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Coastal Heritage Magazine

Storm Front

Government programs have helped reduce the public’s vulnerability to hurricanes. Now citizens must take steps to protect themselves before giant storms strike.

Ground Zero. Hurricane Hugo trashed Sullivan’s Island, S.C., in September 1989. Photo by Wade Spees, Courtesy of the Post and Courier.

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Coastal Heritage Magazine

Volume 14 – Number 1
Summer 1999

John H. Tibbetts
Editor

Storm Front

Thomas Williams figured his family would be safe. His house was sturdy; he’d remodeled it himself. Besides, if Hurricane Hugo turned really frightening, he could rush his wife, Evangeline, and four children, ages five to 14, to the Red Cross evacuation shelter at Lincoln High School, just shouting distance away.

But as Hugo barreled into McClellanville, a coastal village about 35 miles north of Charleston, late in the evening of September 21, 1989, Williams listened to the screaming wind and wondered if he had made the right choice.

Just before midnight, Williams, then a timber foreman for the U.S. Forest Service, noticed something odd—the living room carpet kept lifting.

“It was like walking on air,” he says. “I thought the hurricane’s wind pressure was pushing up from under the house.” A few minutes later, his dog began barking at the front door. “Yap, yap, yap, on and on. He wouldn’t stop. Finally I opened the door,” Williams says. “I’m six-feet-two, and I saw water at eye level—the storm door was holding back the water, keeping it from coming into the house. I shut it quick.”

On the Cover. A North Carolina boy stands in the doorway of his mobile home trashed by Hurricane Fran in September 1996. Photo by Wade Spees, Courtesy of the Post and Courier.

Williams gathered his family in the kitchen, planning to open the back door and run to Lincoln High School. “Lord, I don’t know what we were thinking. If the front door was blocked by water, the back one would be blocked, too.”

In an instant, water began pouring in from all directions. It exploded through the floor, tossing the refrigerator into the air like “popping a champagne cork,” says Williams. Then the stove shot up, followed by a “big old freezer, 300 pounds tossed like it was nothing.” Meanwhile, “the walls were sucking in and out, and the roof over the kitchen began shaking.” The kitchen had a tin roof; the rest of the house a new asphalt-shingle one. In a blink, the kitchen roof disappeared. “Snatched away—like that,” he says and snaps his fingers. 

As Hurricane Hugo flooded his home in McClellanville, Thomas Williams punched a hole through the ceiling Sheetrock to create an escape route into the attic. Then he raised family members, one by one, to safety. The water reached this high by the time he escaped into the attic.

Water was waist-high and rising. The family fled the kitchen to a bedroom, where Williams climbed on a dresser and started pounding at the ceiling with his fist, intending to break through the Sheetrock and lift his family into the attic. “It was dark, the kids were screaming, water was coming up and up.” When he’d remodeled the house, he installed two layers of Sheetrock in the ceiling, which now seemed like solid rock as he punched it, fracturing his little finger.

Finally, his fist broke through. He battered at the ceiling, widening the opening, and lifted his family members one by one into the attic. At last he hauled himself up, but then the house shook and Williams was thrown down into the black water. “That’s it,” he thought at the time. “I might as well die now.” But he grabbed a floating mattress and struggled back up to the attic.

By now, half of the shingled roof was gone, and as they stood under the roof that remained, the house groaned in the wind. “The house kept moving, weaving, crumbling.” Williams lashed his family together with a telephone line. “If we’re found tomorrow,” he told them, “at least we won’t be scattered all over McClellanville.”

Huddling in the darkness, praying, they kept hearing screams from the Red Cross evacuation center, where 1,126 people fought for their lives.

Just before midnight, most evacuees in Lincoln High School were drowsily settling on blankets in the cafeteria, emergency lights providing a dim, peaceful glow. Although Hugo’s wind howled outside, all was quiet in the school.

Jennings Austin, Lincoln High principal at the time, and two other men—a county deputy sheriff and a man who worked for Emergency Medical Services—were inspecting an empty classroom, looking for books and other property that could get damaged if a window broke and rain poured in. Then they heard a crash of metal nearby, followed by a thundering rush of water.

