'People in way' of next Hugo

Fishing boats came to rest next to Silver Hill Plantation near McClellanville after the tidal surge of Hurricane Hugo on Sept. 21, 1989.

It's eerily quiet for the height of the hurricane season.

A tropical storm and a gale spun well out to sea Thursday with no threat to the coast. The only cyclones to threaten the Lowcountry so far have been tropical storms Alberto and Beryl, back in May.

No storms appear to be ready to form in forecasting models that predict a week or two ahead. It's shaping up to be another uneventful year for us, so far.

“We're not out of the woods yet, but I'm seeing fewer trees,” said Mark Malsick, S.C. Climate Office severe weather liaison.

So it's a little incongruous to bring up that on this date in 1989, Hurricane Hugo slammed ashore centered over Breach Inlet and left the place in splinters.

Two years from now it will be a quarter century since the night imprinted in the minds of the people who were here.

A lot has changed. The region is far more prepared to face the landfall of a devastating hurricane.

But there are a lot more people and a lot more property on the coast.

“People are in the way,” said Scott Harris, a College of Charleston geology and environmental geosciences assistant professor who has studied that build-up and coastal “low spots” more prone to flood, overwash, channeling surge and waves from a landfalling hurricane.

A lot of people still don't think about it, but Hugo was a fast-moving storm that did not directly hit much of the Charleston urban area, he said. Isle of Palms north to McClellanville took the worst of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Charleston took a Category 2 or 3, he said.

When it comes to the three-punch threat of wind, storm surge and waves, “Charleston survived a very bad event. (But) it wasn't even close to how bad it could have been,” Harris said.

Wind came as much from inland as off the ocean; storm surge was some 5-9 feet. It could have been 20 feet, with incoming waves, and lasted longer.

Had the storm landed 20 miles south, about Kiawah Island, it would have been a “very, very different situation,” he said.

As an example, channels of retreating water could have cut the Washout of Folly Beach into an inlet, stranding homes to the east as an island. That's maybe the most vulnerable of a dozen or so “low spots” on the barrier islands that have been channels in the past and could open again.

Even inland of the barrier islands, historical creeks and channels could open that are now places where people live and work.

Modelers at the Lowcountry Hazards Center at the College of Charleston are now using combined laser and radar to more finely gauge subtleties like elevation, bringing in natural and social science methods to get a finer, community-scale read on values, risks and resilience.

Within the next two years, the center hopes to have an interactive program that allows people to assess individual risks.

Unlike other areas in the Atlantic Basin, the waters of the relatively wide Continental Shelf off the Lowcountry are not deep enough to allow surge floods to easily escape back to sea, Harris said.

Using satellite imagery, he runs his finger down the natural beach ridge behind the first and second rows of homes on Folly Beach. He points to the spots where even that ridge gives way.

“When you start to encourage the private landowner on public beach, that's where you have problems,” Harris said. “After Hugo, the economic drive of real estate really pushed it. Where do you draw that boundary, how does that work and how do we do that as a public?”

Then he runs his finger along a second line, the natural higher ground of James Island along Secessionville, across the sound, behind the barrier island of Folly Beach. The coast doesn't stay still for long.

Five or six thousand years ago, that was the beachfront.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.