By any standard, 2020 was pretty much a wipe-out, but the one thing Beaufort County residents did not have to deal with was hurricanes, or even much in the way of heavy weather.
Last year was not only unusual, but contrary to what the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predicted. According to NOAA’s web site, the rest of the country dealt with a “record-breaking 30 named storms and 12 land-falling storms in the continental United States.”
Six of the hurricanes were Category 3 or higher – major storms with winds of 111 mph or greater. It was the most storms on record.
Anyone who was in our community in October 2016 remembers Hurricane Matthew, a deadly and costly Category 5 that ripped through Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean, and mercifully only passed close to shore at Hilton Head as a mere Category 1 with winds of 74-95 mph.
Considering how much havoc that wreaked on the island, it is wise not to take any threat of a hurricane lightly.
What should be noted is the prediction for what kind of hurricane season will develop is the same this year: “Forecasters predict a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season, and a 10% chance of a below-normal season. However, experts do not anticipate the historic level of storm activity seen in 2020,” according to NOAA.
In fact, the weather experts predict 13 to 20 named storms; 6 to 10 might become actual hurricanes; and 3 to 5 could rise to the level of major hurricanes, Cat 3 and above.
The Atlantic hurricane season extends from June 1 through Nov. 30, so if you haven’t begun preparing, it’s time to start.
The good thing about hurricanes – if there is any good thing – is there will be plenty of notice that one is coming, its potential strength and where it might land, even though we have seen enough multi-colored spaghetti model storm patterns the past several years to make us all skeptical about forecasts.
If you do not already have it, now is the time to file for flood insurance. In low-lying areas – this is called the Lowcountry for a reason – more damage is caused by storm surge than wind. Nearly all insurance companies require policy holders to be on the flood insurance for no less than 30 days before filing a claim. If you are unsure whether you are in a vulnerable location for storm surge, visit scemd.org/prepare/know-your-zone.
Be prepared early
When an evacuation order comes out from the governor’s office in Columbia, residents in the areas advised to evacuate have time to pack up and leave. The best advice is do it now and not two days before you think the storm might hit.
Avoid the panic. Prepare early for people, pets, prescriptions and personal items. (See checklist on page 26A.)
Prepare your home:
• If you have hurricane shutters, put them up early enough so you’re not doing that at the last minute.
• Corral all of the items not nailed down in your yard. Lawn furniture, flowers pots, garden hoses, hanging flowers, even grills can become projectiles with a heavy enough wind. Secure items in a garage or other structure, or tie down as best you can. Don’t forget to put away the kids’ toys as well.
If leaving town: Leave ahead of the mandatory evacuation orders. You are not restricted on the routes you take if you leave early. Once the mandatory evacuation time and date is reached, all exits are pre-determined and you will have no choice but to follow the route directed by law enforcement.
If staying home: If you choose to remain during a storm, be prepared to be on your own for a day or two if the weather is severe and causes widespread damage. You could be without water and electricity. First responders might not be available or able to reach you if you have a crisis. Prepare an emergency kit with basic first aid materials, and plenty of food and water for each person to last at least 72 hours.
The following are a few internet resources for emergency preparation suggestions: FloodTools.com, Ready.gov, SCEMD.org and CDC.gov/disasters.
Once the governor lifts the evacuation order, your county or community might not be ready for you to return. The best way to know if you can get home safely is to go to any of several official sources. Do not rely on the information of friends, nor Joe and Jane who live next door and never saw one raindrop.
If the hurricane has caused substantial damage, access will be permitted only as needed in a gradual process. There might also be a curfew.
The Hurricane Hotline number is 1-800-963-5023. Choose your community from those listed in the menu options. This phone number will be activated only in the event of an evacuation.
Official sources of information
Following lessons learned during past evacuations, county and municipal agencies will use social media to disseminate unified messages during any emergency situations, such as hurricanes.
Many gated communities have specific guidelines for preparations and evacuations. For example, the Community Association encourages Sun City residents to visit the Hurricane Awareness page of SunCityHiltonHead.org for all Sun City-specific hurricane information. Resident login is required to access the page.
For answers to lots of questions about hurricane season, the Town of Bluffton has a list of frequently asked questions at townofbluffton.sc.gov/FAQ.
The Town of Hilton Head has a “Guide to Emergency Preparedness” available for downloading from its website at hiltonheadislandsc.gov. Go to the Publications pull-down menu and click on Guides & Manuals. It’s available in English and Spanish.
A handy pocket guide, available in English and Spanish, is also available at Hilton Head fire stations, Facilities Management and the Town Hall.
Because there is only one road on and off the island, advanced preparation is critical. Information also includes transportation details for those who have no reliable way to evacuate the island.
Refer to Facebook pages for Bluffton, Hilton Head, Beaufort County and local law enforcement agencies: facebook.com/TownBlufftonSC; TownofHiltonHeadIslandSC; beaufortcountysc; blufftonpolice; and BeaufortCoSO.
The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of redesigning its website, BCSO.net, and expects it to be up and running in early June. It is planned to be user friendly with many new features that are expected to be interesting and informative.
BCSO can also be found on the neighborhood platform Nextdoor at nextdoor.com, which will provide the same up-to-date information as Nixle and the BCSO website.
Sign up for mobile phone emergency updates from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office with the free app Everbridge (Nixle): Text your ZIP code to 888777.
The Beaufort County Community Preparedness app provides numerous tools, including an evacuation map, flashlight and an option to “Share My Status,” which will let family members know where you are. It is available from app stores.
Other helpful mobile phone apps include FEMA and SCEMD.
Twitter users can follow @SCEMD, @bftcountysc, @bcsopio, @BlufftonPolice, @TownofBluffton and @townofHHI.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.