Hurricane Hugo logo 25 years later

The 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo serves as a reminder that nature is dynamic — conditions change either dramatically or gradually — and we can learn from the changes, using the knowledge to plan and manage natural and societal needs. While recovery from Hugo has been, for the most part, completed, there are lessons to be learned.

Thankfully, natural disasters tend to be fairly rare occurrences at any one location, but their rarity makes it harder to understand their long-term effects and how to respond. Also, the effects of natural disasters are added to everyday challenges in resource management, such as balancing the needs of economic development and the growth of cities with sustainable supplies of food and water, quality wildlife habitat, and protection of natural features like coastal wetlands that absorb the power of winds and storm surges.

When Hurricane Hugo hit Georgetown County in September 1989, Clemson University scientists at the Belle W. Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science were on site to study the storm’s effects on forests and wetlands. Our scientists have continued these studies and we can now explain how fast the forests and the wildlife within them recover, which forests might require more active management to avoid invasion by weedy species, and how to replant or salvage storm-damaged areas.

Saltwater intrusion converts forested freshwater wetlands into salt marsh. Dead cypress trees standing like skeletons above a proliferation of tall, dense grass show areas where this has happened. These dead trees also signal lost habitat for animals and plants that relied on the freshwater wetlands. Dredging can increase the effects and reach of saltwater intrusion.

We are working to understand whether the conversion of forested wetlands in our area is caused by storm surges from hurricanes such as Hugo, the six inches of sea level rise we have witnessed in the last 60 years, or some combination of the two. We are also evaluating the success of strategies to reduce the spread of saltwater upstream during dredging in order to help strike a balance between habitat loss and economic development.

Across the state, we dig ditches and build storm sewers to manage the excess water from heavy rains. These ditches cost $4,000-$5,000 per mile each year to maintain. But how do we manage water in times of drought? South Carolina has had below average rainfall for seven of the past ten years. During those times, encouraging water to infiltrate the soil and recharge aquifers is important, as is maintaining a clean, reliable source of drinking water. Our research helps to identify threats to clean drinking water and to understand the science of managing water in times of low flow, while providing for drainage during floods and finding ways to reduce maintenance costs to municipal governments and taxpayers.

Humans are part of the environment and the sustainability of our lives and livelihoods will be determined by how well we manage our natural resources. Research at Clemson’s Baruch Institute at Hobcaw Barony is aimed at answering questions that will help us provide a sustainable future. We invite you learn more at our Open House on September 23, from 3-6:30, or visit our website or Facebook page.

Skip J. Van Bloem is director of the Belle W. Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science, a research and education facility of Clemson University in Georgetown.

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