Each classroom in Lincoln High, built in 1954, has heating and cooling units installed in outer walls beneath the windows. As Hugo’s surge swelled, the water pressure grew against these units until they were driven from their moorings into classrooms, almost simultaneously around the building. “Suddenly you had big holes in the rooms, and the water came in,” Austin says. “In minutes, there were five and a half feet of water inside.”

Sea water poured into the cafeteria, where people jumped on the stage to escape, packing themselves so tightly that the floorboards trembled from their weight. Men dove under the water’s surface, searching for tables that could be stacked up, so people could stand on top. Norman Shephard, a retired Charleston Naval Yard worker confined to a wheelchair after a heart attack and stroke, was lifted with his chair onto stacked tables on the stage. “I had water up to my chin and I was standing on a table on the stage, my seven-year-old daughter, Monique, on my shoulder,” says Debbie Cash, a teacher’s assistant at Lincoln.

Live and Learn. During Hurricane Hugo, more than 1,000 evacuees faced nearly six feet of flooding in Lincoln High School, an official Red Cross shelter in McClellanville, S.C. Photo by Wade Spees.

Some crawled up stage-curtains. “They’d climb a curtain and fall down into the water and climb it again, or the whole curtain would fall,” says Cash.

Trapped in classrooms, some parents pushed out acoustical tiles and lifted small children into the ceiling spaces above water that smelled of sewers and gasoline.

Hearing the screams, Austin and his companions tried to find their way back to the cafeteria. But with water to their necks and still rising, they believed they’d drown if they didn’t act decisively. So they climbed on bookshelves and broke a window near the ceiling and clambered onto the roof. There, lying face down and hanging onto pipes, they rode out the storm for the next six hours. “Judging from the height of the water outside, we thought that everybody inside was drowned,” Austin says. “We thought that the water would consume us, too.”

Deadly Surges

How did the Williams family and the evacuees in Lincoln High get caught in Hugo’s surge? Some say that local residents did not take enough responsibility for learning about their vulnerability to hurricanes. But more important, government agencies made serious errors that jeopardized lives.

In the northern hemisphere, hurricanes spin counter–clockwise, so their strongest winds and highest surge are always to the right of the eye. As Hugo made landfall, its eye passed over the city of Charleston. To the right of Hugo’s eye were the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, the Francis Marion National Forest, and a few tiny hamlets, including McClellanville, one of the lightest populated areas on the East Coast.

Downtown Charleston was flooded by 10 feet of water. But Hugo’s highest surge was 20.2 feet above mean sea level at Bull’s Bay, and at McClellanville it rose to 17.2 feet. Flooding reached at least six feet inside Lincoln High School. Incredibly, there were no deaths in McClellanville that night. If Hugo’s surge had been a foot or two higher there, many lives could’ve been lost.

Surges have been deadly before. A gigantic 1893 hurricane drowned 2,000 to 3,000 people in Beaufort County, South Carolina. In 1900, a storm surge killed at least 6,000 in Galveston, Texas.

Overall, hazard officials did a good job anticipating Hugo’s flooding and providing adequate evacuation notice, says Peter Sparks, Clemson University civil engineer, who has studied effects of hurricanes that have struck South Carolina over the past century.

For years, officials had tried to warn the public about surge dangers, noting that nine of 10 deaths during hurricanes are caused by coastal flooding. Still, “a lot of people just didn’t believe the flooding would be that bad” as Hugo approached, says Dennis Clark, director of the Charleston County Emergency Preparedness Division.

The great majority of tourists are eager to flee from an oncoming hurricane, says Paul Whitten, director of emergency management for Horry County. It’s usually long–time residents who refuse to evacuate, says Jay Baker, Florida State University geographer. They recall other storms that caused little or no damage to their homes and believe that the next one will be similar.

“People have short memories,” says William Massey, hurricane program manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The further (in years) you get away from a storm, the more people forget. If you did not get directly affected by a hurricane, there’s a good chance your guard will be down next time.”

