It's called the Lowcountry for a reason.
Beaufort County is so low-lying, in fact, that a minor hurricane would cause major damage to property and prosperity.
Floodplains make up 61 percent -- more 224,209 acres -- of Beaufort County's land area. Those acres include the locations where about half the population lives and where 38 percent of the county's critical facilities sit, including schools, hospitals and emergency personnel stations sit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In a hurricane, those plains would easily flood from a storm surge or the rising sea level from a storm.
Even in a Category 2 hurricane, 86 percent of Hilton Head Island and most of downtown Beaufort would be under water, according to county hazard reports.
If a category 3 or 4 hit, the county anticipates a loss of more than 75 percent of property.
"In disaster management, we say, hide from the wind, run from the water," county emergency management commander Lt. Col Neil Baxley said. "If you stay here in a hurricane, you better have a life jacket."
MANY WON'T GO
But far too many county residents probably won't evacuate.
Twenty to 30 percent of them have failed to evacuate during past storms, many of them older and poor, said Chris Emrich, a research professor with the University of South Carolina's Hazard and Vulnerabilities Research Institute. It happened during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
"I lived in fear (during that evacuation)," said Baxley. "We saw what was not happening with evacuations, especially on St. Helena and a couple of other areas of the county. I looked at the commander at the time and said, 'We need to call the state. We need 2,000 body bags ready.' FEMA has them in a warehouse regionally and we made that call. We told them to put them on standby."
Luckily, Floyd swerved as it neared the coast and spared Beaufort County from any significant damage.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that high numbers of the poor and the elderly live in floodplains. More than 58 percent of people older than 65 and 50 percent of people below the federal poverty line live in floodplains, according to NOAA research.
The relatively socio-economically depressed area of St. Helena Island, for example, has reported a significantly higher number of people who have opted to wait out storms at home during past evacuations even though they are in one of the most geographically vulnerable areas for a storm surge. It was one of the areas where historians believe hundreds of native islanders died in the Sea Island Hurricane of 1893.
The reasons for not evacuating vary.
"Some people didn't have cars to go before. But I think if you ask around now more people would go" said lifelong St. Helena resident Pierre McGowan. "Personally, I am going to stay though. I don't want to travel so long. It takes days to evacuate, so I'm just going to stay here and staywith a friend in a house my grandfather built."
Follow reporter Erin Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_erinh.
- Experimental storm-surge maps to accompany NOAA hurricane projections in 2014, beyond, February 5 2014.
- The five hurricane strength categories, May 28, 2014.
- Report warns of rising sea levels, floods on Beaufort County coast + interactive map, July 21, 2014.
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