Preparation watchword for busy storm season

Beaufort County hasn't been hit by a major hurricane in decades, but we pay a price for the possibility.

We see it in our insurance coverage rates and in the time and resources state and local governments devote to disaster management planning and storm recovery. It's one of the primary reasons for Hilton Head Island's very large operations reserve fund. A town on a barrier island would be remiss not to be ready for the possibility of hurricane damage.

Those who have been here during a tropical storm or as a hurricane brushes by offshore know that surprisingly severe damage can come even if the hurricane doesn't. And as William Winn, Beaufort County's public safety director, likes to remind us: It only takes one storm to make it a very bad season.

The approach of hurricane season as the country reels from the devastation wrought by tornadoes has us weather weary already. And what is the prognosis for the 2011 season, which begins today and runs through Nov. 30?

Like 2010, the 2011 hurricane season is expected to be above average. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center forecast calls for 12 to 18 named storms. Of those storms, six to 10 could become hurricanes, and of those, three to six could become major hurricanes with winds of 111 miles per hour or higher. The weather forces that steered storms away last year are expected to be less prevalent.

The seasonal average is 11 named storms, with six becoming hurricanes and two of those becoming major hurricanes, according to NOAA.

The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season was very busy, but quiet. It saw 19 named storms and 12 hurricanes, including five hurricanes that were Category 3 or higher. It was the third busiest season in terms of the number of named storms, and the second busiest for hurricanes.

But only one tropical storm made landfall in the U.S., and no hurricanes made landfall. It was the first time since records were kept that 12 hurricanes formed without one landing in the United States. For the fifth year in a row, no hurricane made landfall anywhere on the East Coast -- the first time that had happened in 124 years of record keeping.

Despite that relatively good news, many property owners along the coast will see their insurance costs go up. The "wind pool" -- the state's insurer of last resort for coastal wind and hail insurance -- has been given the go-ahead to raise its rates an average of 9.8 percent.

The pool insures about $17 billion in property along the cost. Most barrier island residential properties are insured against wind damage through the pool.

Beaufort County owners fared better than owners in other coastal counties. Owners in Zone 1 can expect to see their premiums rise by 8.7 percent. Those in Zone 2 farther inland can expect increases of 0.67 percent.

Market values may have decreased over the past several years, but the cost to rebuild has not, insurers say. And more accurate storm modeling suggests risks are greater than previously thought.

The rush to live along the shore only increased during the past decade. South Carolina's population was up 15.3 percent in 2010 over 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state's coastal areas in Horry, Georgetown, Charleston and Beaufort County saw some of the biggest gains. Beaufort County's population was up 34 percent.

A fact of coastal living is that we have to be ready whether a storm comes or not.

The best advice remains the same: When officials say go, then go. In the meantime, do what you can to get ready.