The next storm could wreak havoc on the Ocean Course and wash away the sand from under a condo at Wild Dunes. It could swamp homes near Breach Inlet. It could put all of Folly Beach County Park under water.
And the next storm could be out there now. We're at the peak of a 2011 hurricane season that is on track to be one of the most active ever. Already, 14 named storms have formed, and the immediate future doesn't look good. Eight of those storms formed in or moved into the Atlantic off the East Coast. A ninth, Tropical Storm Maria, is on track to do the same.
The inlet beaches on Isle of Palms, Sullivan's Island and Folly Beach are considered the "most critically eroded" Charleston-area beaches, according to the state office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.
They are maybe one storm away from the sort of destruction faced a little more than five years ago, when millions of dollars were spent on repairs and renourishment. And this season is far from done.
La Nina, the cold Pacific waters that jimmy the jet stream, has formed, making it more likely for hurricanes to make landfall on the East Coast.
And most of the damage done so far came from one hurricane, Irene, that passed well off the coast of South Carolina.
"We don't need to receive a direct hit to do a lot of damage to the beach," said Dan Burger, of OCRM. "By their very nature, the ends of barrier islands, or their inlets, are much more vulnerable." On the other hand, the more central beaches on all three islands still have dunes and are in relatively good shape to withstand a storm, he said.
At Folly Beach, where emergency "trucked-in" sand renourishment also is under way, the concern is keen. Each new storm could take out more of what's left of the dune wall.
"If we get two or three more close calls, our dunes are going to keep disappearing. It's not a good scenario," said Mayor Tim Goodwin. At either end of the island, "there's nothing there to block the water, so the more storms we get, the further back the erosion will go."
The town last renourished its five miles of beach with a $12 million project in 2005.
On Sullivan's, at least one of a few property owners with the tidewash problem has applied for an emergency permit to renourish, Town Administrator Andy Benke said. That island, except for Breach Inlet, has largely been gaining sand.
At Wild Dunes, "they have sand, but the waves are very close," Burger said. That inlet stretch of Isle of Palms last was renourished with a $10 million project in 2008, after two years of legal arm-wrestling between owners and state regulators, and after tens of thousands of sandbags washed away in storm tides, littering the coast and marshes for miles.
Last year, the city already was shoring up "hot spots" on the stretch.
At its peak, the most active part of the season, the 2011 hurricane season is only one storm behind the 2005 season. That season turned out to have a record 27 named storms, including 14 hurricanes, seven of which became major hurricanes. It included one of the strongest storms on record, Hurricane Rita, which at one point had 175 mph winds.
It also spawned Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that pummeled and flooded New Orleans.
The bright spot so far this year is that a lot of the storms have been stunted by cold water or shear winds, and only two hurricanes have formed. Both became major storms and tracked offshore South Carolina.
And the few-hurricanes phenomenon is "just kind of the luck of the draw," said Dennis Feltgen, of the National Hurricane Center.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Maria today will whirl into the Virgin Islands. Forecasters expect it to skirt the Bahamas on a path toward the Southeast coast next week before turning north, much like Hurricane Irene.
The Lowcountry for now remains in its potential track, and it is expected to pass the coast as a hurricane.
If you need any more incentive to pay close attention and be prepared, 22 years ago today Hurricane Hugo was named. The storm went on to make a catastrophic landfall just north of Charleston.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.
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