Learning from past hurricanes

Learning from past hurricanes

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South Carolinians and the people in other Atlantic coast states have been living Hurricane Dorian now for more than a week. And it’s likely Dorian won’t be the last threat in 2019.

Officials: Be ready for Dorian rain, heavy wind in local forecast

The calendar has turned to September. From now until mid-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 recent years have seen hurricanes and tropical systems pose a threat annually.

But the numbers of people who have experienced the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the state are considerably smaller.

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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 30 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 club in 2016 was a storm about which people around in 1959 have talked for years. Hurricane Gracie made landfall near Beaufort on Sept. 30, 1959.

Gracie's upgrade came as National Hurricane Center researchers reviewed the entire database of storms in the Atlantic Ocean going back to 1851.

A team led by Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the center, reviewed data from hurricane hunter aircraft, which flew into Gracie's eye about an hour before landfall on Sept. 30, 1959, as well as the sparse data from weather instruments along the coast.

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.

The upgrade won't come as a surprise to those who remember the storm. It caused significant damage in southern South Carolina and blew hard into The T&D Region.

Reports in The Times and Democrat from the time show:

• Winds were in excess of 75 mph in Orangeburg.

• Rainfall was estimated at 10 to 12 inches.

• The Edisto River at Edisto Memorial Gardens suffered from the excess water as its landing platforms and small diving platforms were several feet underwater by nightfall.

• Streets were blocked by fallen trees, notably Amelia, Sawyer, Glover, Middleton, Clarendon, Dorchester and South Boulevard.

• Homes were damaged by falling trees, with chimneys being toppled.

• No deaths or injuries were reported locally, but 10 people died in the state.

Studying storms from the past and making changes in records are about more than the history books.

Landsea told The Associated Press his team's work had several goals. The more accurate the historical hurricane database is, the better tool it can be for predicting future storms. And an accurate picture of historical storms can help with planning and preparedness today.

For certain, a storm of Gracie's intensity would have more impact now along a heavily developed and populated coast. In 1959, Hilton Head Island was as yet undeveloped, as were other iconic coastal spots such as Kiawah Island.

Any amount of information that can assist in preparation that prevents loss of life and reduces damage is needed as South Carolina prepares for the peak of another hurricane season.


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