THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
By Charles Swenson
The hurricane that Georgetown County plans for, the one its Emergency Management director calls “the perfect storm,” is the one that makes landfall south of Winyah Bay and puts the county in the way of the strongest wind and waves.
That’s what Hurricane Matthew did last week, but after landfall south of McClellanville the storm moved north over the Waccamaw Neck before turning east near Myrtle Beach, according to the National Weather Service. Not only did the area get lashed by east winds from the Category 1 storm, it was hit hard from the west after the eye of the hurricane moved north.
“In most places, the west wind was worst,” said Richard Kreitner, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, N.C. “We anticipated that about 18 hours in advance.”
It wasn’t the hurricane alone that caused those winds. “Cold upper level winds were pulled into it,” Kreitner said.
The track of Hurricane Matthew parallel to the coast meant the winds lasted longer than if the storm had moved inland. Had it crossed perpendicular to the coast, the path of Hurricane Hugo after making landfall near Charleston in 1989, the winds would have been stronger, but of shorter duration, he said.
The Hugo scenario led local officials to call a press conference Friday afternoon to warn residents in low-lying coastal areas to evacuate. They estimated less than half the people who live in the A Zone had done so since Gov. Nikki Haley’s evacuation order was issued a day earlier. Sam Hodge, the county director of Emergency Management, held up a graphic from the National Weather Service showing the track of the storm passing 6 to 10 miles off the coast of the county.
Forecasts showed Matthew taking a turn to the east, but all week long that turning point shifted to the north. After listening to a weather briefing Friday, County Administrator Sel Hemingway said, “Mayor Otis and I look at each other and we simultaneously said ‘Hugo’.” That hurricane was already on the minds of Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis and members of Town Council as they made evacuation plans for the island. Although it hit land as Category 4, Hugo’s effects were Category 1 at Pawleys Island and still caused widespread damage.
“The nature of forecasting is you can never be 100 percent accurate,” Kreitner said. Matthew’s track was affected by a cold front and a low pressure system, he explained.
The rainfall projected for Matthew was about 12 inches. Instead, because of the track and the timing of the bands as the storm passed over the Waccamaw Neck, the actual totals were lower. Citizen observers for the National Weather Service reported up to 8.75 inches of rain in the Pawleys Island area and up to 5.5 inches in Murrells Inlet.
The storm surge that damaged walkways, decks and porches along the beachfront and creeks came about an hour and a half before the high tide. The west winds pushed the water away from the oceanfront. “It could have been worse,” Kreitner said of the surge. “It’s all a matter of timing.”
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