'It scares the devil out of me'

Hurricane season begins today, and it's looking like coastal residents should pay extra attention to being prepared this year.

Forecasters are predicting an above-average number of hurricanes, which could threaten the ever-larger coastal populations in South Carolina and other states.

South Carolina's coastal population has more than doubled since 1960, reflecting a nationwide trend of migration to the coasts. That means more people to evacuate, more homes that could be damaged and more lives that could be lost if there's a serious hurricane.

And in the Palmetto State, there are more than a quarter-million people living on the coast than there were during Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

In Mount Pleasant, where the population has roughly doubled in the years after Hugo, a large number of the residents have never lived through a serious hurricane, and that worries Mayor Billy Swails, who also is an insurance agent.

"It scares the devil out of me," he said Friday. "I talked to a lady the other day in a grocery store, and she'd been here six years, and she asked me what to do if there's a hurricane."

"I told her, if they tell you to get out of town, don't wait 'til the last minute," Swails said. "Have your plan, have your provisions, have some cash in your pocket, and plan on going at least as far as Columbia."

"If it's a category 3, 4 or 5, I'm out of here," the mayor added.

The evacuation debacle during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when overwhelmed Interstate 26 practically became a giant parking lot, showed that the coastal population is more than highways can handle if everyone tries to evacuate at once. And South Carolina's coastal population has grown by about 135,000 people since Floyd.

"Continual education is key, reminding folks what we are doing at the local level, and what individuals and families should be doing to be prepared," said Charleston County Emergency Management Department Director Jason Patno. "Have (an evacuation) kit, have a plan, and be ready."

Coastal growth

Coastal counties in South Carolina grew by about 475,000 residents from 1960 through 2008, the Census Bureau estimates.

The state's six coastal counties -- which would not include fast-growing Berkeley and Dorchester counties -- are now home to about 24 percent of Palmetto State residents.

Nationwide, people have been migrating to the coasts for decades, and particularly to hurricane-threatened areas on the southern Atlantic Coast and the Gulf Coast.

While the nation's population increased less than 70 percent from 1960 through 2008, some coastal counties grew twice that fast.

During that same time, 86 hurricanes had an impact on at least one coastal county, the Census Bureau found in a report released last week.

Preparation tips

Hurricane season covers nearly half the year, from June 1 to mid-November.

Being hurricane-ready is a broad concept: For some, it may mean testing a generator and seeing how long it takes to put up hurricane shutters; for others, it's about having some bottled water in the garage and gas in the car.

Here are the basics:

--Check your homeowner's insurance, and if you rent, consider inexpensive renter's insurance to protect your possessions. Homeowner's insurance typically does not cover flooding, even flooding from a hurricane, but federal flood insurance does. Hurricane Floyd dumped 28 inches of rain on the Myrtle Beach area.

--Where will you go, and how will people know, if you evacuate? Have a plan before you need one, discuss it with family and close friends, and don't forget to consider the needs of pets.

--If your home were destroyed, where would your important records be? A safe deposit box outside high-risk areas could be a good choice.

--Even a weak hurricane, such as Category 1 Hurricane Gaston in 2004, can damage buildings and disrupt power, travel and even water supplies. A supply of water, non-perishable food, batteries and medicine are hurricane necessities.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com.