Lessons Learned: Matthew

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Back in 2016, Lowcountry residents began preparing for the possibility, if not likelihood of a direct strike from Matthew, the most menacing track since hurricane Hugo in 1989. Matthew promised to bring high winds, isolated tornadoes, and the most deadly of all threats- water.

Lesson 3: Water Kills 

Matthew’s storm surge washed across the coast as the storm moved north, with many communities experiencing surge heights of three to five feet above ground level. Charleston Harbor reached its highest water level since Hurricane Hugo. Structure failures- properties which had never flooded before were inundated. Widespread heavy rain only compounded issues.

More than 10 inches fell, causing widespread, significant flooding across the Carolinas, which was just beginning to recover from the catastrophic flooding in October of 2015.

25 would die in North Carolina, 4 in South Carolina- all but one due to flooding. Of the deaths in North Carolina, over ¾ occurred in vehicles- despite public warnings to stay put and avoid flood waters. 

Historically water- the combined threat of inland flooding and storm surge, is responsible for 90% of hurricane deaths. Avoid becoming a statistic by following the simple rule, “turn around don’t drown.”

The death toll, damage, and disruption to life for months brings up another important point: category or classification doesn’t always matter. 

Lesson 4: Category isn’t Everything

“In the last decade Cat. 1 storms have killed 175 people and caused 103 billion dollars worth of damage. It is not about that category- it’s about the impacts.”


Although Matthew made landfall as a category 1 hurricane, impacts for some were greater than what have been felt by storms with higher wind speeds. Remember, category and storm classification, is wind speed dependent, and other, possibly more significant impacts aren’t considered. Ken Graham explains,

“We’ve tried so hard at the NHC to separate those impacts from the category with a storm surge watch and warning. I think we’re doing a good job of that but it’s a constant reminder that the category is just the wind.”

Discussions continue among leading experts in meteorology and social sciences to improve the communication of impact based forecasts that are not necessarily focused on category alone.

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