Hurricanes and Climate | This Week in South Carolina



Gavin Jackson:  Welcome to This Week in South Carolina. I'm Gavin Jackson. The 2023 Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1, and NOAA is predicting near normal hurricane activity with a range of 12 to 17 named storms. South Carolina Emergency Management Director Kim Stenson joins us to talk about how to prepare for the season, but first USC geography professor Kristin Dow discusses the effects of global warming and hurricanes, and its effect on South Carolina. Professor Kristin Dow, thank you for joining us.

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me. I'm glad to talk to you about hurricane season and climate, keep the conversation going.

Gavin Jackson:  Definitely, and that's exactly where we are right now hurricane season is here. It's underway and NOAA is forecasting a near normal season. With El Nino set to develop this summer, though it's likely to be offset by rising water temperatures in the Atlantic. So how do you see climate change affecting this forecast? How do you see, you know, what have we been seen as a result of warming in our climate?

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: So, it's hard to say what's going to happen with El Nino. That makes it really complicated, but the general trend, and that's what climate is about is that we - the oceans have been absorbing the majority, the heat has been increasing the earth's atmosphere and the ocean temperatures are warming significantly, and that sets up the conditions for greater evaporation. It sets up the conditions for more wetter hurricanes and potentially more frequent ones. So.

Gavin Jackson:  Yeah, Dr. Dow, we're talking about 12 to 17, total named storms, of those five to nine could become hurricanes, including one to four major hurricanes. So, a little bit different season than we've seen in the past, but still worrisome when you look at those water temperatures that fuel hurricanes.

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: It only takes one, right? This is... it may mean that we spend less time worrying about what's happening out and watching what's happening out in the Atlantic and being grateful for the quality of forecasts that we have available so that we can sort of think ahead, but yeah, it only takes one for it to be a big problem. So, and that, we can't tell where it's coming from.

Gavin Jackson:  How closely do you watch you know, the forecast? How do you approach hurricane season yourself as someone who studies this?

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: So, I'm really lucky. I'm in the Geography Department at the University of South Carolina, and I'm a social scientist. So, I start to worry about how people are going to respond, but when I'm interested in what's going to happen, I watch it really closely, and then I turn to my colleagues, Greg Carboni, and Dr. Carboni, and Dr. Mark, to tell me what they think of the models and how they're developing on a regular basis, but we also have that hazards vulnerability and resilience institute here that has done a lot of hurricane recovery work. So, I'm sure surrounded by people who felt really intense. It's a group thing.

Gavin Jackson:  Very important, especially with this changing climate we have been so let's talk about outside of more intense hurricanes when we talk about climate change. What are some other ramifications you and your colleagues are studying that we should be looking at when it comes to ramifications of climate change affecting South Carolina?

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: We built our whole livelihoods around expectations of a certain climate, in ways that are subtle, like the kind of asphalt we put on the roads, right, was developed for certain temperature conditions, the shingles we put on our roofs were designed for certain wind conditions, but my colleagues and I collaborated with Dr. Carboni, particularly led a report on climate science for the State Office of Resilience, and the state's first resilience plan is due out soon, and it's going to have a discussion about the kinds of things we're looking at. So, it's the hurricanes. It's definitely the heat. Here in South Carolina. In the Southeast, we already have some of the highest levels of occupational related mortalities related to heat, and we know that those conditions are going to continue to become more difficult, and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety is working on new regulations, OSHA is working on new regulations to help us better prepare and keep people safe during those conditions. but that's a big one, and of course, the state resilience report is based on flooding and these hurricanes have been wetter, but to the extent that we might see some more flashy rainstorms and additional flood risks, we're thinking about that, and drought which is also in the mix in our state. We've been lucky for quite a while, but we've also had some really bad droughts in the past that influence our agriculture, influence manufacturing, transportation, those two particularly. So, there's just a number of things that we're thinking about, and I think that could just keep going on the policies and the public health effects, mental health effects of disasters and disaster recovery. It's a... wide ranging set of things.

Gavin Jackson:  Yeah. Dr. Dow, do you think that we are taking this seriously in South Carolina, when you look at the policy aspects of it? I mean, I know we have this office of resilience, which is important when it does come to flooding and mitigation and recovery efforts, and that's a pretty big step in the right direction when it comes to hardening our state. What about other ways that we're approaching this? Do you think that we're doing everything we can to really mitigate these effects of climate change?

