It's been 30 years since Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina, pounding the coast on Sept. 22, 1989 before coming inland and causing damage all the way to the North Carolina line and beyond. The storm remains fresh in the minds of many adults who were in the state at the time. In that sense, 30 years doesn't seem that long, but in terms of emergency response, it's a big gap.
South Carolina Emergency Management Division Director Kim Stenston compared the degree of preparedness today to that of 1989 and found some big differences. "There was no hurricane guide, the website I'm sure probably didn't have a lot of information on it (if it existed). So I think we've evolved a long way in that 30-year period."
He continued his comparison. "Emergency management was not really recognized as a profession at that point, and of course it is now. And certainly our plans are much more detailed and comprehensive than anything they had back then. We've got a separate hurricane plan which gets into some level of detail in terms of evacuation, the evacuation zones, shelter locations, traffic control points, it just lays all that out."
University of South Carolina disaster scientist Dr. Susan Cutter joined Stenson in the comparison of hurricane preparedness of today to that in the Hugo era. She said FEMA stood out as particularly inefficient at the time, but fortunately, "FEMA has gotten much better at its response over the years, in particular because it is now mandated that the head of FEMA have experience as an emergency manager. That wasn't always the case. And the fact that people are more informed, particularly people who live along the coast."
Cutter said technology advancements over the past three decades have been good for emergency management. "The rapidity with which people receive information is extraordinary. They're not waiting hours or days to receive information. Everybody gets it almost instantaneously on the cell phone. We're getting much better at tracking the storms, we're much better at tracking the movement of cars out of the evacuated areas. And you can do this in almost real time."
But with all the improvements of the past 30 years, Cutter said one thing following a Hugo-sized storm today would be much worse: the cost. Hugo did an estimated $5-6 billion in damage to South Carolina. Those damages today would be about $16 billion, she said, largely because of the increased number of people and structures on the coast and along Hugo's original path.
And though communications and evacuation procedures have greatly improved, many people still refuse to leave when advised to. Cutter said research shows that more people will leave in the face of a major storm (a category 3 or higher) than for a minor one. But when lives are at stake, she said, "there's no such thing as a minor hurricane."