HURRICANES FOR DUMBASSES

For Weekly SurgeJune 11, 2014 

Stairs with no house attached at Cherry Grove after Hurricane Hugo. Photo by Charles Slate for Weekly Surge.

The wacky Southern sarcasm of comedian Ron White, he of Tater Salad and Blue Collar Comedy fame, might seem the last place in the world to look for sage advice about the weather.

But this line from one of White’s specials is probably one of the best possible descriptions of bad weather – specifically a hurricane – ever uttered.

“It’s not THAT the wind is blowin’, it’s WHAT the wind is blowin’!”

White used the line back in the mid-2000s to refer to a news story he read about a crazy Florida man who tied himself to a tree during a hurricane just to prove his own strength. The comic went on to remind us that it doesn’t matter how strong you are if you end up getting hit by a flying Volvo.

As hurricane season begins here along the Grand Strand, Weekly Surge invites you to take White’s advice to heart.

As of June 1, we here on the edge of the Earth once again started our annual six-month stint in the crosshairs of Mother Nature’s annual worst bouts of PMS. Until Nov. 30, we join with all our other seaside buddies up and down the East Coast as prospective victims of any mass of pissed-off clouds, winds and rain that decides to form off the coast of East Africa and head our way.

For better or worse, the word hurricane brings to mind only one word for way too many people around here: PARTY!

To many folks in beach towns, both the young and the young-at-heart, the only supply runs they think of as storm preparation are trips to the liquor store and the beer aisle at Mega Lo-Mart. Fill the coolers and lay in a couple extra family/econo/giganto size packs of toilet paper from Costco and we’re good till the last cloud blows inland.

Despite countless hours of TV and online coverage of the havoc storms can cause, many people take the weather for granted. If you’ve lived on the coast for a while and been through an evacuation or other preparations for a hurricane that ended up veering away, it might be tempting to simply disregard all the talk about advance preparations and even to ignore new warnings when they do come. People overall have become more jaded about the weather and even get mad at news broadcasters when they try to warn of danger. One news anchor at an Iowa station recently lashed out at viewers who made nasty phone calls because tornado coverage interrupted their sports and soap opera viewing. You can see the tirade here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi76bvkf2sY).

Really, that’s not a smart attitude to have. No hurricane, no matter how big or small, is something to mess with.

“You need to remember there are different types of hurricanes,” said Martha Spencer, a meteorologist at Myrtle Beach CBS affiliate WBTW, who admits to a real fascination with the big bad storms. “One of these storms might not be categorized as a 4 or 5 but still cause a lot of problems. You can have a Category 1 with minimal winds, but it could be a slow moving system with tons of rain. Melbourne, Florida got 23 inches of rain a few years ago from a storm moving two miles an hour.”

Hear that? A whopping 23 inches of rain? That’s more than two feet, enough to send all that beer and toilet paper floating around your apartment or condo, along with everything else you own.

Prepping for hurricane season is something our local and state governments take very seriously. If you were on coastal highways and some interstates during the last week of May, which was National Hurricane Week, you might have noticed extra police and other personnel as they practiced for “lane reversals” that would take place during evacuations. Around Horry and Georgetown counties, officials and first responders held drills to replicate everything from flooding to chemical spills that could take place during storms.

So if all these people took the beginning of storm season so seriously, shouldn’t Surge readers? So we’re offering a primer, a “Hurricanes for Dummies” type guide that gives you a basic look at what you should – and shouldn’t do – to get ready for storm season.

First, the facts:

Just what is a hurricane in the first place? Might as well start from the beginning. The Weather Channel’s Web site defines a hurricane as a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher. Tropical cyclones are low pressure systems with defined wind circulation that develop over the tropics. The systems go through four distinct stages – tropical disturbance, tropical depression, tropical storm and then hurricane. As the cyclones develop, strong thunderstorms occur and air pressure drops at the surface. The low pressures attracts warm moist air from the ocean’s surface, which then causes winds that result in a counterclockwise spiral. Scientists offer another way to think of a hurricane: as a “heat engine.” Moisture from warm ocean water is converted to heat in thunderstorms. Spiral rain bands feed the circulating air with more heat energy, rising air condenses into clouds and rain and releases more heat into the atmosphere, and this causes lower surface pressure and strengthening winds. Either way you describe it, what you end up with is a big rotating mess of angry weather that can cause a lot of people a lot of problems.