“Hurricanes are a local issue,” agrees Spencer Rogers, coastal engineering specialist with the N.C. Sea Grant Extension Program. If you live in a place blasted by a major hurricane’s strongest impact, you’ll remember it for many years, but for people who live 60 miles farther up or down the coast, knicked by the storm’s outer edges, it’s little more than a hiccup, forgotten as quickly as, say, last year’s biggest thunderstorm.

Swamped. Hurricane Fran, which battered this marina near Wilmington in September 1996, was just one of four large tropical cyclones that recently hit eastern North Carolina. Hurricane Bertha struck in July 1996, and both Tropical Storm Josephine and Hurricane Bonnie hit in August 1998. Photo by Wade Spees.

This is a common problem in hurricane-prone areas. In 1992, for example, Hurricane Andrew struck north of the Florida Keys, leaving the islands almost untouched. Although emergency officials requested that everyone evacuate the islands, 30,000 people stayed home, nearly half of the resident population. Many locals didn’t take the hurricane threat seriously, but “if Andrew had hit us directly, we would have lost thousands of people,” says Billy Wagner, director of Monroe County Emergency Management. In 1998, as Hurricane Georges skirted the Keys, 35,000 people again did not evacuate, raising concerns among emergency officials about public safety when the region finally does endure a direct hit.

Some Keys residents won’t evacuate because they’re fearful of getting caught on car–jammed highways as the hurricane strikes. Indeed, several regions lack adequate evacuation routes inland; the Miami area and southern Louisiana are other notable examples. This problem will be exacerbated by a continuing population boom. From 1997 to 2010, the number of people living along the nation’s hurricane–prone coastlines is expected to double to 80 million. Despite growing populations, however, each coastal county in South Carolina can still evacuate everyone from floodprone areas in a timely manner.

In its 167–year history, McClellanville had never been struck by a giant storm. In fact, the village was settled there because the ground was relatively high. In 1822, a ferocious hurricane struck south of Georgetown, killing 300 and washing away a summer resort at Cedar Island on the Santee River. Cedar Island was abandoned; its residents moved to McClellanville for safety from future storm surges.

“Some old–timers said they’d lived in McClellanville for 50 years and had never seen water get as high” as was expected for Hugo when the storm was barreling toward the coast, says Clark.

When you consider the odds, maybe the old–timers were right. A category 4 hurricane like Hugo hits the entire South Atlantic Bight—from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Cape Canaveral, Florida—once every 50 years on average, says Peter Sparks. (Category 1 storms on the Saffir–Simpson scale are the smallest; category 5 storms are the largest.) Indeed, just two category 4 hurricanes struck the South Atlantic Bight in the century before Hugo. The killer 1893 hurricane swept over Beaufort County. Then in October 1954, Hurricane Hazel made landfall near Wilmington, North Carolina, with a surge of 18 feet and intense winds that drove far inland, causing massive damage to Raleigh, just as Hugo later devastated Charlotte. Hugo storm conditions that prevailed in the McClellanville area are far more rare, arriving once every few hundred years on average, says Sparks.

Thomas Williams insists that he was not complacent as Hugo approached. Instead, he argues, officials did not provide clear warnings about potential high waters. “We were glued to the TV, but we weren’t expecting water like that.” Williams’ first floor was about 6 feet above mean sea level, and “no one told us we lived in a flood zone.”

But didn’t he realize he was in a low–lying area? After all, Charleston County officials told people who lived in lowlands near water to evacuate inland.

Williams answers indignantly, “Go around (this community) and ask people what is a low–lying area, and they’ll say, ‘A swamp.’ I never thought my house was in a low–lying area.” Besides, officials had designated Lincoln High as a Red Cross shelter. “If it was so dangerous, why would they make Lincoln a shelter? No one realized it could flood like that here.”