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: I think we could be doing...more in terms of a real greenhouse gas reduction plan, and thinking about that, like, we've got some, some great leadership in terms of heavy electric vehicles being promoted here in the state. We're increasing solar. There's some movement on offshore wind, which is going to be an important part of the solution and an economic opportunity for the state. Overall, though, I checked on where we are in the United States, and we made a commitment to the international community as a part of the international, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to reduce overall US emissions by 50% to 52%, by 2030, which is a lot, and the last, last accounting we have that is that we've reduced them 15% over the 2005 levels, as of 2022. I know it's a lot of numbers, right. So, compare, if the baseline is 2000, 2005 or 15% below that, but we said we're going to get 50% below that. So, to get on that track and hit the trajectory we're really looking for, we've got to move a lot faster, and South Carolina has opportunities to in this sort of position ourselves to be an important part of that solution, and, you know, find the silver lining in the change. So, I'm glad to see that happening.

Gavin Jackson:  Yeah, and when you talk about manufacturers, especially EVs coming to our state, a lot of them are thinking with a greener focus too, and incorporating more green energy in their blueprints, and maybe something that we could see other manufacturers doing too and getting tax breaks for doing so. Didn't mean to put you on the spot there for a policy response, because that's not your foray, but obviously, that's something we need to talk about too, not only the state, but as a country. Kind of changing gears a little bit, tell us about the psychological effects of climate change. Maybe what you're hearing from students, what you're hearing from some folks in the community. Do they understand it specifically, when you talk about heat, too. That's something that's a big killer. It's a big problem, especially when we see these heat waves, and here in Columbia, we know plenty about that, but that affects the entire state and the country, as well.

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: When we think about the psychological effects of climate change, I was trying to just trying to pull it all together and my thoughts were," Boy, we have been sought through so much "psychologically, in the last couple of years already." Right? COVID is still with us, families are still mourning the losses of many people that died there and the changes, and the just disruptions of livelihoods. So, we put on top of that, worries about the future of your investments in your home and your health outside and the well-being of future generations. It's not a surprise that people are talking about cases of climate anxiety, but just also feeling the additional stress on so many other things that we're already worried about. So, while some of these stories are, are so sad, they'll make you forget... Hurricane Ian, was, you know, a little worse because of anthropogenic influences. You think those people are still putting their lives together and now they're hearing about another hurricane season. You can imagine how they're sick to their stomachs, as that comes along, but we also know that there are different opportunities out there that we can start taking on, and to like, "Okay, this is, "this doesn't look good, but let's start thinking "about what we can do", and there's those basic things like people are really putting roofs on their houses. One of the great things you can do to protect yourself against those intense rainfalls and hurricanes is to tape up the joints between the boards when you put them on the roof. Right. If that can reduce the amount of rain getting into your upper attic area, by like, I guess it would be a significant percentage if you do the numbers, but that kind of thing is relatively cheap, but it makes you safer.

Gavin Jackson:  What about when you look at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issuing that report this year in March, about some dire findings, not to kind of go back to the psychological impacts and pile on a little bit, but it says that we need to cut greenhouse emissions nearly in half by 2030, kind of going back to some other the numbers we were talking about there to prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming? Not that, you know, if we get to those two degrees Celsius, 1.5 degrees Celsius, that things are beyond repair, but it's something to note that every time we go up, a 10th of a degree, it really has major ramifications worldwide. What did what stuck out to you in that report, if you read that report, and maybe some other things that you see us doing to prevent these problems from growing?

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: The report is clearer and clearer on the level of threats. One of the things that stands out to me as I look at it, thinking about it, like as a social scientist, is what it means for supply chains. You say, "Well, what's happening here?", you know, the weather is changing, it's already hot. We know some things about that, but we're more and more dependent around people and places around the world, to keep things flowing here, right. We've got an important port. We do a lot of export business. We rely on imports to build so much in our manufacturing, and when those disruptions start happening in other parts of the world, then we're going to feel them in that same ripple effect that we've been experiencing with other different catastrophes. Right?

Gavin Jackson:  Why do you think it's so hard for us to shift our thinking, when it comes to climate change? I mean, do you still run into a lot of folks that deny climate change, or maybe they have different approaches to how it's being caused? I mean, what needs to be done, maybe for people to really deal with this more?

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: Lots of people are trying to understand how we cope with something so big, right, but I do think one of the important things to do is to continue to have the conversation. For a long time, it was too awkward to talk about it, you didn't want to get anybody upset, but now, one of the healthiest things we can do is actually get it out there and like, let's start to explore this. Keeping silence on it is not going to make it better, and we don't have to argue about why, but at some point, we're going to have to figure out that there is an anthropogenic footprint. We're going to have to deal with it, but I would like to start having us think more about adaptation, because we make infrastructure choices with seven-year lifetimes... right. If we think about places that are MUSC, for instance, as they build downtown Charleston, they're making investments with long term infrastructures and they're thinking hard about those long-term implications, and for those of us who are resistant. Change is hard. So, as we start thinking about these adjustments, taking, you know, breaking it down, you're not going to solve the whole thing with one particular big change, but incremental change that can add up, you know, you start with like a little bit of a wedge, and you build it up and up until you actually I can't do this... to get a decent sized slope that gets you where you need to be right. I think that that's a little less overwhelming. Knowing that there are solutions out there that can both help us adapt and help us reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the worst conditions.

