MYRTLE BEACH — Laughing students milled about a school playground as Michael Tidwell steered his Ford Expedition down a street lined with blooming flowers, white picket fences and tidy homes nestled on manicured lots.
Low frequency noise occurs in the frequency range from about 10 Hz to 200 Hz and has been found in some studies to cause extreme distress to those sensitive to its effects. Reported effects include annoyance, stress, irritation, unease, fatigue, headache, possible nausea and disturbed sleep.The World Health Organization recognizes this as an environmental problem. Several European countries have adopted standards for low frequency noise, but the United States has no uniform criteria or regulations in place governing the phenomenon.Sources: Leventhall and Stranger reports for United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Risk Tech
“Looks real nice and peaceful here, doesn’t it?” he remarked.
Tidwell, 50, has lived in The Farm at Carolina Forest subdivision for the past seven years, sharing a four-bedroom home with his girlfriend and business partner, Gay Logg. They love the home, the setting, the amenities.
But in the past year, their sanctuary has become an anxious den of odd and unsettling occurrences that has left them questioning their sanity at times.
The couple, who run a marketing and talent agency on the Grand Strand, said they have been plagued by a mysterious, persistent hum and strange vibrations that course through their house on Farmer Brown Court.
Soon after this started last spring, Logg, 51, became paranoid and thought people were watching her through her computer. She and Tidwell swore they heard strange voices coming from their air vents. They felt their bed shake when they tried to sleep. They argued all the time. And Tidwell said he suddenly grew so despondent he tried to kill himself twice last June.
The couple thought they were going crazy until a friend suggested in February they might be suffering from low-frequency noise emissions, a phenomenon that’s been linked in some studies to anxiety, paranoia, sleeplessness, headaches and other issues.
They suspect the source of their problems is a 30-acre Santee Cooper electrical substation that went on line in the spring of 2012, the same time they said they began experiencing problems. The facility is located in woods about 1.7 miles from their home.
Tidwell and Logg said a recent survey by an environmental consultant supports their contention, but Santee Cooper is skeptical they are responsible and their calls for help to Gov. Nikki Haley’s office have largely been ignored.
“For them to tell us this doesn’t exist is not acceptable,” Logg said. “This has devastated us financially, personally — in every way.”
When told of the couple’s concerns, Haley’s office responded with the following statement: “The governor’s office has discussed the issue with these constituents and understands, after having reached out to Santee Cooper officials, that Santee Cooper is investigating it.”
Santee Cooper officials said they are looking into the couple’s concerns but have found no evidence that their substation is to blame for the problems Tidwell and Logg have described.
“We have been in communication with Mr. Tidwell numerous times, and we have been responsive to his concerns,” Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said. “We have gone to his house to investigate the situation ourselves, we advised him that we didn’t think what he was experiencing had any relationship to the new substation.”
A source of problems?
A certified industrial hygienist hired by the couple, however, said readings he took in April found disturbing levels of low frequency noise emissions in the area.
Richard Bennett, president and chief science officer at Charleston-based Risk Tech LLC, visited the area three times in April and took noise readings around the home, nearby Ocean Bay Middle School and along the fence of the substation. He said he documented noticeable vibrations in the house and low frequency noise readings well above recommended levels — in some cases, twice as high.
In his report, Bennett stated “with a reasonable degree of scientific certitude,” noise emissions coming from the substation “are the source of your psycho physiological health problems. He recommended that the couple be examined by a certified environmental physician and that they immediately leave the house if problems worsen until some resolution with Santee Cooper is reached to solve the problem.
“This phenomenon is very real. It is not some hypochondriacal, imagined thing. It very well-known by the electrical industry,” said Bennett, who is also an adjunct professor of environmental science at the University of South Carolina.
Santee Cooper’s Gore said the Moncks Corner-based utility just received Bennett’s report and is investigating further in response to his findings. “That investigation will take a little time, and we want to be thorough,” she said.
Gore said the utility had not received other concerns or complaints similar to those of Tidwell’s, noting numerous houses and other structures lie between his house and the substation.
The Post and Courier spoke to a few of the couple’s neighbors last week and none reported experiencing similar problems. The community’s home owners association and the Horry County School District also reported no complaints regarding the substation.
Bennett, however, said that is not unusual, as only a small percentage of people — somewhere between 2.5 and 10 percent — generally have acute reactions to low frequency noise. To those affected, however, the noise can be “extraordinarily troubling, to the point where it can almost drive the individual mad, and that’s the case with Gay and Michael,” he said.
Santee Cooper built the large substation to accommodate increasing demand and to maintain reliability for customers in Horry County. It has a maximum output of 250 megawatts, enough power to service about 125,000 households, Gore said.
The station is located down a dirt road and surrounded by thick forest and locked gates warning people to keep out, leaving it largely hidden from view. Tidwell and Logg said they didn’t realize it was there until a friend who works for the county told them about it in February.
Before the station went on line, they said, their business, Brio Agency International, was thriving and they were a happy, content couple. But that soon changed, they said.
“In a few short months, we went from being a loving couple who almost never argued to two people that fought several times a week, if not daily,” Tidwell said.
Logg said she became convinced people were watching them inside the house. Horry County police reports document her and Tidwell’s suspicions that someone had placed hidden cameras and listening devices in their home and were controlling their computers from a remote location. They accused the police and FBI of spying on them.
Tidwell said he felt tremendous pressure in his head when he stepped outside to smoke, “like diving into the deep end of the pool and swimming to the bottom.” Logg, meanwhile, would shake with seizure-like tremors at times and complain that she felt electric shocks when vibrations shook their bed at night, a time when problems seemed to worsen.
The couple said they cut the power to their home and tore apart smoke detectors, light fixtures and ceiling fans looking for the source of the persistent humming, which sounded like an industrial refrigerator running all the time. They found nothing.
The noise of passing vehicles seemed magnified inside the house and the shaking sensation made it almost impossible to sit and watch television or sleep, Tidwell said. “I sometimes seriously thought the house was going to explode.”
Despair and hope
Tidwell said he started thinking he was the source of the problems that beset them and he concluded things might be better if he removed himself from the picture — permanently.
On May 31, 2012, Tidwell barricaded himself in a supermarket bathroom and plunged a 3-inch paring knife into his left arm, leaving a severe gash, according to a police report. He demanded that officers tell him why cameras and recording devices had been placed in his home.
A few weeks later, Tidwell said, he tried to overdose on pills, because “this was the only way I could think of to get us both relief.”
Tidwell said he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, though he had never had mental health issues. Logg said she too had a clean mental health history, and couldn’t explain what was happening to them as their life spiraled downward, losing business and income in the process.
Tidwell and Logg are now convinced the Santee Cooper substation is to blame. The closer they get to the site, the more pressure they feel in their heads, they said.
Tidwell said he is taking anti-anxiety medication to cope with the situation. Logg, meanwhile, said she is spending her nights at another home to escape the shaking and humming sensations.
Their hope, though, is that a more permanent solution can be found.
“Look, people have to have electricity,” Logg said. “We know that. We use it just like everyone else.”
Tidwell nodded, a rueful smile on his face. “That’s true, but you don’t want it coursing through your veins like this.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.