Those of us who have lived a long time along South Carolina’s coast likely are weary of news about hurricane season and the need for us all to make preparations. But even the most jaded should keep two trends in mind that make these messages — as redundant as they may seem — more important with each passing year.
The first trend is the reality that we are seeing more and larger storms. As this hurricane season began June 1, forecasters predicted this year once again will be busier than normal. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says there’s a 60% chance we will have an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season and a 10% chance of a below-normal season. Fortunately, the center says it shouldn’t be as busy a year as 2020.
And in a nod to grim reality, those forecasters also felt a need to recalibrate what a “normal” season looks like. Using storm data from 1991 to last year, NOAA says the average Atlantic hurricane season now includes 14 named storms (up from 12 before) and seven hurricanes (up from six). While scientists disagree on whether climate change will lead to more hurricanes, the new averages reflect, to some extent, global warming and warmer oceans, Jhordanne Jones of Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project told reporter Chloe Johnson.
The second trend is obvious to most of us: the rapid development and population growth our state’s coast has experienced in recent decades.
The good thing about hurricanes is scientists and meteorologists have better tools than ever to give us advance warning of their formation, strength and track. That information can help us, particularly the most vulnerable, evacuate to safer places to ride out a storm.
But the growing coastal population makes that more challenging than ever. Even though the S.C. Department of Transportation has plans to reverse lanes on Interstate 26 and other major highways leading from the coast, the larger numbers of potential evacuees mean that the governor must make a call to evacuate earlier and earlier, often before the storm’s exact path is clear.
Adding to our challenges this year is the lingering presence of COVID-19. While many are vaccinated and infections are down, hurricane shelters are still subject to 2020 limitations suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means if a Category 3 or below storm approaches Charleston County, its six shelters will be able to hold only 637 people, way down from the 3,473 evacuees they were able to accommodate in 2019.
We certainly can hope we’ll see more progress against COVID-19 when the storm season kicks into a higher gear in late July and that the CDC can recommend an end to the need for social distancing in shelters. But such hope is not a plan. It behooves local leaders to be ready for the worst and figure out how to bus our most vulnerable populations to safe shelters.
It is important for everyone to think about our own preparations, including deciding on our evacuation route, checking on our flood insurance, devising an emergency communications plan for family and friends, preparing our home, figuring out how to care for our pets, and creating an emergency supplies kit so we can get by for a few days without help. Those looking for more information can sign up for The Post and Courier's Hurricane Wire, which provides weekly updates and news alerts as storms get close.
With hurricanes, it’s not just the potential havoc caused by strong winds and torrential rains. It’s also the emotional toll wrought by uncertainty and stress. Mother Nature ultimately will decide if major storms head our way this year, but by acting early and being prepared, we can manage the anxiety that comes with hurricane season.