Hurricane Matthew Isle of Palms (copy) (copy) (copy)

A man wades in surging ocean water from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 during low tide on Isle of Palms. File/Staff

People tend to worry more about the devastatingly powerful "major" hurricanes rated a Category 3 or stronger. But it doesn't take a powerful storm to exact a staggering cost in lives.

Florence was barely a hurricane when it struck land near the South Carolina-North Carolina border last year. More than 50 people died in that storm.

Hurricane Matthew scraped up the coast in 2016, barely nudging land near McClellanville with winds that didn't reach hurricane strength. It killed four people in South Carolina alone.

"In hurricanes, and even tropical storms, it's not the wind that takes the most lives. It is the flooding," said Charleston-based meteorologist Shea Gibson with the forecasting company WeatherFlow.

In fact, nearly nine deaths of every 10 people who die during tropical system storms are attributed to drowning.

Of the 25 deadliest hurricanes in the nation's history, two of them were Category 1 storms and a third was an 1881 storm, considered to have been a Category 2. Federal records of hurricanes started in 1851, but the formal Saffir-Simpson scale that rates them by winds from Category 1 to 5 wasn't in use until 1971.

The sixth deadliest hurricane recorded in the United States killed 700 people. That was the unnamed 1881 storm that came ashore near Savannah and pushed a 15-feet-high storm surge into Beaufort. The storms weren't given names until 1953.

The strongest recorded wind from that Category 2 storm was 80 mph, and overall its winds aren't considered to have been much more than 10 mph worse.

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.


"If a moderate sized hurricane hit directly over Charleston as a mid-Category 2 (about 100 mph winds), it would flood all of the downtown easily. It just has not happened yet, not even during Hugo," said Cary Mock, a climatologist at the University of South Carolina.

Mock's research has compiled more detailed accounts from the years before and from the early years of federal records. He's found at least 10 storms that made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 2 or weaker. Most of them caused significant flooding. And the danger isn't simply flooding.

During Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a 20-foot storm surge was recorded along the devastated barrier islands. But downtown Charleston took an 11-foot surge, according to an U.S. Geological Survey report. 

In 1811, a tornado spun up during a hurricane considered no stronger than a Category 1 and tore across the Charleston peninsula killing at least 20 people.

Category 2 Hurricanes Floyd and Category 1 Sandy left nearly 400 people dead between them. Category 1 Hurricane Florence killed more than 50.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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