Is South Carolina lucky when it comes to weather-related disasters?

The (Columbia) StateApril 28, 2013 

2a photo 0108_ Sunset on Bear Island.jpg Dottie Byers took this photo of a sunset from her deck on Hilton Head Island overlooking Bear Island on the evening Hurricane Sandy brushed the east coast.

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina is the only state that since 2007 hasn't been hit by a weather-related event devastating enough to merit a FEMA disaster declaration, according to a recent report.

Environment America Research and Policy Center put out a report this month on the rise in extreme weather that many scientists link to global climate change. Every other state had several weather-related disaster declarations from 2007-12, a total of 424 in the entire country. South Carolina had none.

But that's a bit misleading, say state emergency management officials.

The FEMA threshold for a disaster declaration is high. Several weather-related incidents in the state during that period met the lower threshold for federal Small Business Association disaster aid, said Derrec Becker, spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Department.

The state applied for FEMA disaster declaration for the March 2008 tornado outbreak that walloped Branchville. But the $43 million in insured damages and $2.4 million in uninsured damages didn't meet the FEMA threshold.

FEMA has two types of disaster declarations -- one for public facilities and one for individual homes. The current threshold for a FEMA public facilities disaster declaration is $6.3 million in uninsured damages statewide, or smaller figures for each county based on population and other factors. The last time a weather-related disaster in South Carolina met the public facility damage threshold was a December 2005 ice storm in the Upstate, Becker said.

That storm marked the end of a busy weather disaster period in the state, following close on the heels of FEMA disaster declarations for tropical systems Frances, Gaston and Charley in 2004, and a January 2004 ice storm in the Midlands.

The threshold for individual homes is 100 destroyed. The last time the state hit the individual disaster threshold was in 1999, for flooding after hurricanes Dennis and Floyd came ashore in North Carolina in quick succession.

Since 2004, hurricanes have been relatively kind to the state. Earl in 2010 and Irene in 2011 caused massive beach erosion but destructive winds stayed offshore. Meanwhile, the tornadoes, ice storms and droughts that have hit the state haven't been devastating enough to be declared disasters by FEMA.

Other than suggesting that the state might be due a big one, what does the lull mean for residents?

Emergency officials say they have had time to prepare for the next major disaster while proving the state has the capacity to deal with less broadly devastating events by itself.

"It's making us more prepared," Becker said. "We have to be on our game (to handle the less devastating disasters) on our own. We've had to respond without the help of the federal government."

During the same period, state disaster crews have been dispatched to major disasters in other areas -- hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Ike in 2008 and Sandy in 2012, and the 2010 Tennessee floods. At each one, they gained experience that will help when similar events hit South Carolina, Becker said.

Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, says big-event experience is important.

Disaster workers can't count on lessons learned during less destructive events translating to major disasters.

"The complexity of larger events means that by definition they are more problematic," Cutter said. "We simply haven't been tested."

Cutter is relatively confident the state's emergency workers can handle the next big one. What she worries about is the general public, especially when it comes to evacuation requests.

"If it's something like a hurricane hitting the coast, they're going to be complacent," Cutter said. "We all have short memories."

While South Carolina has been lucky lately, the good fortune can't last forever. Just this week, an N.C. State researcher reported that meteorological factors indicate a busier than normal Atlantic hurricane season.

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