Myrtle Beach area officials learned lessons from Sandy

In three days, the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season will be another addition to the history books without much mention of impacts to the Carolina coast.

That’s just fine with local emergency managers, although, they say there were some lessons they learned this season from one of the last storms that formed and devastated the northeast – Sandy.

Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast on Oct. 29 and caused problems from North Carolina to Maine, caused damage estimated as high as $50 billion.

In 10 states, more than 100 deaths have been blamed on the storm, with most of them being attributed to the victims drowning in storm surge that deluged beachfront communities under evacuation orders by their respective governments.

Sandy skimmed past the Myrtle Beach area a couple of days before, sparing the Grand Strand the catastrophic destruction and loss of life that resulted in the Northeast.

So what if it had strayed a 100 or 200 miles to the west and made landfall in South Carolina?

“We’ve talked a lot about that,” said Randy Webster, Horry County’s emergency management director. “There are some huge differences. The immediate coastal impacts would be just as catastrophic, but when you get into that larger infrastructure issue we don’t have the same issues.”

Webster added: “We don’t have the impacts to the transportation network. We don’t have the concentration of population, so you take those two things out of it.”

Webster said the storm would have resembled 1989’s Hurricane Hugo as far as storm surge up to nearly 13 feet, but without the wind gusts that topped out at nearly 160 mph.

“In trying to compare Sandy damage … and put that into Horry County, South Carolina, the coastal impacts would be similar to Hugo, maybe Hazel, but without the wind,” Webster said. “The surge was the big kicker.”

Webster said the biggest concern would have been the storm surge and drowning deaths.

“If we had a similar storm like that here that only had 70 mph winds yet 10 to 12 foot storm surge, that’s why we’re switching from a hurricane category evacuation to a storm surge evacuation,” Webster said, referring to the Know Your Zone evacuation plan. “There’s more work to be done to recognize that storm surge needs to be at the forefront and not the category of the hurricane that represents the wind speeds.”

Officials know the specific areas in Horry and Georgetown counties where storm surge would cause major devastation thanks to being the first in the nation to undergo an evacuation study that took into account storm surge patterns and population changes over the past two decades.

Study results for the rest of the state are expected to be released before the 2013 hurricane season, said Sam Hodge, Georgetown County emergency management director.

“We’re really the first ones to roll it out to our communities,” Hodge said. “With the newer technology it gives us better tools to plan with.”

Using the study results, Horry and Georgetown officials developed new evacuation zones where they predict storm surge would inundate areas previously thought safe because a major storm has not threatened since Hugo.

For Hodge, the images and reports from Sandy fed into his worse fear as an emergency management planner.

“How complacent we can be as a coastal county? What if that was Georgetown? As prepared as we think we are, we don’t know until it actually happens,” Hodge said. “There’s the unknown of will the people actually evacuate? Will we have a death toll with people failing to evacuate like they did up there? It’s been since Hugo since we’ve had any landfall and impact. And that’s my worse fear, is people won’t evacuate and be complacent and stay.”

But since mounting the evacuation campaign to educate residents about the new evacuation zones and a second round of Know Your Zone meetings expected next year, officials said they are hopeful people will be mindful of the potential damage from storm surge the next time a storm threatens.

If Sandy had turned west and made landfall along the Grand Strand, Webster said Horry County would have been a little better prepared.

“If you go beyond the surge itself, the wind wasn’t such an issue. From what we’re learning our infrastructure was better built and maintained better,” Webster said. “We have some of the same problems in terms of housing needs and immediate relief needs.”

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

This year there were 19 named storms with the first, Tropical Storm Alberto, forming May 19. The last storms, Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Tony, each forming on Oct. 22, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center officials forecast 15 named storms for the year, which was an increase of an average of 12 named storms.

Sandy brushed by the Grand Strand on Oct. 26 and Oct. 27, which was nearly two weeks after Hurricane Hazel impacted the area in 1954, and that Webster said shows residents should not disregard late season storms.

“One more lesson learned: It’s not over until the season is over. That storm had the potential to impact us later in the season than any other storm in recent memory,” Webster said. “Never put your guard down.”