Dennis Clark, Charleston County emergency preparedness chief, retorts that the county provided adequate evacuation guidance. But like Beaufort County, Charleston County does not have sharply defined surge zones that correspond with political or geographic boundaries or highways. The county is “peculiar” and “marbled” with rivers and creeks that can flood dangerously during a big storm, says Clark. So residents should learn about their own vulnerability to floods, contacting insurance providers for information, carefully following media reports, and using “some common sense. People have to do their homework.”

Long before a hurricane approaches, Clark advises, you should find out whether your home is in a flood–hazard zone and learn the height of your first inhabited floor above mean sea level. This information, available from insurers and local planning offices, can help you understand your home’s vulnerability to storm surges (see sidebar). “It all comes down to individual responsibility and readiness,” says Clark.

As Hugo swirled toward the coast, a number of McClellanville–area residents carefully studied their options and the storm’s potential impact, says Clark. “People who wanted to leave, left. But some were in denial.”

Yet because Lincoln High was chosen as a shelter, many in the McClellanville–area were convinced that the region was not flood–prone. Citizens looked to government to protect them, and government failed.

We Got Burned

Lincoln High is a quarter-mile from the Intracoastal Waterway and Cape Romain, a salt marsh reserve that the Atlantic Ocean can flood during high tide. The school, therefore, is almost at the edge of the sea. So why was it chosen as a shelter?

The local school board had listed the building’s ground-floor elevation as 20 feet above mean sea level, though its actual elevation was 10 feet. During evacuation studies in the 1980s, federal officials accepted the school board’s numbers as gospel. “We’ll never take anybody’s word for a building’s elevation again,” says Massey of FEMA. Now hazard agencies survey the first–floor elevations of all buildings to be used as shelters. “We got burned and people almost died.”

“What happened at Lincoln High School really rattled a lot of people in government,” says Paul Whitten. “It was one of the defining events in emergency management.” Now hazard managers are “very cautious about the level of safety in public shelters.”

After the Lincoln High incident, the American Red Cross became alarmed about the safety of its volunteers and about legal liability if evacuees were hurt or killed during a hurricane. So the Red Cross established new rules about where the agency would allow their evacuation shelters to be opened in coastal counties. Under these standards, all Red Cross evacuation shelters must be outside of “category 4 surge zones”—that is, on land that would not be flooded or isolated during a hurricane the size of Hugo. Even if a category 1 hurricane were approaching the coast, the Red Cross would only open shelters that could survive a category 4 storm. The logic is that a category 1 hurricane could intensify rapidly into a category 4 storm.

A Way Out. South Carolina coastal counties can provide a timely evacuation of all vulnerable residents before a hurricane strikes. Photo by Wade Spees.

As a result, three regions now lack Red Cross shelters during a hurricane of any size, says Baker. These are southern Louisiana, where no shelters meet new guidelines south of Baton Rouge, including the New Orleans metropolitan area; southwest Florida, including Charlotte, Collier, and Lee counties; and the Florida keys. Tidewater, Virginia, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, has just one shelter that meets the rules. In South Carolina, the peninsula of Charleston no longer has a Red Cross shelter, and Beaufort County has just one.

Nevertheless, thousands in such communities lack access to cars and safe places to stay as a storm approaches. Low-income people especially rely on shelters. “If these people aren’t sheltered in a big storm, what happens to them?” asks Baker.

Some localities are opening and staffing their own evacuation shelters. Others are working with nonprofit organizations such as the Salvation Army to provide safe places for evacuees. And still others are providing buses to move vulnerable people inland.

Thomas Williams, taking no chances, would never again stay in a coastal shelter. And he’s learned another lesson from Hugo—he rebuilt his home much higher than before, the structure’s first floor standing about 15 feet above sea level. If another giant hurricane hits the McClellanville area, he says, his home would not be flooded. He would not stick around McClellanville, anyway, next time a big one churns toward the coast. “I’ll be so far from here, you couldn’t find me. It’d take me two days to get back home.”

Day of the Locust

Swarms of crooks take advantage of vulnerable homeowners after hurricanes.

