It's not quite what you'd planned for. A board with the spray-painted words, "Alex blew us away," scrawled on its side floats down the street in 18 feet of water heading back toward the ocean — along with a stop sign, a crumpled up Subway sandwich bag, some girl's teddy bear, and the bulk of a sidewalk Palmetto tree. Smoke from a fire three or four blocks away fills the sky to the north as that bitch of a storm churns west.
The power is out. The last two Yuenglings are hot. The iPhone died hours ago. The faucet isn't working (as if you'd drink the water even if it was). Your neighbors, old man Avery across the hall and the college girls downstairs who plays that rap crap, were smart enough to get out. Emergency vehicles are still trapped behind flooded roadways.
It's Charleston after an apocalyptic hurricane, with winds of more than 155 miles per hour and waters 18 feet higher than usual. It's the kind of catastrophe Hugo would have offered in 1989 if it hit a little farther south, if Gracie came at high tide in 1959, if Floyd made the kind of direct impact first predicted in 1999. See a pattern?
Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the state's Emergency Management Division, calls it the theory of the nines.
Suggesting calamity by the last digit in a year isn't rational (did we mention Hurricane David in 1979 cut power around Savannah for two weeks?), but it leads one to consider the kind of threat that looms over Charleston every year around this time and why emergency officials take such extraordinary steps to urge you to leave. Because, in a catastrophe, they'll get to you when they can get to you — and that may not be soon enough.
Pressing emergency agencies for details about a potential catastrophe prompted more than one pained face. "You're freaking me out," one official groaned. "Category fives are the end of life as we know it."
And I Feel Fine. My Roof, On the Other Hand ...
If Hurricane Hugo hit today, it would destroy 21,000 homes and cost $8 billion in damage, according to Becker. Hugo is still the eighth most costly storm in history, but it's far from the worst-case scenario. The eye's drive through downtown Charleston meant much of its abuse was north toward McClellenville, where a storm surge of more than 20 feet still holds the record.
Now, think about those numbers if that would happen to the peninsula, an area packed with three-story buildings that floods during a hard rain or a particularly high tide.
Because of a hurricane's circular wind pattern, structures could be battered in two different directions. State estimates made in 2007 suggest a Category 5 storm surge would impact nearly 280,000 Charleston County residents, 106,000 homes, and more than 1,500 businesses, with a collected value of more than $23 billion.
Newer Charleston County estimates released last month that divide up the county into regions gives more specific, but still bleak picture. Most every home downtown would require at least moderate repair — one of every four homes would be completely destroyed and another 25 percent would be considered "severely damaged."
Many buildings on the peninsula were built decades (and, in some cases, centuries) before elevation requirements, but many of the masonry buildings have weathered severe flooding before and should prove resilient. You may not have a roof, windows, or doors, but there should still be four walls to come home to.
Not surprisingly, the worst of the high winds and the violent waters would hit the coast to the north and south of the peninsula. East of the Cooper, more than 15,000 homes would be completely destroyed. On James Island and Folly Beach, another 8,000 homes would be gone.
An accounting of critical facilities impacted by a catastrophic Category 5 storm found that seven hospitals, nine media outlets, 31 fire stations, and 11 law enforcement centers would see some form of flooding damage due to the storm surge, including major damage to facilities on barrier islands and on the peninsula.
"A catastrophic emergency or disaster will overwhelm the capabilities of the state and its political subdivisions to provide prompt and effective relief and recovery measures," read an October statewide recovery plan. "The transportation services may be disrupted. Commercial and governmental telecommunications facilities may experience widespread damage, impairing communication among governmental response and recovery agencies."
Estimates for Charleston County suggest there would be 3.2 million tons of tree debris alone, as well as 2.9 million tons of brick, wood, concrete, and steel debris. According to the state plan, streets would be impassable and medical supplies would be in short supply, stalling emergency relief efforts while numerous fires in both urban and rural areas break out.
The Struggle After the Storm
Emergency agencies would already be positioned for the post-storm response, says Diana Kline, a crisis coordinator for the Palmetto Red Cross.
"We're not waiting until landfall to take action," she says.
Depending on the size and speed of a storm, officials may be waiting out the worst of it for six to 24 hours. Once the hurricane has passed, a host of local and state agencies are activated and rush to the front lines to expedite the recovery. With a catastrophic storm heading toward the coast, the governor would have long-since announced a state of emergency, activating the National Guard to assist with an orderly evacuation.
