Our Storms, Our Stories: Lessons learned from the Lowcountry’s storied hurricane past

Tracking the Tropics

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCBD) – Our annual season of stress has begun here in the Lowcountry – hurricane season is back after a record shattering year in 2020.

While we emerged relatively unscathed from the historic 30 named storms last year, we weren’t as lucky in previous years.

Here on our hurricane-prone coast, you’ll find that everyone has a story about a storm. They likely have a few.

In this Storm Team 2 Hurricane Special – Our Storms, Our Stories – we explore our storied past with hurricanes old, new, forgotten, and unforgettable.

HURRICANE FLOYD

September 1999 – 10 years after Hurricane Hugo… Hurricane Floyd and its evacuation fiasco.

Measuring nearly 100 miles across, Floyd triggered one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history. First Florida, still reeling from Hurricane Andrew’s destruction from the beginning of the decade; then Georgia, finally followed by the Carolinas as Floyd made a sharp right-hand turn aiming its deadly eye for our coast.

Nearly 400,000 South Carolinians fled at the same time joining millions already on the road from Georgia and Florida creating a nightmare on I-26.

No lane reversal was planned which could be implemented in short order. South Carolina’s then-governor Jim Hodges flew down to Charleston and met with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley who expressed his frustration over those two lanes.

“It should have never happened and both sides of the interstate should have been open,” said Riley.

When lane reversals finally did happen, it was too late. Floyd had already lost strength and continued north sparing Charleston with just a strong breeze and heavy rain.

Thousands of evacuees returned home to find no damage, cementing their decision they made stuck in traffic days earlier.

“I never wanted to evacuate again,” said one local resident who remembered being stuck in traffic. “None of us have ever evacuated since,” echoed another.

The overwhelming majority of Lowcountry residents said the same thing – we will never leave again after the Floyd fiasco.

But here’s the thing; it will likely never happen again because of the lane reversal plan. The first lane reversals since Floyd – for Matthew and Dorian – went as smooth as could be expected thanks to a tried and tested plan that ensures lanes are reversed as soon as the governor gives the order when now come days earlier, ensuring there is enough time for everyone wishing to leave can do so safely and swiftly.

Additionally, officials now keep and eye on traffic across state lines to ensure that a bottleneck does not occur in Columbia even as our coastal populations rise. In the end, it’s your decision to leave. But remember, we were spared by Floyd. That may not be the case next time as those who survived Hurricane Hugo can attest.

HURRICANE HUGO

September 21st and 22nd,1989 – Hurricane Hugo lashed the Charleston coastline.

We lost about 75% of timber either from trees knocked down completely or snapped in half – places suffered like what is considered ground zero for Hugo- the Francis Marion National Forest.

Craig Watson, his wife, and their less than a year old child huddled alongside three other families inside their home in the heart of the forest as Hugo’s winds howled outside.

“We were right in the eye wall of that hurricane for a long time,” said Watson. “We were worried for our lives and we never slept.”

The next morning, they ventured out – the smell of pine strong – the winds finally calm.

“None of us in the house there could believe the damage to the forest. We thought it was almost impossible for something like that to happen,” he said. “The second day after the hurricane hit, the forest supervisor flew over the national forest… It’s very emotional. He said Craig, it’s all blown down, it’s all blown down… it’s gone.”

Watson said it took five days to cut their way out of the forest, creating a one lane road out to Moncks Corner.

The felled trees were more than just timber, they were homes for the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. The Francis Marion had the densest population of these birds… until Hugo.

Watson spent the next eight years with the Forestry Service rebuilding habitats for this bird, whose numbers have recovered- much like the forest itself.

RIDING OUT THE STORM

Shem Creek was a safe harbor for fishing boats to ride out hurricanes. But for one large ship during Hugo, there was no time to find a place to dock safely. So, the captain and crew had to ride out the historic storm in the middle of the Cooper River.

Step aboard the RV Palmetto, a research vessel used by SC DNR to bring marine scientists out to open water to study sea life. It’s normally docked on Fort Johnson, but the night of Hugo it was leashed on pilings called dolphins in open water upriver.

The direction of the wind pushed them against the pilings, but that would change as the eye passed and the wind shifted. The rest of night was spent restlessly maneuvering the ship into the wind, praying that the engines wouldn’t give out.

The next morning, they worked their way downriver. “There were sailboats in the trees, there were shrimp boats that had sunk, pleasure boats in the marsh-it was awful,” said Julian Mikell, captain of the Palmetto.

When a storm approaches, the Palmetto is now leashed, then left upriver, ensuring that there will never be another night spent fighting a hurricane in open water aboard the Palmetto.

WHAT’S NEW

As we close out the chapters from previous storms, we look to this season. While we do not know what stories will come from this year, we do know that the established script is being rewritten, at least when it comes to naming hurricanes.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has officially decided that the Greek alphabet will no longer be used when the season’s list of 21 names runs out. They believe that its use was distracting from communicating the threats of an approaching storm.

Which we saw last year with Zeta & Eta back-to-back- it could be confusing. Now if the standard A-Z (excluding Q, U, X, Y, Z) list is finished, future storms will be named based on a supplemental list of names- starting with A and ending with W. We hope that it doesn’t come to that- but forecasters are predicting another active season.

However, experts are not expecting this season to be as active as last year.

But no matter what this season will bring, you can count on us to be there for you. As year after year, hurricanes come and go, leaving destruction that lasts just as long as it takes to clean it up. But the stories from these storms last forever. The experiences and the emotions they generate are powerful — impacting our actions and plans for decades after.

While legends long lost, can show a glimpse of the future. Others, illustrating our need to be told that our belongings will be safe.

From all of us here at Storm Team 2, we hope that this season will be short and the stories… boring. But be prepared for hurricane season.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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