OK, we know what it is. How likely are we to die from one this summer, really? Forecasts which came out just about a month ago indicate this may not be that bad a year when it comes to hurricanes. However, those who crunch the numbers stress that people still need to be prepared.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the big federal weather-forecaster types, released a forecast May 22 that predicts between 8-13 named storms will form in the Atlantic this year. Of those, 3 to 6 are predicted to become hurricanes, and only one or two are supposed to be major storms.

Those numbers, NOAA number-crunchers say, mean a near normal or below normal season.

Why? Give the blame – or the credit – to a little guy named El Nino.

Meanwhile, just up U.S. 501 at Coastal Carolina University, a team of scientists is also predicting a “below to near normal” season thanks to the Hurricane Genesis & Outlook (HUGO) Project, a hurricane model system they’ve developed based on 22 factors including oceanic, atmospheric and shoreline activity.

(Folks who have lived here long enough will also get the clever acronym. Hugo, in case you weren’t born then, are new to the area or simply have a really bad memory, was a monster, killer hurricane that plowed into the Carolina coast on Sept. 21, 1989. It wreaked havoc from Charleston to Cherry Grove, killed 27 people in the state, caused millions of dollars in damage, practically wiped out the state’s timber industry, and destroyed houses, cars and infrastructure all the way inland to Sumter and even Charlotte, N.C. If you in any way think hurricanes aren’t a big deal, go online, Google “Hugo” and look at photos of sailboats washed into front yards and beach houses turned into toothpicks. Then go start building your hurricane kit.)

According to the HUGO model, the most likely scenario is no hurricanes will make landfall on the East or the Gulf Coast, according to Len Pietrafesa, project leader and a Burroughs & Chapin scholar on the faculty of CCU’s School of Coastal and Marine System Science.

The second most likely scenario is one storm will make landfall.

The guys at CCU also are running a program that combines mathematical and atmospheric data to predict exactly where storm surge for tropical systems along the East Coast will be at any given moment.

“It will tell you on a street by street basis where to go and where not to go, so if for instance a National Guard armory is going to be flooded, you don’t send people there as a shelter,” he said. “It will help people plan evacuations so everyone doesn’t have to leave at one time. Trying to make a forecast is one thing that’s of interest, but we also want to help people protect their own lives and property.”

As much of an expert as he is, even Pietrafesa admits that HUGO isn’t infallible, as is no forecast, and that even that one storm they predicted might hit could be a monster that sets its sights on the Grand Strand.

So, in light of that, we offer:

Things to do before the big stormy shit hits the fan:

Figure out how to get out of Dodge…or wherever on the Strand you live. Evacuation routes are mapped and listed in the Horry County hurricane guide and in other resources online. You can also tell where they are if you drive on area inland highways and see those cute little blue signs with the swirly symbol and “EVACUATION ROUTE.” The important thing to do is figure out the route that’s most convenient for you and plan to use it when the time comes. Figure out how you will evacuate before you actually have to. One tip: outgoing major highways and interstates usually clog up the fastest. If you want a more stress-free way to save life and limb, consider taking one of the more rural evacuation routes to get where you’re going. For instance, going up S.C. 9 through small communities such as Nichols and Floyds might seem the long way around, but it’s one of the quicker ways to get inland.

Stock up on supplies. You’ll hear just about every weather and news outlet urging you to put together a hurricane kit. This can get annoying, we know. The warnings and tips get to be as monotonous as those “buy duct tape and plastic wrap for your windows” ads we all heard in the years shortly after 9-11. But a hurricane kit is relatively simple to put together and can end up saving you a lot of annoyance and headaches in the aftermath of any storm that does eventually hit.

Yes, you can also buy extra beer and other adult beverages as mentioned above, but don’t make them your main supplies and do so after you get the other stuff. A basic list of things to include:

Battery operated radio (preferably a NOAA weather radio), flashlight, batteries, first aid kit, one gallon of water per person per day (two-week supply), manual can opener, non-perishable food, work gloves, chlorine bleach, personal hygiene items, towels, rain gear, sturdy shoes or work boots, blankets and/or sleeping bags, complete changes of clothing, tarps, books and games, aluminum foil and plastic bags, local maps, plastic utensils, cups and plates, basic tools, baby care and pet care items, extra prescription medications and copies of important documents (insurance papers, wills, family records, household inventory.)

That might seem like overload but can be accomplished with one big trip to a big box and/or home improvement store. Store everything in sealable, waterproof plastic containers.

