Hurricane Florence is the latest – and potentially most powerful – hurricane to threaten the Carolinas.
From now into October, South Carolina is most susceptible to being hit by tropical weather, including hurricanes. Even young residents of The T&D Region have experienced tropical weather in the form of heavy rains and high winds, and as recently October 2016, Hurricane Mathews brought damage to the coast and inland. The year before, a tropical system played a role in record flooding. A year later, Hurricane Irma’s storm surge caused major damage on the coast.
But the numbers of people who have experienced the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the state are considerably smaller.
Most infamous in The T&D Region and in many other parts of the state, including Charleston and the Grand Strand, is Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
The big storm is known still as "South Carolina's storm of the century." It left devastation from the coast and along a path through Orangeburg County, Sumter County, the Pee Dee and on into the Upstate and Charlotte, N.C.
When it hit 29 years ago on Sept. 21-22, Hugo came ashore as a Category 4 storm, one level of intensity shy of the strongest hurricane rating of Category 5. Until recently, records showed the only comparable storm to hit the state was Hurricane Hazel near Myrtle Beach in 1954, also rated as a Category 4. South Carolina has never been hit by a Category 5 hurricane.
Joining the Category 4 years after its strike in 1959 was Hurricane Gracie, which made landfall near Beaufort on Sept. 30, 1959.
Gracie's upgrade in 2016 came after National Hurricane Center researchers reviewed the entire database of storms in the Atlantic Ocean going back to 1851. They concluded though mathematical formulas and earlier research into other hurricanes that Gracie's top sustained winds were 130 mph instead of the old mark of 125, bumping the storm from a Category 3 to a Category 4.
Since reliable record-keeping began more than 150 years ago, North Carolina has only been hit by one Category 4 hurricane: Hazel, with 130 mph winds in 1954.
With Florence now likely to add to the list, residents in both Carolinas have reason for concern.
Hugo’s 138 mph winds caused 20-foot storm surges and severe wind damage, resulting in the loss of 86 lives and $9 billion in damages. The S.C. coastline from Charleston to the Grand Strand was hit particularly hard, but major damage extended inland through Orangeburg, Calhoun, Sumter and other counties, as well as to Charlotte, N.C.
Gracie caused 10 deaths in South Carolina during a time when coastal locations such as Hilton Head Island were largely undeveloped. It was still at a dangerous 75 mph when it reached Orangeburg.
Preparedness is much better in the years since 1989, but storms of the intensity of Hugo and Gracie threaten even greater impact today along a heavily developed and populated coast. The key to saving lives is people heeding warnings. And in the case of a storm such as Florence, there should be an easy answer to the question “Am I going to evacuate if told to do so?”