After natural disasters, bands of unscrupulous contractors swoop down to cheat homeowners. “There are people who follow disasters,” says Brandolyn Pinkston, director of information and education for the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs. In many cases, “they’re just crooks.”

While anxious homeowners search for workers to repair torn roofs and replace sodden Sheetrock, reputable licensed contractors can’t keep up with demand. So homeowners turn to unlicensed contractors—and often regret it.

When Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989, the state consumer affairs department quickly set up offices in South Carolina disaster areas to handle complaints about contractors. The department disseminated model home–repair contracts, advising consumers to get estimates only from licensed contractors. “But people want their homes repaired in a hurry, and reputable contractors are so inundated with business,” says Pinkston. “Many end up getting duped.”

After Hurricane Andrew battered South Florida in 1992, Governor Lawton Chiles suspended contractor–licensing requirements for 120 days to allow swifter reconstruction of damaged buildings. But after demanding that homeowners pay up front for materials or labor, some contractors did not complete repairs and disappeared. Of 1,600 citizen complaints that Dade County investigators received in November 1992 alone, 1,300 of them were about unlicensed contractors.

“We had charlatans all over the place,” says Katherine Fernandez Rundle, state attorney for Miami–Dade County, who aggressively prosecuted these criminals. “They flew in like locusts.”

Building Ties. Contractor Duke Warren (left) and Folly Beach Building Official Tom Hall examine the pilings of a beach house on the island. After giant storms, local licensed contractors are swamped by heavy demand, and building officials are overwhelmed as well. Photo by Wade Spees.

With their roofs blown off, “people get desperate,” agrees Ed Griffith, Rundle’s assistant. “They’ll hire anybody who comes along.” Next time, Rundle says, she will strongly encourage the governor not to suspend licensing requirements.

Building inspectors, moreover, could not keep up with fly-by-night operators after Andrew. Great numbers of damaged homes in Miami-Dade were rebuilt or repaired by unlicensed contractors without permits and oversight by government inspectors. So the South Florida building code, already inadequate, was ignored in many instances. It seems likely that these homes will not fare well during a future hurricane, experts say.

Crooks were aided by breakdowns in disaster planning at all levels of government. “There simply were no plans for storms of that magnitude,” says Erle S. Peterson, emergency recovery coordinator for the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management.

South Carolina localities lacked systems to oversee construction workers who poured into the Lowcountry. “We were swamped by them,” says Elbert Matthews, director of the Charleston County business licensing office.

“We were totally unprepared,” says Carl Simmons, Charleston County building official. After Hugo, inspectors were preoccupied with assessing damage to structures in Charleston County’s 945 square miles. So the county did not even get started issuing building permits until 11 days after the storm. When the building department finally opened its doors for business, officials had no clue how to handle unlicensed and out–of–state contractors.

For a time, construction workers had free reign in the county, and some took advantage. In general, local contractors acted responsibly, as did many out–of–town contractors, says Simmons. But “some of these (unlicensed contractors) can talk a good game,” convincing homeowners to “make quick decisions,” he says. County officials saw “incompetent, hit–and–run” work, especially among unlicensed roofers. “Most of the problem was from unlicensed people. All of a sudden, you could ask any price (for repair work) and get it,” says Simmons.

Since Hugo, Charleston County has changed policies, requiring that all building permit applicants have a state contractor’s license and that unlicensed contractors travel to Columbia to pass a state exam. When a disaster strikes and contractors flood in, claiming they are licensed in other states, county officials will verify that information.

Contractors were required to purchase a Charleston County business license once a year before Hugo. Now each time a contractor gets a building permit, he must also pay for a business license. This helps officials keep better financial records of rebuilding. Such policies, crucial during disasters, are now part of the county’s day-to-day operations.

Of South Carolina’s 46 counties, only 29 had enacted building codes by the time Hugo struck in 1989, though most municipalities had codes in place. Counties without codes lacked building standards, inspectors, and contractor–license requirements. But a new statewide building code, signed into law in 1997, should help protect consumers in many rural parts of the state. Localities have until 2002 to adopt the code.

