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Russell: Years that bear '9' bear watching

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By Greg Summers

 It’s been 20 years since the Palmetto State’s storm of the century – Hurricane Hugo – slammed onto land near Charleston.

On Sept. 21-22, 1989, the Category 4 storm – with winds in excess of 131 mph, a 20-foot storm surge and more than 10 inches of rainfall – tore a path of destruction through the state.

When the rain and wind stopped, portions of Lancaster County were battered. 

Damage to  local businesses, churches and personal property ran into the millions of dollars, with some local homes without power for almost a month. 

Something as small as a bag of ice suddenly became a big deal.

Damages were in excess of $4 billion. 

According to the S.C. Emergency Management Division, if a storm with a similar intensity to Hugo happened again, damages to the state could be $8 billion with more than 21,000 homes destroyed.  

But could it happen again? 

Could a Category 3 storm with 100-mph winds come 150 miles inland with that kind of sustained force?

Of course, it could. 

There’s no way of knowing, said Morris Russell, director of Lancaster County Emergency Management. 

“After all, we are talking about the weather and that’s the one thing no one can predict. If yogo back and look at the history of the nines, yocan understand why we’re going to be keeping a closer eye than usual on things,” Russell said. 

By the nines

Here’s the “nines” pattern Russell referred to:

Sept. 28-29, 1959 – Hurricane Gracie makes landfall along the South Carolina/Georgia border at St. Helena Sound, killing 10 people. Wind damage was significant in the Beaufort area, with many downed trees, power lines and telephone poles. There was significant flooding across the state.

Aug.17, 1969 – Hurricane Camille was one of only two hurricanes to come ashore  on the mainland United States as a Category 5 storm. Although it made landfall on the Gulf Coast just west of Pass Christian and Gulfport, Miss, its impact here was substantial. It produced up to 12 inches of rainfall across some parts of South Carolina and was responsible for widespread flooding. 

Sept. 4, 1979 – Hurricane David was a monster Category 5 storm in the Caribbean, causing more than 2,000 deaths, but weakened to a minor storm with 75 mph winds when it made landfall near Sullivan’s Island after grazing the east coast of Florida. It produced six to nine inches of rain in the Palmetto State. 

Sept. 21-22,1989 – Hurricane Hugo tears its way through South Carolina as a potent Category 3 storm, downing trees and knocking out power for days and weeks after making landfall on the Isle of Palms. Considered a meteorologic anomaly, Hurricane Hugo comes 150 miles inland, battering the state with torrential rainfall and winds in excess of 100 mph. More than 5,000 homes are destroyed and another 8,000 are damaged.

Sept. 1, 1999 – Although Hurricane Dennis never makes landfall, the Category 2 storm produces hurricane forces winds and causes extensive erosion along the Carolinas coastline. Damage estimates from the storm top $150 million. 

Oct. 17, 1999 – Hurricane Irene drops moderate rainfall across the state (5 to 6 inches) while causing extensive flooding and washing away several roads in Georgetown County. There were downed power lines in the Charleston area and minor beach erosion.

“There is a pattern there and yocan only dodge so many bullets,” Russell said. “Yocan call it odd if yowant, but there is something to the nines in South Carolina when it comes to hurricanes.”    

2009 forecast

Even with all the advanced technology, all hurricane experts can do is guess.   

The Colorado State University hurricane forecast team is predicting a slightly below-average 2009 Hurricane season. It’s forecasters are predicting 11 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes, which is about average. An average hurricane season produces 11 named storms, including six hurricanes, with two of those being intense.

Last year, there were 16 named storms, eight of which reached hurricane status, with five becoming major hurricanes. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. 

There is a 28 percent chance the East Coast will be struck this hurricane season.

“We believe that there is a slightly greater chance of a weak El Nino developing this summer/fall than there was in early April,” said William Gray, a member of the CSforecast team.

Climatologists base hurricane predictions on past weather patterns, computer models and warm sea surface temperatures (El Nino/La Nina conditions). Hurricanes and tropical storms thrive on warm water.   

El Nino refers to a periodic warming in sea-surface temperatures across the central and east-central equatorial Pacific while La Nina refers to the periodic cooling of sea-surface temperatures. These changes in ocean surface temperatures affect tropical rainfall patterns and atmospheric winds over the Pacific, which in turn impact the ocean temperatures and currents around the globe.

By comparison, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting between nine and 14 named storms, of which four to seven may become hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin. Its forecast includes up to three major hurricanes, including one major storm of Category 3 (111 mph winds) or larger. 

Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen, Russell said it pays to be ready.

“It’s important for people to understand that yohave to be prepared to deal with things like this for the first 72 hours on your own,” Russell said. “That’s three days, no matter how yolook at it.”

To help prepare for the tropical storm season, S.C. Emergency Management has set up a 2009 Hurricane Guide at www.scemd.org. The guide includes suggested safety items, evacuation routes, shelter locations, emergency broadcast stations, animal care resources and maps of the state’s most vulnerable areas.