David Lauderdale

Irma blows in harsh reality check for Beaufort County

Irma flooded some of Hilton Head’s most popular spots. Here’s what it looked like.

Hilton Head Island resident Barry Bryant took a drive around some of the island's most popular spots — including Sea Pines, Hudson's Seafood, Skull Creek Boathouse and Hilton Head Plantation — at various stages of high tide on Monday. King tides c
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Hilton Head Island resident Barry Bryant took a drive around some of the island's most popular spots — including Sea Pines, Hudson's Seafood, Skull Creek Boathouse and Hilton Head Plantation — at various stages of high tide on Monday. King tides c

Now we know what a 4-foot storm surge looks like.

And sea-level rise.

We were taught by a storm called Irma — one of the mightiest hurricanes ever recorded as it swirled across the Atlantic Ocean. But she was a mere tropical storm when its outer bands whipsawed Beaufort County on a king tide in the gray daylight Monday.

Irma had been a long-running horror show, with a number of computers spitting out full-color “spaghetti models” pointed right at us. We assumed it would do to us what we now see it did to the Virgin Islands and Key West.

Even when it veered westward, we remained vulnerable.

In our flat, low-lying county full of islands, “storm surge” has been a fear since 20-foot waves from a hurricane here in 1893 left little but live oaks standing — and 2,000 people dead.

We usually see these surges on maps flooded with fiery red warnings of what neighborhoods will be under water in each category of hurricane.

With Irma, we traded maps for boots. She showed us firsthand what happens when a 4-foot surge roars atop of an 8-foot high tide.

This is when Mike Sutton rides a motor boat through the streets of The Point in Beaufort. It’s when the 18th hole at Harbour Town would be played in a wetsuit, and when the Hunting Island Lighthouse stands offshore.

Major flooding occurred in Beaufort's historic 'The Point' neighborhood and Henry C. Chambers waterfront park when Tropical Storm Irma came through on Monday. Mike Sutton took out his jon boat to navigate the flood waters and survey the damage. He

On Monday, Harbour Town in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island was flooded by rain and storm surge from Tropical Storm Irma. But by Tuesday morning, the water had receded.

Hunting Island State Park became even more susceptible to flooding after Hurricane Matthew took out the sand dune system last October. That's why park manager Daniel Gambrell says the water damage from Tropical Storm Irma is actually worse than it

It’s when a tropical storm might as well be a Category 5 hurricane to some homeowners in the Alljoy Landing area of Bluffton.

It’s when slowly rising water creeps to the door of First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, a wood-frame witness to the throes of our history for more than a century.

1Beaufort before after
Pictured is the First African Baptist Church in located at New and King streets in downtown Beaufort photographed on Sept. 14, 2017, left and Sept. 11, 2017, right, the day Tropical Storm Irma came ashore in the Lowcountry. Photo credit left: Drew Martin, Staff photo. Photo credit right: Mike Sutton

It’s when mountains of sand that cost millions to pump on our shifting shoreline disappear in an hour.

It’s when something we consider as basic to life as a sanitary sewer system spits and sputters in low places.

It’s when we grasp the power of life’s umbilical cord — electricity.

It’s when we recognize the value of the least sexy spending by our governments — drainage and stormwater management.

For most of us, Irma was a gentle reminder of the harsh side of life in the Lowcountry.

Here are a few scenes from Daufuskie Island two days after Tropical Storm Irma ripped through the area.

For many, its greatest downside was the hassle and expense of evacuating, and those Georgia love bugs we brought home stuck to our windshields and bumpers.

The storm, like Hurricane Matthew just 11 months ago, brought out the best in us. We dropped the bickering. We shared. We put our arms around evacuees from Florida, some of them virtually penniless, as they ambled north, and then back south, through Jasper County.


Oct. 28, 2016 Hurricane Matthew battered thousands of buildings and trees and caused widespread power outages and flooding throughout the Lowcountry in the early morning hours of Oct. 8. But the Category 2 storm didn’t dampen the resolve of residents determined to help their neighbors – and complete strangers – who were suffering. | READ


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But the storm also brought up two topics we never like to face: insurance and sea-level rise.

America’s flood insurance program is broken, and making it solvent in this era of $200 billion storms will be outrageously expensive. Remember, there is a reason the private sector won’t write all that flood insurance, and the government-subsidized rates we are paying are unrealistically low. If that changes, Lowcountry residents are in for major sticker shock.

Especially when you consider the explosion of new homes and businesses flooding vulnerable places like Beaufort County and Charleston — and the entire outer rim of America.

Not long ago, people built simple cottages on stilts in flood zones. Now they build mansions. Across America, we fill wetlands and drain swamps, and then wonder why there’s water in the living room.

How much more can we as a nation, or as individuals, afford?

Already, wind and hail insurance premiums have risen so high that some people who own their homes risk losing it all with no insurance because they can’t afford it.

Sea-level rise is something else we don’t want to think about. But Irma gave us a peek at what it could look like.

Orrin Pilkey, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has long been considered a prophet of doom in these parts for saying it’s foolish to build by the sea and think you can outwit it or outmuscle it.

He recently wrote: “The general consensus among scientists is that a 3-foot rise in sea level should be anticipated by 2100. But recent projections suggest a possible rise of five or six feet.”

Pilkey was urging coastal cities to prepare now because the politics and cost of it will make it a slow process.

He praised Charleston for adopting a strategy that assumes a 2.5-foot rise in sea level over the coming 50 years.

Irma’s legacy should be a harsh reality check for all of Beaufort County.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale