“I didn’t think it could happen here.”
“I’ve lived here for decades and never expected anything like this.”
“We were caught off guard.”
The words of people caught in the aftermath of a hurricane – especially a particularly strong or large one – often reflect the fact that at any one location, a damaging and deadly hurricane is a fairly rare occurrence. While it is obviously a good thing that they don’t strike more often, there is a hidden danger there: we are often lulled into complacency and the belief that the chances are so small that we don’t really need to make the serious preparations we often hear we should.
There’s another, related curveball that hurricanes of the past throw at us. If we experience any part of a hurricane, even the outer fringes, we sometimes think we “went through it”.
Consider that back in 1983, I “went through” Hurricane Alicia in the Houston, Texas area. It was one of the scariest nights of my life. Fact is, though, that I directly experienced only winds of tropical storm force on the comparatively weaker side of the circulation in the western suburbs.
Many people probably remember certain hurricanes that hit their general area, while the brunt of the storm hit a few miles away and spared them the worst. Nearby areas surrounding those that were devastated might not be as fortunate next time.
So, combining all of the above, the ultimate wake-up call is a devastating hurricane that is the first that has hit an area in a long time but spares particular cities or neighborhoods. All of the hurricanes on this year’s list have both historical attributes.
People who ahead of time had an evacuation plan, enough insurance, sufficient supplies, and window coverings that are tested, approved, and properly installed, usually fared much better after a hurricane than those who didn’t. So, there is a need to do everything possible to convince ourselves we are hurricane-vulnerable – to the point we make these preparations, even if we’ve not been hit by a hurricane in a long time, or even if the worst parts of nearby hurricanes appear to keep missing us.
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No 5 Wake-up Call – Irene (2011) – Northeast
Irene was the first significant hurricane threat to the northeastern U.S. in 20 years, since Bob in 1991. While it was ultimately a tropical storm when it made final landfall in the region, it produced historic inland flooding in portions of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states.
In addition, due to Irene’s large size, storm surge caused significant damage in places such as coastal Connecticut and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and extensive power outages resulted from strong winds. Overall, however, the region – especially the largest cities – avoided devastating wind and storm surge impacts, which could have occurred had Irene been a hurricane or especially a major hurricane.
No 4 Wake-up Call – Ike (2008) – Gulf Coast
While Ike was not a major hurricane (Category 3 or stronger on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale) at landfall in Texas, it was large in size and certainly produced major impacts, especially from the destructive storm surge.
As bad as it was, a stronger hurricane coming ashore a little farther southwest along the coast would have been even worse for Galveston and Houston. No major hurricane has made landfall on the Upper Texas Coast since Alicia in 1983, but Ike serves as a reminder of the long history of southeast Texas major hurricanes, and that the next one has the potential to more seriously impact some places than did Ike.
NO 3 Wake-up Call – Isabel (2003) – Mid-Atlantic
Isabel was arguably the most significant tropical cyclone to affect eastern Virginia in almost 50 years. Although the center of the Category 2 hurricane came ashore in North Carolina, it produced hurricane conditions in southeastern Virginia. In addition, its large circulation pushed a significant amount of ocean water into and up the Chesapeake Bay, leading to storm surges of 4-6 feet along the Virginia coast.
Isabel would have been much more impactful in Virginia, however, had Isabel’s winds been stronger there, and future hurricane impacts could be far more significant than either Isabel or last year’s Irene.
No 2 Wake-up CALL – Charley (2004) – Florida
When the 2004 hurricane season began, it had been 44 years since a major hurricane made landfall along the west coast of the Florida peninsula (excluding the panhandle).
Charley then came ashore in Charlotte County in August 2004, and at Category 4 it was the strongest U.S. hurricane at landfall since Andrew (1992).
Although it caused about $15 billion in damage and claimed 10 lives in the U. S., the scope of the damages and suffering would likely have been even worse if the hurricane had been larger, since a broader area would have experienced hurricane-force winds, and it would have been able to produce a much higher storm surge.
In addition, most of the largest metro areas on Florida’s west coast, including Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota, and Tampa Bay, were overall spared from devastating damages. Charley showed everyone in these areas how plausible it is to have a major hurricane impact them in the future.
No 1 Wake-up Call – Hugo (1989) – Southeast
Hurricane Hugo approaches the South Carolina coast in September 1989.
Hugo was the first major hurricane to make landfall in South Carolina in 30 years and the first Category 4+ landfall in the U.S. in 20 years, and at the time it was the costliest hurricane in U. S. history with about $7 billion in damage.
Hugo, however, was not a worst-case, square-on direct hit at Charleston. To be sure, many downtown buildings were significantly damaged, but with landfall of the center of the eye occurring just up the coast to the northeast of the city, and with strongest winds north of there, Charleston escaped what would have been far more devastating storm surge flooding.
Nearly another quarter century has passed without a landfalling major hurricane in South Carolina. Hopefully, the lessons of Hugo are enough to help motivate people to prepare for the next one, including evacuating Charleston for the potential of deadly and damaging storm surge.