Even though forecasters are predicting warmer ocean temperatures in the Pacific, which will mean fewer hurricanes this year in the Atlantic, emergency officials say one storm making landfall is all it takes for a devastating season.
With the Atlantic hurricane season beginning Sunday and going through Nov. 30, experts said Grand Strand residents should prepare now before the height of tropical activity in September.
“Every model had the Pacific turning into El Niño conditions in the middle to late summer,” said Craig Gilman, an associate marine science professor at Coastal Carolina University. “There’s going to be an El Niño, it’s going to be the second half of the hurricane season. In previous El Niño years there is a statistical reduction in the number of storms.”
In their second annual prediction for hurricane season, Coastal Carolina University officials said there will be only one hurricane, if any, to make landfall on the East Coast or in the Gulf of Mexico this year. The group, Hurricane Genesis & Outlook Project, also known as HUGO after the hurricane, also predicted 11 tropical storms for the season.
“The other reason most forecasters are predicting a quiet hurricane season on the eastern Atlantic the surface temperatures are colder,” Gilman said. “The possibility of El Niño and the slightly cooler water in the east is the reason most forecasts have said less than average this year.”
But those predictions are not an assurance of no storms impacting the Myrtle Beach area, said Randy Webster, Horry County’s emergency management director.
“We live in a hurricane-prone area and to not prepare for that is just asking for trouble. Everyone is predicting a lower season because of El Nino, but it doesn’t give you a free pass to not be prepared. Every single year you should be more prepared than the year before because you’ve had time to do it,” Webster said.
“The thing that concerns me the most is people get the wrong impression that it’s a slow year and they say ‘I can take the year off’ because there are no hurricanes predicted,” he said. “The only two major storms to hit Horry County since 1871 were during slow years.”
The two storms were 1989’s Hurricane Hugo and 1954’s Hurricane Hazel, both Category 4 storms that left a path of destruction in their wake during a season where 11 storms occurred, Webster said. This year will mark the 25th anniversary of Hugo and the 60th anniversary of Hazel.
“For me, I don’t care about the forecast because we know at some point in the future we will be impacted by a storm,” Webster said. “We need to be as a community as prepared as we can be for the one storm that does.”
Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center released their predictions on May 22 and said that there is a 70 percent likelihood that eight to 13 named storms will develop during the season. Of those storms, three to six could be come hurricanes and one or two major hurricanes, which means a Category 3 or higher.
The seasonal average is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s records from 1981 to 2012. No major hurricanes made landfall during the 2013 season and only tropical storms impacted land in the United States.
“Thanks to the environmental intelligence from NOAA’s network of earth observations, our scientists and meteorologists can provide life-saving products like our new storm surge threat map and our hurricane forecasts,” said Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA administrator. “And even though we expect El Niño to suppress the number of storms this season, it’s important to remember it takes only one land falling storm to cause a disaster.”
During El Nino patterns, Gilman said “we tend to get winds blowing from the Pacific to the Atlantic while the surface winds blow toward the west so that sets up these wind shear conditions that is very unfavorable for hurricane formations. It’s not absolute, but when you look at statistics, the stronger El Niño the number of storms goes down tremendously.”
The last time Horry County residents and visitors were forced to evacuate the coast under mandatory orders from then-Gov. Mark Sanford was in 2004 for Hurricane Charley. The last time Horry County’s Emergency Operations Center was activated for a storm was 2008’s Tropical Storm Hannah’s brush by the coast.
Changes along the coast since then mean more buildings and people will be at risk if a storm strikes.
“There are 10 years worth of growth, 10 years worth of construction and building, so there are a lot of folks who have moved into vulnerable areas,” Webster said.
Two years ago officials created new evacuation zones in Horry and Georgetown counties based on a new study of storm surge impacts, evacuation times and the topography of the area.
From the study, emergency officials eliminated voluntary evacuation orders, instead the governor will only issue mandatory evacuation orders for coastal residents, which also includes some inland areas that are predicted to be vulnerable to surge and wind.
Where once the Intracoastal Waterway served as a line of demarcation between coastal danger and inland safety, new storm surge models showed that areas of Horry and Georgetown counties that had never been under a mandatory evacuation order could be impacted by rising waters and should be evacuated, according to officials.
Residents living in Bucksport, the Waccamaw Neck and other inland areas away from the ocean, but near waterways such as the Waccamaw River and Intracoastal Waterway also are now in evacuation zones.
No matter the forecast, Lt. Christian Sliker with the Myrtle Beach Fire Department said now is the time for residents and even visitors to plan their reactions for when a tropical system threatens the coast.
“Even though we can predict when a hurricane is going to come, you can never predict the impact it’s going to have,” Sliker said. “Keeping your family safe is our main goal. You are never too prepared, you are only under prepared.”
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or on Twitter @tonyaroot.