COLUMBIA — Scientists reviewing old weather data recently changed South Carolina’s hurricane history, making Hurricane Gracie in 1959 only the third Category 4 storm in 165 years to strike the state.
That means Gracie, which made landfall near Beaufort, joins Hurricane Hazel near Myrtle Beach in 1954 and Hurricane Hugo near Charleston in 1989 in the Category 4 club. South Carolina has never been hit by a Category 5, which is the strongest hurricane on the wind speed-based Saffir-Simpson scale.
Gracie’s upgrade came as National Hurricane Center researchers review the entire database of storms in the Atlantic Ocean going back to 1851, said Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the center. The team is working its way toward 2000 and released its report earlier this week.
Landsea’s team 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 mph, just bumping the storm from a Category 3 to a Category 4.
“As it was getting close to the coast, the storm was deepening, the pressures were lowering and eye contracting,” Landsea said. “You won’t measure the worst conditions along the coast unless you have instruments every half-mile or so.”
Landsea’s team has made news before. In 2002, they announced a review of Hurricane Andrew, which struck Miami in 1992, upgraded that storm to only the third Category 5 to ever hit the United States.
Landsea said his team’s work has several goals. The more accurate the historical hurricane database is, the better tool it can be for predicting future storms.
“Good climate records can help us know if hurricanes are becoming more numerous or more or less intense,” Landsea said.
It also helps engineers know exactly what kind of conditions an area can expect, helping them develop proper building codes and insurance rates, Landsea said.
Gracie killed 10 people in South Carolina and caused an estimated $14 million in damage, officials said. A 12-foot wall of water came onshore near the eye, but that could have been worse — Gracie hit near low tide.
That same storm hitting the same place today would be exponentially more catastrophic. South Carolina’s Lowcountry was a different place back then.
Hilton Head Island, just miles from landfall, now has 40,000 people. The first bridge to the island was built three years before Gracie and 48,000 cars went over it the entire first year.
Kiawah Island — 30 miles to the north and likely in some of the strongest surge and winds — wouldn’t get its first golf course resort until 1976. The island currently has 1,200 people with the average home selling for nearly $1.8 million.