Tougher Standards for New Homes

A year after Hurricane Hugo, an appendix of construction rules for high–wind areas was added to the Standard Building Code. Thus since 1990 coastal communities in the Southeast have had a chance to adopt upgraded building standards to cope with powerful winds. These rules, broken down into simple terms for contractors and inspectors, address problems that have long plagued structures in hurricane–prone regions.

For decades, even competent builders often have not tied plywood sheets adequately to roof rafters partly because coastal building rules were not stringent enough. As a result, high winds would strip off roofing plywood, allowing rain to pour into homes. During recent hurricanes, tens of thousands of structures were damaged because of such failures in roofs.

If a window or door is broken during a hurricane, high winds can push through the opening, increasing air pressure inside the structure. If enough air pressure is forced into a house, it can break at its weakest point—usually the connection between the walls and the roof, or the nails between plywood and rafters.

If coastal communities adopt the high–wind standards, then contractors within those jurisdictions must tie roofs to walls with hurricane clips. Contractors must provide a continuous layer of plywood beneath a home’s siding, providing better bracing from high winds and protection from falling trees and flying debris. After Andrew’s devastation in 1992, the standards were upgraded further, requiring better nailing patterns for roofing plywood.

The high–wind standards, moreover, are provided in a “cookbook” form, with directions that contractors and inspectors can use. However, many coastal communities have not adopted the standards.

These changes won’t help existing homes, however. So recently Sea Grant researchers Tim Reinhold and Scott Schiff, Clemson civil engineers, have discovered inexpensive methods of retrofitting houses to withstand high winds during hurricanes and other large storms.

The engineers have tested caulk-like adhesives that can be applied to the connection between plywood sheets and roof trusses. They learned that the adhesives can improve a roof’s capacity to withstand hurricane-wind pressures by a factor of four or five. A homeowner can apply this caulk adhesive in an attic for about $1,000. In another study, the researchers are testing inexpensive ways to build a safe haven in a home. In studies at the Clemson wind-engineering facility, the installation of a single layer of plywood beneath one room’s siding could reduce the chances that falling small trees would cut through walls.

“During Hurricane Fran in 1996, most of the damage was caused by houses being sliced by trees,” says Reinhold. “But if you take your vinyl siding off and add a layer of plywood, you can significantly increase the safety of one room, creating a haven from flying debris and falling trees.” Reinhold estimates that retrofitting costs could be about $1,000 to $3,000 for materials to strengthen a small room.

Each of these retrofitting studies was funded by the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A report listing the relative merits of various construction methods and materials to resist debris impact, wind pressure, and falling objects is expected this summer, Reinhold says.

Inland Danger

Hurricanes are not just a coastal threat. In fact, they frequently kill and injure more people in inland communities than along the shoreline. This is especially true in nations of Central America and the Caribbean.

In October 1998, Mitch became the most devastating storm to strike Central America, dumping more than two feet of rain in the mountains of Honduras in a single day. An estimated six feet of rain fell over seven days throughout the region. Devastating flash floods roared down the steep terrain, killing an estimated 9,600 people, with another 8,000 reported missing in five countries. Mitch became the deadliest Atlantic tropical cyclone since 1780.

The United States would not suffer tragedy on that scale if 72 inches of rain fell in a single week here. Many homes in Central America were shoddily constructed, while building codes are far more stringent in the United States.

Still, numerous U.S. hurricanes in the 20th century—in 1903, 1927, 1938, 1940, 1955, 1969, 1972, and 1994—have roared hundreds of miles inland, causing floods and catastrophic damage.

Even tropical storms can be killers. In July, 1994, for example, Tropical Storm Alberto crossed the Florida panhandle and stalled in southwest Georgia, dumping 26 inches of rain in a single night in Sumter County.

When farm dams burst, floods poured across the landscape, trapping people in their homes and cars, killing 15.

FEMA Changed

The chaos and the disruption of lives after hurricanes Hugo and Andrew were exacerbated by a wait-and-see federal disaster policy, acknowledges William Massey, hurricane program manager with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Following those storms, FEMA sat back and waited for an unwieldy, bureaucratic process to unfold.

