Lessons Learned: Hugo

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Hugo was one of those “once a generation storms.” Nearly 30 years before Hugo was Gracie, and now just over 30 years since Hugo’s devastation in 1989, we’ve been blessed to not see one like it arrive on our shores. What made Hugo different- and more dangerous, was its origin. 

Lesson 7: Cape Verde Hurricanes Are Worth Watching

Anytime we see a storm of any kind forming in the far eastern Atlantic Ocean, we can’t help be concerned. Some of the worst hurricanes of all time have formed in a region off of the coast of Africa known as the Cape Verde Islands. Hugo started as a cluster of storms in Africa, coming off of the coast, and then began the journey across the warm waters of the ocean. The reason these hurricanes have normally been looked at differently is for the most part- there’s no land to weaken these storms, just warm water to act as fuel to their fire.

We started tracking Hugo very early on because of this reason, knowing this could be one of those Cape Verde storms.  A quick note: just because a storm forms in this area does not mean it will make landfall here. But with early weather satellite data, we were able to see Hugo form from inception, to it’s landing here in South Carolina. 

It was a long night spent with Hugo… the direct impact was over by the following morning, but Hugo’s wrath was deadliest after it had come and gone. 

Lesson 8: The Danger Doesn’t Leave with the Storm

Nearly all of the 26 deaths attributed to Hugo in South Carolina occurred after the storm- during the clean up. 

These deaths are labeled “indirect fatalities,” as Michael Brennan from the NHC explains, “We have a lot of these indirect fatalities, where people survive the storm itself but they die afterwards from electrocutions, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical issues…”

Studies show that the number of “indirect deaths” is almost the same as the number of “direct deaths” with hurricanes, Hugo proved that that sometimes the aftermath can be more deadly than landfall. 

“It’s because these people are being left in these very vulnerable situations where they may not have any power, any water, or any emergency services- sometimes for weeks..if you’re asked to leave-leave.” 

Evacuation orders need to be taken seriously, especially now as our forecast models and accuracy improve.

Lesson 9: Forecast Accuracy Improvements

Computer models were in existence in the 80s but they were nowhere near where they are today in terms of grid points and resolution.  Our tracking back then was done the old fashioned way, with pencil and paper, plotting each latitude and longitude point given at each update. There were no “cones of uncertainty” back in 89. Plots were dots on a map which viewers locked on to likely unaware of the errors that the track could have.  Models have come a long way since then. 5 day forecasts today are as accurate as a 24 hour forecast back in 1980. While track forecasts have improved exponentially, intensity forecasts haven’t advanced much and still prove to be difficult and complex today. 

As coastal populations expand, our  hurricane forecasts must continue to improve. Nearly two times as many people live in South Carolina’s coastal counties now compared to 30 years ago- with more potentially in harm’s way next time a monster storm arrives.

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