papers and things that insurance can’t replace), I was stuck in traffic that barely moved for hours, having to pull over as my engine overheated, thinking my son and I were going to die on the side of the road as a Category 4 hurricane swept us away. It was frightening! Several hours later, I had traveled about 15 miles to my ultimate destination – a friend’s home further inland. The evacuation orders were given too late and the traffic was too bad for me to go any further. Thankfully, the worst of the storm skirted our coast and made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 2. We dodged a pretty intense bullet.
So, it’s been 25 years since Charleston, SC, has been hit by a major hurricane. We’ve had quite a few tropical storms and a couple of minor hurricanes since Hurricane Hugo, but nothing devastating. Odds are…our time is coming. And whether it’s the big one or not, we need to be prepared, to shelter in place or to evacuate.
Preparation season begins with the annual hurricane forecast, which comes out around the middle of May. (Hurricane season is June 1 – November 30.) Here, waiting for the annual hurricane forecast is as popular as waiting for the announcement of the winning apple pie at the county fair. In fact, several local companies and institutions (my employer included) host Hurricane Awareness Days around the time of the broadcast of the season’s hurricane forecast. It’s quite the event, becoming the topic of conversation for weeks to come. Whose forecast is right? Will any of the storms hit our area? Will this be the year of the next “big one”?
This year’s forecast has just come out, and it looks as though this season will be less intense than in the past, thanks to an El Nino forming in the Pacific Ocean. According to NOAA, there will be 8-13 named storms, 3-6 of them becoming hurricanes, and 1-2 of those becoming major hurricanes (Category 3-5). El Nino, which is created by warmer waters in the Pacific, will create westerly winds that will help discourage storm development in the Atlantic. Good news, yes? Well, maybe.
I am concerned about this graphic from WeatherBELL Analytics.
Their forecast is similar to NOAA’s (though not exact), but the distribution of storm activity is what concerns me. Most of the activity, including all the major hurricanes, are forecast to occur along the east coast of the U.S. El Nino will help suppress storms in the Atlantic Basin, but it probably won’t affect the east coast, where the waters are rather warm already.
I’ve seen tropical storms form right off the South Carolina coast and develop into hurricanes quickly. While taking my CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training with the Charleston Emergency Management Department, I learned that it is meteorologically possible for a major hurricane to develop off our coast so quickly we have little to no time to evacuate. Now that’s scary! Could we have another storm like the one that sped up the coast and hit New England in 1938? Could we have storms this year like those that occurred in the 1950s?
A major hurricane has not made landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin, struck Florida in 2005. That’s nine years – the longest streak ever without a major hurricane making a U.S. landfall. Once again, the odds are that this could be the year. For those of us on the east coast, from Georgia to New England, we’d best pay close attention to the weather forecasts this year, especially because the odds of a storm forming right off the coast are high; and we’d best be prepared for that. Yes, the number of storms forecast this year is less than what it’s been recently, but it takes only one major hurricane to make landfall near your home to make it a bad season.
So, keep your heads up, your eyes open, and your homestead prepared. But don’t forget to keep your hands in the dirt. Summer isn’t just about hurricane season, afterall.