After Hurricane Ian, South Carolina residents prepare for 'the next one'

Mega-storms are growing in frequency as the climate warms

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In the hours after Hurricane Ian ripped through Florida, leaving dozens dead and communities reeling, Sumter and Beverly Moore watched as weather forecasts predicted the storm would sweep out into the Atlantic Ocean before turning back and coming straight for their home on Pawleys Island, a narrow strip of earth and sand 112 kilometres north of Charleston in South Carolina.

Mr Moore, 82, is a lifelong resident of the barrier island and is no stranger to hurricanes. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo punished the South Carolina coast, destroying homes and infrastructure and causing nearly $7 billion in damages.

He will never forget arriving on Pawleys after Hugo hit.

“The island was cut in half,” he said. The storm was so powerful it swept houses off the island and on to the mainland.

Hurricanes are a part of life on this strip of the Atlantic and the Moores are veterans.

“As old as we are and as many of them as we've seen, when we go through a year like last year and we don't have one, we say: 'The Lord is looking out for us’ and this year, we just kind of say, ‘Thank you it wasn’t worse than it was',” Mr Moore said.

According to Nasa, hurricanes in the North Atlantic have been increasing in number and ferocity since the 1980s, and those who work in local government along South Carolina’s coast have seen that first hand.

“Storms are obviously becoming more frequent and they're becoming more damaging,” said Brandon Ellis, director of emergency services for Georgetown County, which is home to Pawleys Island.

Hans Paerl, a professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina, said the reason is clear: climate change.

“This is not rocket science,” explained Dr Paerl.

“Even myself, as an ecologist, can understand why these storms are wetter, the oceans are warming up, there's more evaporation of water going on from these warmer waters and with the intensification of low pressure systems, they just get sucked up and basically dumped on our coastal watersheds.”

The number and intensity of storms is increasing, but that won't convince the Moores to leave their beloved home. Still, they know a bad storm could have a devastating impact.

“It could wipe this island out,” Mr Moore acknowledged.

After seeing forecasts that predicted Ian would only hit South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane, the Moores chose to stay and hunker down in their newly built house, which sits 4.4 metres in the air on stilts.

They purposely went beyond local building requirements when they rebuilt their home six years ago, knowing full well the potentially devastating effects of a hurricane.

Even with the stormproof house, the Moores felt Ian's power.

“The house shook a little bit when the wind gusts hit,” Mr Moore told The National.

Ian caused a significant storm surge that submerged most of Pawleys Island, knocking out power and wreaking havoc, but not causing total devastation.

“It was almost like a Noah's Ark experience,” Ms Moore explained. “We saw boats floating by and parts of docks floating by.”

The Moores know they are lucky. Residents of Florida, where Ian struck as a Category 4, were not as fortunate.

The storm slammed into Florida's western coast, then cleaved a diagonal path of mayhem across the state.

The death toll has surpassed 100, making it one of the deadliest storms in Florida’s history.

Communities have been forever altered by the powerful hurricane, which levelled buildings, destroyed bridges and in some cases cut off islands from the mainland.

The full extent of the storm is still being assessed, but one projection suggests the financial damages could be in excess of $70bn.

Dr Paerl fears the financial burden caused by storms will only increase in the future.

“The storms are delivering more contaminants to our coastal system, which is leading to short- and long-term environmental and ultimately economic damage,” he said.

The storms, which are trending wetter and wetter, wreak havoc not only on infrastructure but on agriculture and aquaculture, Dr Paerl added.

In coastal South Carolina, residents described relief that Ian spared them its full wrath, but many know their luck could one day run out.

“It's not a not a matter of if but when that happens again,” said Mr Ellis, referring to the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo back in 1989.

“It becomes harder and harder after every storm; our coastline gets weakened.”

As hurricanes increase in number and intensity, Dr Paerl fears there may be a time when life on some barrier islands becomes untenable.

“There are places where we probably need to seriously consider turning them back over to Mother Nature,” he said.

Updated: October 04, 2022, 8:26 PM