MUSC Medical Links Charleston Links Archives Medical Educator Speakers Bureau Seminars and Events Research Studies Research Grants Catalyst PDF File Community Happenings Campus News

Return to Main Menu

Atmospheric ingredients ripe for hurricane

by Mary Helen Yarborough
Public Relations
The right mix of atmospheric ingredients can turn Charleston’s gentle ambience into a stew of nature’s wrath.
Just 19 years ago, conditions were perfect for Hugo, the last major hurricane to hit the Lowcountry. Who could forget the trashed structures, boats and impassable roads all the way through Charlotte; and the constant whine of chainsaws and misery by residents whose houses lost power and air conditioning for weeks and weeks.
Since then, the Lowcountry has been lucky. Only a few major hurricanes have brushed near Charleston only to veer northeast and slap North Carolina hard. In each case, when the state has responded to the threat of a distant cyclone, MUSC has manned its stations and activated its emergency response mode. Leading up for naught can be a downer—all that adrenaline and planning for nothing. But not exactly.
All the planning and the near misses have contributed to critical experiences needed to shape effective response to an actual event. Such tropical events  could have various consequences in Charleston. It doesn’t take a hurricane to sink much of this city like a johnboat in the ocean. A continental shelf shift, aggravated by an earthquake, could send a tsunami washing over Charleston and curling toward a shaken Summerville.
During its history, Charleston has seen it all, except for tsunamis. But plenty of heavy rains and high tides have closed major thoroughfares, including many around MUSC’s campus.
Rob Fowler, meteorologist for WCBD-TV news, said that it is more likely that the Lowcountry could host a hurricane or a tropical storm this year due to La Nina in the Pacific. La Nina cools the water while El Nino heats the water in the Pacific. El Nino’s affects have generated protective fronts that move from west to east over the United States for the past couple of seasons. La Nina will not produce the types of strong currents and systems that could keep a storm away or divert it out to sea, Fowler said.
In addition, the water offshore and the Gulf Stream offshore South Carolina already has 80 degrees, which is the minimum temperature hurricanes require for energy.
When storms begin to form, either in the Caribbean or off the west coast of Africa, Fowler and other meteorologists begin to formulate hypotheses on where the storm will track and to what strength. They review various models and use their training and instincts to determine what they believe would happen. Of course hurricanes are fickle and even the best models cannot determine with any certainty exactly what will happen.
“The atmosphere is very fluid,” Fowler said. “And the 100-year storm is no longer applicable. We’ve seen a number of 100-year storms within the past two decades. Every year, we have to wipe the board clean and start all over again.”
Whether Charleston does get hit like it did in 1989, what is more certain are floods. Tides, new and full moons, all make for a serious mix of implications to area residents and vacationers.
“Even if a category 1 storm hits during a new moon or full moon; or during high tides, the results could be disastrous in some places,” Fowler said. “So, for the public’s safety, I look at all of the data and I balance my report and provide information that could save lives; and that includes warnings of floods, lightening, tornadoes; not just high tropical winds. During hurricanes, though, competition by other stations may dictate what you do, since hyping a storm tends to drive up ratings. But many of these storms are detected two weeks away. We try very hard not to cry wolf, but we have a duty to report any potential threat.”
At MUSC, readiness teams would report to duty only if the governor declares a mandatory evacuation. MUSC would not close unless a category 3 storm or higher is threatening the area.
The Office of Public Relations will maintain contact with area meteorologists and emergency response agencies. The 24-hour information phone line, 792-6872 (MUSC), would be activated and accessible in the event of a threatening storm or other disaster where callers can obtain pertinent information. The university and hospital also have a new emergency notification system that includes sending messages to PDAs, e-mail and cell phones to employees.
In the event of any disaster, including a major hurricane, the medical center and university would activate incident response and command centers and would enact emergency guidelines and policies. Visit for the latest emergency weather updates.

Weather watch—An announcement indicating weather conditions may become hazardous within 36 hours.
Weather warning—An announcement indicating weather conditions may become hazardous within 24 (or less) hours.
Weather emergency—An announcement indicating weather conditions have advanced to a threatening/dangerous stage. This announcement means the suspected dangerous weather conditions are expected to begin within hours of the announcement.
Gale warning—Winds of 39-55 mph are expected in the area designated.
Storm warnings—Winds of 55 mph or greater are expected in the area designated.
Hurricane watch—Hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.
Hurricane warning—A hurricane is expected within 24 hours.

2008 Hurricanes
* Became a tropical storm May 31


Friday, June 6, 2008
Catalyst Online is published weekly, updated as needed and improved from time to time by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.