When localities are hit by a disaster, they must assess the damage. Then they can call state government for help if needed. If the state can’t provide enough assistance, the governor can request aid from the federal government. By law, FEMA is not a “first responder” to disasters.

But following Hugo and Andrew, localities were overwhelmed and bewildered; they had difficulty understanding the scope of these disasters. In Florida, state officials also misjudged the extent of Andrew’s damage and delayed asking for help from the president. In turn, FEMA officials believed they could not provide assistance to disaster zones until requests were made through formal channels.

Since then, FEMA’s strategy has changed. Now the agency “stages” emergency supplies, personnel, equipment, and technology in and near communities where hurricanes are expected to strike. FEMA can also help assess disaster damages before a governor submits a request for aid to the president.

“FEMA doesn’t sit around and wait anymore” to get prepared to help states and localities, says Charmel Menzel, hurricane program manager with the S.C. Emergency Preparedness Division.

Evacuation Steps

If a hurricane evacuation is mandatory for your immediate area, obey it and head for high land. Never disregard an evacuation notice. But what if an evacuation is ambiguous? In some jurisdictions, residents of “low-lying areas near water” are advised to leave as a hurricane approaches. How do you know if this advisory applies to you?

First, find out if your home is in a flood-hazard zone. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has devised maps of all floodprone areas for flood–insurance purposes. The maps designate two kinds of “flood-hazard areas” along the coast—the “A zone” and the “V zone.” Contact your insurer or local planning and zoning department to learn if you live in one of these zones.

Second, learn the height of your first inhabited floor above mean sea level. As hurricanes approach, local emergency managers announce anticipated storm surges. If the forecasted surge is higher than your home’s first floor, it would be wise to evacuate. This information is also available from insurers and local planning offices.

Third, consider the quality of your home’s construction, says Dennis Clark, director of the Charleston County Emergency Preparedness Division. Although your home may be elevated and outside of a flood zone, it could be vulnerable to wind. If you live in a mobile home near the coast, for example, you probably should consider evacuating as a hurricane approaches.

Opal’s Scare

Late on Tuesday evening, October 3, 1995, Hurricane Opal was a minor hurricane dawdling north in the Gulf of Mexico toward the Florida panhandle.

Because Opal was forecast to strike late the next afternoon, local officials believed they had plenty of time to evacuate low–lying areas the next morning. But during the early hours of October 4th, Opal swelled explosively. Feeding on warm Gulf waters, Opal became a menacing killer, her maximum winds increasing dramatically, her forward speed increasing.

“Local officials made a big mistake: they believed the hurricane forecast,” says Jay Baker, Florida State University geographer. “You should never believe the forecasts because hurricanes can unexpectedly speed up or intensify.” That is, coastal residents must pay attention to the danger of a hurricane, but they should not rely too heavily on forecast accuracy. Hurricanes are too unpredictable to anticipate with great precision changes in their forward speed, intensity, and expected landfall.

At daybreak on October 5th, officials hurriedly called for 100,000 coastal residents to flee. Many began driving east toward Tallahassee on Interstate 10, the major evacuation route parallel to the coast. But due to construction on I–10, one eastbound lane was closed for several stretches, and traffic backed up for miles.

Emergency officials scrambled to provide refuges in small towns along I–10, but some travelers remained stuck in gridlock. Fortunately, the storm had abruptly lost strength just before it struck land. Opal killed 18, but, the death toll could have been much higher. Since Opal, many coastal communities have gained a greater respect for a hurricane’s unpredictability.

Further Reading

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Hurricanes of This Century. Springfield, Va.: National Technical Information Service, February 1996.

Pielke, Roger A., Jr., and Roger A. Pielke, Sr. Hurricanes: Their Nature and Impacts on Society. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Tibbetts, John. “Racing to Catch Up: South Florida’s Battle over Building Codes.” America’s Hurricane Threat. South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, Fall 1998.

Zebrowski, Ernest, Jr. Perils of a Restless Planet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.