Reigning cats and dogs

It might be raining cats and dogs, but don’t leave your pets behind to deal with it.

In the aftermath of tragic, deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hundreds if not thousands of pets were left behind and abandoned in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Images of them dead or starving on the streets as well as stories of grieving pet owners led to a national movement toward providing more shelters that welcome pets, because American Red Cross shelters don’t allow animals except for service dogs. Why? Not only does it save animals, it saves people because there are many who – like it or not -- won’t evacuate if they can’t take along their furry, feathered, scaly or finny friends.

In South Carolina, like many other things we’re a little behind the trend when it comes to pet-friendly shelters. So far only Beaufort and Charleston counties offer them, and each only has one. Horry and Georgetown don’t have pet-friendly shelters planned for this hurricane season, or at least they didn’t by press time for this article.

So what do you do? Take your animal friends with you if it all possible. Do for them what you do for other members of the family – plan ahead. If you plan to flee to friends’ or relatives’ homes, make sure you can bring your pets. Find out if there are kennels, veterinarians, or other boarding facilities in the area or along your evacuation route that will accept pets in the case of emergencies.

Check Web sites like PetFriendlyTravel.com or bringfido.com for a very comprehensive list of hotels and motels that are pet-friendly.

Put together a survival kit for your four-legged buddies at the same time you make up yours. Supplies to include: leashes, harnesses and/or carriers, food, drinking water, bowls, cat litter box/pan (they make portable ones you can buy at any grocery or pet store), manual can opener, extra supplies of medication, copies of medical records in a waterproof container, a first aid kit, current photos of you with your pets in case they get lost, and a list describing feeding schedules, medical conditions, behavioral issues and the name of your vet in case you have to board or foster your animals during or after the storm.

These same rules apply for other pets besides cats and dogs. If your animal companions are fish, birds, reptiles or other breeds, consult with your veterinarian or other experts to learn what should go into their survival kits and how to care for them in the event of a storm. Even if your best animal buddy is Terry the Tarantula, he deserves to be safe from the storm surge.

As the storm approaches, avoid the urge to yell “Surf’s Up!”

News coverage before just about every tropical depression, tropical storm and hurricane that heads to the Carolinas invariably includes images of men and women on surfboards, braving high winds and rough currents to ride the challenging, extra-big waves these systems kick up.

True, the higher waves give surf devotees a thrill they can’t get too often in our area, but it comes with a price. Hurricanes can produce rough water and dangerous currents even when they’re hundreds of miles away, and inexperienced surfers can easily be injured – or worse. In June 2013, a 19-year-old drowned off North Myrtle Beach’s shore while surfing waves kicked up by Tropical Storm Andrea, a system that never even got close to hurricane status.

The best advice we can give is just say no to pre-storm surfing, but those words will likely fall on some deaf ears. So, some advice from a person who’s done it:

Joey Skipper, a local musician and veteran surfer, says he and friends have surfed up and down the Carolina coasts before every major storm that’s approached during the past 20 years.

“We’re not trying to glamorize this kind of surfing, but it is something we do,” he said. “We watch sites like surfline.com which will tell you where the perfect storm waves are, and we know the coastline so we know which breaks are going to be better during the storm.”

He’s gone as far north as Cape Hatteras, N.C. and has experienced some wild pre-storm waves, which leads him to insist that surfing a hurricane’s waves is not something a novice or even someone with moderate experience should consider.

If you’re an experienced surfer and do insist on hitting the waves in front of an advancing storm, observe some basic rules. Always go surfing with a buddy. Make sure you have good, sound equipment. Know what to do if you get caught in a rip current. (Namely, swim parallel to the shore until you get out of it.)

“You need to be a strong swimmer if you’re going to go out, and you need know what to do in the currents, because you are never stronger than the weakest wave in the ocean,” Skipper said. “Ask yourself if you’re familiar with the break where you’re going. We have a lot of areas around here where there are rocks beneath the water, and if somebody doesn’t know the area, that can be a major problem.”

In the end, Skipper offers surfing advice similar to what the meteorologists and the weather enthusiasts will tell you: when the weather gets too rough, when the storm gets close, get out of the water and head to higher ground. He vividly recalls seeing helicopters flying overhead when a person drowned off the coast of Carolina Beach, N.C. recently during a rip current, and said nothing is worth risking your life.

“We’re not out to end our lives just for that one wave,” he said.

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