Gavin Jackson:  Yeah, and its future is still bright, too, in terms of technological advancements that we can look forward to that hopefully can help us out too. So, thank you too, Dr. Kristin Dow. She's a Carolina trustees professor in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina. Thank you.

USC Professor Kirstin Dow: Thank you.

Gavin Jackson:  Kim Stenson is the director of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, and he's here to talk to us about hurricane season Dr. Stenson, thanks for coming back.

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Hey, no problem. Glad to do it.

Gavin Jackson:  So, Kim with the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season is officially underway. We know that now. Last year, the big storm we saw was Hurricane Ian. It really hit Florida hard. It made landfall in Georgetown, South Carolina as a category 1 storm. So, tell us again now what you're seeing with this new national forecast for the hurricane season of 2023. It's supposed to be near normal, which is a nice change from that above normal season we've been seeing. So, what do you guys look at when you see that forecast coming out from NOAA?

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Well, we really don't look at it in terms of our response capability, and you've seen that in the past. You can have just one hurricane along the east coast and it could be in South Carolina and it could be catastrophic, and we've seen that happen before. Up and down the east coast there. So, it's interesting from the standpoint of we might see how we might be busy during a certain year or not busy but really it does not change any of our preparation at all, because it only takes one hurricane.

Gavin Jackson: ...and Dr. Stenson tell us about that preparation. What goes into preparing for the hurricane season which kicked off June 1st goes through November. How prepared is the state? What do you guys look to do? Has anything changed this year?

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Alright, well, in terms of our normal preparations, we look at it really from two perspectives. One is from an internal perspective with state agencies and EMD, and the other is an external perspective in terms of getting the message out. So, in terms of our preparation here is that we've updated as we do every year, our South Carolina Emergency Operations Plan, which basically outlines how we'll operate in any response, but we do it in advance of Hurricane season every year, and it's an all hazards plan, and it's just 90% of what you do, and in every event is going to be the same. We're probably going to have some sort of evacuation, some sort of sheltering, law enforcement, medical support, and that sort of thing. So, emergency operations plan basically outlines all that but it's tends to be general, generally, very general, I guess I used general, many times in there, but the second piece of it is the hazard specific plans that we have, and one of them is the hurricane plan, and that's just been updated this year, because that 90% for the state emergency operations plan handles about 90% of what we're going to do, but what about the 10%, and then that's the hurricane plan in this particular instance. So, we've updated that, in terms of validation. You know, generally we were validated last year, with Hurricane Ian, we've had a number of hurricane events in the past, and our plans have stood up pretty well. We also have in terms of the validation, we do exercises. We've had the State of Emergency Response Team, which is basically the state agencies that are going to respond to an event. We had a hurricane tabletop earlier this year, and then that was followed by last month, we had the governor's hurricane tabletop, where we had the governor and state agency heads, basically briefing the governor, on their actions that they're going to take during the different phases that we'd have to go through, and then also...any challenges or issues that that we might have to be concerned with. There's nothing terribly new this year. That's different. It's just an update of the plans, but we don't have any new doctrinal changes, but I would mention that we have an ongoing hurricane evacuation study right now, and that we're working through that in terms of an analysis of several areas, including vulnerability, behavioral and transportation, and that will probably drive some changes next year, not this year, but probably next year as we finish that study. So we're looking forward to doing that.

Gavin Jackson:  and throwing in... Sorry.

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: From an external standpoint, trying to get the word out in terms of the, you know, personal preparedness message. We have the hurricane guide that we push out every year. We have a very active social media presence on social media, trying to get everybody to be prepared and kind of work through that process. So that's an ongoing effort, and we will continue that. Not just through the season, but after the season, as well.

Gavin Jackson:  Yeah, the SCEMD Twitter's quite a treat. We all enjoy them getting the message out in unique ways, but Kim, I want to ask you a little about when we talk about evacuations and lane reversals and all those things that happen when we get closer to the possible impact of a storm. It's kind of rare, but we've seen them over the past years with several storms hitting our state affecting our state. Can you tell us what goes into issuing an evacuation order, and when it comes time to make lane reversal decisions?