GIS and storm surge projections would already provide damage estimates. Immediately after the storm, emergency officials would forward that data to the Federal Emergency Management Administration, along with a letter to the president requesting federal aid.
Local officials would get planes in the air to get a better picture of the damage. State Highway Patrol and National Guard units, sheltered in North Charleston during the storm, would head back out to monitor security (preventing looting and enforcing curfews), report on road and bridge damage, and begin rescue and recovery operations. State Department of Transportation vehicles that moved into the region before the storm would hit the roads — first clearing pathways on the interstate and highways, and then other high-traffic routes.
Red Cross shelters, cut off from outside communication during the storm, would begin reconnecting. Recognizing local limitations prior to the storm, a call would have already gone out nationwide for volunteer assistance. That aid would be mobilized following the storm, with the arena in North Charleston likely becoming a warehouse for donated goods. Shelter operators would head out to check secondary shelters — locations that aren't hurricane safe, but that would serve well as post-storm shelters for the newly homeless.
Medical facilities would be evaluated for possible use. Key staff in emergency medicine and surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina would stay through the storm and get back to work. Power grids would be reviewed and drinking water would be tested. Hazardous materials would also be checked — and there would be a lot of checking. Recent estimates suggest there are 329 hazardous material sites just on the peninsula.
If local media can't transmit after the storm, emergency officials would distribute a newsletter to update residents, emergency personnel, and volunteers about recovery progress.
Business would, not surprisingly, be nonexistent. State Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said the commerce giant would make immediate damage assessments, but it would take days to resume operations as federal agencies checked shipping channels for possible debris or sunken boats. Ships would have been sent elsewhere before the storm.
"You don't want those docked when a storm hits," Miller says.
That is, except for the Yorktown. The decommissioned carrier is in more than 20 feet of mud and well anchored for a storm, says interim director Dick Trammell.
And Yet, You're Still Here
So, emergency units are on the other side of impassable highways. They have your mom's number (as "next of kin"). Your roof and windows are gone. Fires are raging down the street. The power is out. Salt water and once-buried Confederate treasures are still sloshing around downtown streets. But, surprisingly, you are not alone. We're all quick to look back at the real threat of Hugo in '89, but a more frightening story comes from the cavalier attitude of some Charleston residents just a decade ago as Floyd loomed off Florida's shores.
As the storm pointed toward Charleston, a meteorologist told The Boston Globe that "most, if not all, of the buildings (along the coast) could be destroyed."
The threat set off a real panic, as residents fled in droves, cramming roadways and creating hours and hours of delays. Looking back, some might find the whole trip foolish, considering the light breeze Charleston ended up receiving. But the threat of a Category 5 monster barreling down King Street was real. And still people stayed.
One Charleston resident strolling past the street's abandoned storefronts in the midst of Floyd told a reporter that he'd monitored the storm and would have left if necessary.
"Until you have a better idea of where the eye of the storm is going, it's okay to stay," he said. "Besides, I like Charleston a lot more when there aren't any tourists around. I say that tongue in cheek, of course. You'll note that, won't you?"
It's the kind of response that chills Cathy Haynes, the county's emergency management director.
"My fear is for the old timers who said, 'I survived Hugo,'" she says. "I want people to take (these storms) seriously."
And the worst-case scenario doesn't mean that a smaller storm can't be equally deadly. Just a few feet of water could knock you off your feet, says Jamie Rhome, team leader of the National Hurricane Center's storm surge unit. The water can also be persistent, arriving hours before the storm and posing a threat even after the worst of the wind and rain has passed.
"This is not like swimming in your swimming pool," he says.
In smaller storms, residents can make reasonable decisions about their safety, but Haynes is clear about what she'd like to see happen if there's a Category 5: "Everybody leaves."
Hurricane Preparedness Guide
In the event of an emergency, the county activates the information line at (843)202-7100. Before the storm, make sure to:
• Refamiliarize yourself with your TV weatherman.
• Get all your emergency numbers together (finally, a call to mom!)
• Create a hurricane supply kit, including nonperishable foods, cash, batteries, a radio, first aid kit, and a Snuggie, among other things.
• Stormproof the house, complete with boarded up windows and a spray-painted pithy phrase or Bible verse.
• Turn off the electricity before you leave — heck, do that all the time.
For a hurricane guide with detailed information on preparing and recovering from a storm, visit charlestoncounty.org