Hurricane Season Is Underway, Above Normal Year Predicted

The Atlantic hurricane season is underway, eight months after South Carolina was hit by one of its worst hurricanes.

The Category 1 Hurricane Matthew made landfall near McClellanville last October and killed five people across the state. Storm surge reached over six feet in Charleston, rain drenched the Pee Dee, rivers flooded and trees knocked out power to more than 800,000 people.

This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an above-normal season with 11 to 17 named storms expected during the season, which runs from June 1 through November 30. Out of those storms, 5 to 9 could be hurricanes. NOAA predicts 2 to 4 hurricanes could be major hurricanes.

“The season could be comparable to last year, which was the most active season since 2012 with 15 named storms,” Dr. Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster for NOAA, said.

“Last year, we saw five land-falling storms, two of which were hurricanes,” Bell said. “One of those storms was Hurricane Matthew, which caused $10 billion in U.S. economic damage, due to wind and water damage.”

Four people in South Carolina died as a direct result of the storm, as did a Dillion County man who was struck by a cable while cleaning up tree debris. According to NOAA, nine out of 10 fatalities associated with hurricanes are drownings, due to water from inland flooding and coastal storm surge.

Dillon County, which borders North Carolina in the Pee Dee region, received the most rainfall from the hurricane in the state, topping the chart with 17.2 inches.

The heavy rains flooded rivers upstream in North Carolina, which then flooded the Little Pee Dee, Lumber and Waccamaw Rivers for days after the storm.

Jean Taylor Ellis, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina, studies the impact of wind and water on beaches. Hurricane Matthew destroyed the protective dunes along the coast and, until they recover, storm surge could be amplified, Ellis said.

“The dunes are not there to the level that they were last year,” Ellis said. “We have fairly substantial loss along our coast that puts us at more of a risk to hurricane damage.”

Just like the beach, the dunes are going to recover with time, Ellis said. The clumps of vegetation that dunes form around is already returning.  

“This hurricane season will be a little more tenuous,” Ellis said. “But after that, I have a lot of confidence that if we do a good job protecting that area from people trampling, and all that good stuff, that we’ll be in a lot better shape next year.”

South Carolinians have seen two back-to-back years of natural disasters, with the 1,000-year flood that submerged much of the state in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew last October. Those disasters have prepared the state and citizens for future hazards, officials say, but shouldn’t lead to complacency.

USC professor Susan Cutter, who studies disaster response and recovery, wants people on the coast and inland to be aware of hurricane hazards and evacuation zones.

“Any hurricane is a dangerous storm, it doesn’t matter the category,” Cutter said.

“What you’d like to see is a tiny kind of event that gets everybody concerned and mobilized and practicing the evacuation,” Cutter said. “We were able to get public attention, the public responded quite well in terms of getting out of harm's way and the reentry went pretty well, and the overall emergency management was very good.”

State officials implemented lane reversals from the coast last year for an orderly evacuation, ahead of the storm. Hurricane Matthew hit during the peak of the hurricane season, not tourist season. Should a storm threaten the coast in the middle of the tourist season, Cutter said, evacuations would be drastically different from last year.

Gov. Henry McMaster and members of his cabinet have already conducted their annual hurricane table-top exercise and having actually put it into place last year, they are prepared for the season.

“We are prepared,” McMaster said. “We have a great team and this sort of collaboration and communication is a good exercise and also an example of the kind of collaboration and communication we will need for readiness, in case of a disaster.”