In the 25 years since Hurricane Hugo blew ashore and tore a path of destruction through South Carolina, a lot has changed.
South Carolina today has more people, better technology, more accurate weather forecasts, and sturdier homes and commercial buildings more capable of withstanding powerful winds.
Yet despite the changes — or, in some cases, because of them — emergency officials say they are extremely worried South Carolinians are not prepared if another Category 4 storm were to suddenly come ashore this fall.
“South Carolina may not get hit that often by a major hurricane. But, when we do, it’s bad. It is devastating,” SC Emergency Management Division spokesman Derrec Becker said. “Our biggest concern right now in 2014 is public apathy because it’s been so long. We’re very worried that people will not heed the warnings when the governor orders an evacuation.”
South Carolina has not had a serious hurricane threat since Hurricane Charley came ashore in the Grand Strand area ten years ago. It has been 15 years since heavy traffic ground to a halt while fleeing Hurricane Floyd (only to have the storm take a fortuitous turn to the north at the last moment). But no storm has come close to matching Hugo’s $1 billion in damage ($16.6 billion when adjusted for inflation)
As the years pass and more people steadily move into the Charleston, Beaufort, and Myrtle Beach areas, fewer recall the storm that devastated the state a quarter-century earlier. Becker said Emergency Management Division officials worry that more residents also means more people will either try to ride the storm out or clog the few highways departing those same cities.
While 250,000 people were evacuated before Hugo made landfall, Becker said the estimates for a similar evacuation now are around 1.2 million. “So many new people, so much new infrastructure in this state. There aren’t many new roads,” he said. He added that it would likely require an entire additional day to clear the coast before the winds and flooding arrive.
In many ways, residents are better equipped to know when to leave. Hurricane forecast models are much more accurate than 25 years ago, more people can use their phones or computers to get instantaneous information on a storm’s likely path, and law enforcement now have a statewide plan that incorporates the lessons learned in Hugo.
But former York County emergency management director Cotton Howell said that same technology leaves many people thoroughly unprepared to handle the aftermath of a disaster. Howell said he saw firsthand the destruction caused by Hugo when it hit the Rock Hill area a few hours after making landfall in Charleston. With the power out for weeks, residents were unable to cook, shop, or even use their phones.
But he believes the situation would be even worse in the Internet era.
“We’re so dependent on the internet and all of these technological resources that are affected by electricity,” Howell said. “They wouldn’t be there. We’re so dependent you can’t even pump gas now unless that gas pump has an internet connection. You’re not going to get your card to swipe without power. You’re not going to have money.”
Worried about possible confusion and complacency, South Carolina decided to end voluntary evacuations in 2012. The decision eliminated the distinctions between “voluntary” and “mandatory” evacuations and instead gave the governor the power to issue “evacuation orders.” Becker said that means residents won’t be urged to evacuate unless the situation is expected to become dangerous.
“The last thing that we want to do is recommend that you have to leave your home,” Becker said. “So when evacuation time comes, heed that warning. It’s very serious.”