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Right? Well, there's a couple principal parts to that process. One is that we have a disaster intelligence group that meets and takes all the science and all the intelligence information, and then provides the group and I'll talk about the group here in a minute, but the group, the information that they'll need from a scientific standpoint, if you will, that group has, of course, the state agencies and you know, of course with EMD here, but it also includes the county emergency managers, and what their information needs are in terms of making recommendations. So collectively, we'll all get that information, and then we will meet on a regular basis, the State Emergency Response Team, those state agencies involved in evacuation, and then with the county leadership, and jointly, hopefully it gets us some level of consensus and we have in the past without too much of a problem and then make a recommendation to the governor. So, it's a group effort based on science, the best information we have, and then we make a recommendation to Governor McMaster.

Gavin Jackson: ...and you said there will be some studying during this year looking at how that all gets done too, but what have we learned maybe when we look at past evacuation orders, and we look at past lane reversals. Everything seems to kind of run pretty smoothly from what I recall in the past, but when it comes to evacuation orders, not everyone always heeds them. Some people want to write it out, because they aren't mandatory, correct?

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: No, they're – we build them as evacuation, but it is essentially in my opinion, some people will disagree with it. It's a governor's directive, mandatory evacuation, but we've kind of gotten away from that mandatory evacuation terminology, and we just call it evacuation, but it is an order from the governor.

Gavin Jackson:  So how have we changed over these years? We've seen all these storms come and hit our state? We've had a lot of economic impact and loss as a result. What about have we gotten any better, in your opinion? Have we invested to harden our state, from these storms, specifically these hurricanes over these years?

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Well, I think there’s definitely been some mitigation efforts ongoing, not just in the, along the coast, but throughout South Carolina. One of the big threats that we have is certainly the inland flooding threat, and we've seen most of our fatalities come from that. We've not had anybody to my knowledge that's been a fatality as a direct result of the surge, but inland flooding has been, certainly been an issue along those lines, but our baseline plans have not changed a whole lot. We do think that there'll be with this hurricane evacuation study that there will be some redefined evacuation areas. We've got to kind of, we need to look for the middle ground there in terms of determining where the most at-risk areas are as versus over evacuate, and if you over evacuate, and people don't have to evacuate, but they did, then you run into the compliance issue. So, we need to be more flexible in that. So, we're trying to look at maybe redefining some of those areas, and I think next year, we'll find that there will be some more flexibility in those evacuation areas. So, I think that's one thing that we've learned over the last several years.

Gavin Jackson:  Now, what about some tips for folks to prepare for, for hurricane season? What should they be doing now? There's no active threat against the state at this point. So probably a good time to start preparing to think about this, what should folks be doing?

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Well, the first thing that we would recommend is everybody go to our website at, and it's got a wealth of information, discussing preparatory actions that we recommend everybody take, heed of and do, and it's again, not just the hurricanes, but it's pretty much you know, all hazards on that end, but certainly looking at that. We also have our hurricane Guide, which goes into great specifics in terms of what you can do before, during and after a hurricane event. We have an online version of that at It's, and it's basically a little bit more interactive, and it's not in paper format. It's digital, and you can pull that up, on your on your smartphone. So certainly, would recommend that people do that. I guess bottom line is we recommend everybody be their own personal emergency manager and know what threats that they're going to have in their particular area, and then how they would react to that, and if they have to evacuate have a place to go and a plan to get there.

Gavin Jackson:  A good bit of personal responsibility on everyone, this hurricane season. When is the most active time, Kim? When do we see things ramp up? I feel like fall is like when we always see that first week of October has kind of been notorious recently for a lot of activity.

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Well, and that's I think, from my perspective, and the science certainly bears this out probably for us, September, and October are probably the busier ones, and we can have one, you know next week, and we could have one probably in December after hurricane season is over, but typically, the September – October timeframe is probably the busiest and most active.

Gavin Jackson: ...and Kim just as we wrap up, talk to us about the Office of Resilience and how EMD works with that office. You know, have they taken some of your responsibilities, or do you guys work in collaboration when it comes to resilience planning, mitigation, and disaster recovery?

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Well, I think definitely it's a collaborative effort, and we work, work closely with them, and they work closely with us and, you know, work through the process and make sure that we've got the division of responsibilities and I don't think we've had any big issues in terms of that collaboration at all, but it's just different programs with the same end in mind, and that's the protection of the citizens of South Carolina.

Gavin Jackson:  Gotcha. Important stuff there, and that's Kim Stenson. He's the director of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. Ken, thanks again.

SCEMD Director Kim Stenson: Okay, thank you. Appreciate it.

Gavin Jackson:  To stay up to date with the latest news throughout the week. Check out the South Carolina Lede, It's a podcast I host on Tuesdays and Saturdays that you can find on or wherever you find podcasts, including your smart speaker for South Carolina ETV, I'm Gavin Jackson. Be well, South Carolina.