These Natural Disasters Can Occur in South Carolina! Are You Prepared?

natural disasters in south carolina

South Carolina is a beautiful state with a rich Civil War history, unique culture, and delicious cuisine. 

In the Palmetto State, you’ll discover great hiking trails, forests with trees covered in hanging Spanish moss, beaches, watering holes, and some of the best golf courses in the world. 

The locals are known for their Southern hospitality and culinary expertise. They’re likely to enjoy grits for breakfast, homemade biscuits, seafood, hushpuppies, crawfish, oyster roasts, and boiled peanuts. All of this is likely followed by a glass of sweet tea.  

Due to its location off the southeastern coast, the state experiences several natural disasters which we’ll discuss in this article.

What natural disasters does South Carolina have?

South Carolina’s most common natural disasters include hurricanes, severe storms, floods, wildfires, extreme heat and drought, tornadoes, power outages, and landslides. Other less common disasters include winter storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis. 

Between 1953 and 2019, South Carolina declared 34 major disasters, of which hurricanes and severe ice storms happened the most according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

1. Tropical Storms & Hurricanes 

Being that it lies along the East Coast, South Carolina gets its fair share of coastal storms. These storms bring in heavy rains, strong winds, storm surge and result in flooding and tornadoes.

This is by far the greatest threat when it comes to disasters and the damages can be devastating. 

The Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1st and lasts until November 30th but if the climate is favorable for the development of a storm, they can happen during other times of the year.

The majority of the storms that have affected the state occurred in September. The National Hurricane Center monitors these storms. 

A Category 5 hurricane has never made landfall in the Palmetto State, but of the 43 tropical storms that have made landfall, one was a Category 3 and three were a Category 4. 

One of the worst was Hurricane Gracie. This Category 4 hurricane occurred on September 29, 1959, and made landfall on St.Helena Island near Beaufort. Its 130mph winds destroyed crops, caused a storm surge of up to 10 feet and sea level rise, brought up to 6 inches of rain, and killed 10 people. 

South Carolina’s deadliest natural disaster on record was the Sea Islands Hurricane which occurred on August 15, 1893, and caused over 2,000 fatalities. 

After hurricane season, there’s a risk of nor’easters which are likely to occur between September and April. These storms bring in similar hurricane winds, high surf, and result in significant beach erosion. 

To prepare for tropical cyclones, hurricanes and nor’easters, you should first learn what a hurricane watch and hurricane warning mean.

Next, ensure that all of your emergency supplies are up-to-date and located in an accessible spot on the lowest floor of the home.

When a coastal storm is forecasted, determine whether it’s safer for your family to evacuate or stay at home.

In the event of major disaster declarations, don't necessarily wait for evacuation orders- close storm shutters on your windows, secure the roof straps, and get out!

In this guide, we’ve outlined the mitigation steps and safety tips to consider before, during, and after a hurricane.

2. Severe Storms

The Palmetto State experiences severe storms in the form of thunder and lightning, heavy rainfall, strong gusty wind speeds, and sometimes large hail.

It averages 64 days of thunderstorms annually, most of which occur during the summer months. The state gets between 40 and 80 inches of annual precipitation, depending on the region. 

South Carolina averages 459,000 ground-to-lightning strikes each year and is one of the top 10 US states when it comes to lightning fatalities. The warm, humid climate of the summer guarantees frequent afternoon or evening lightning storms. 

It’s important to know basic safety protocols when it comes to severe weather. The safest place to be when there’s thunder and lightning is inside a sturdy building away from exterior doors and windows. 

Remain inside a safe area until the threat is no longer present. Usually, this is about a half-hour after the last thunderclap is heard. For a complete list of storm safety tips, check out this guide.

3. Floods

Much like other parts of the United States, South Carolina has a high risk of floods and flash floods.

The causes are primarily a result of severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, seasonal rains, overflowing rivers and streams, soil saturation, and low-lying topography. 

Currently, nearly 210,000 people live in an area with an elevated risk of inland flooding, and almost 230,000 people live in an area with a risk of coastal flooding. These numbers are expected to increase over time. 

One of the largest riverine floods in the state occurred in 1903. The relentless rain caused the Pacolet River to rise as much as 40 feet in just one hour!

The hardest-hit areas, Pacolet and Clifton, experienced major damage due to the severe flooding. Sixty-five people lost their lives as a direct result. 

Another significant flood occurred in 1999 when three tropical systems brought in over 24 inches of rain to Horry County. Northeastern South Carolina was affected the most along the Waccamaw River and its tributaries. 

To prepare for a flood, it’s important to know the risk in your community. Look at local flood maps and determine if your home is located in or near a flood zone.

Property owners should keep in mind that water damage from floods are generally not covered under the homeowner’s insurance policy. Therefore, it may be wise to look into flood insurance options.

Keep an emergency kit handy and practice evacuation techniques long before a flood occurs. 

Learn alternative roads in your community if one becomes blocked during heavy downpours. In the event of a flood, get to higher ground immediately and never attempt to cross flood water.

Discover more tips about how to prepare in this flood preparedness guide.

4. Wildfires

Nearly 67% of the land area of the Palmetto State is occupied by forests. Wildfire season in the state typically begins in the late winter and lasts until early spring.

In an average year, there are more than 5,000 wildfires in the state which burn approximately 30,000 acres. 

The cause of most of these fires is linked to people, primarily by arson or the careless burning of debris.

The largest fire in the state’s history occurred in Horry County in April 1976. The combination of strong wind and dry fuel facilitated the rapid spread of this fire which ended up burning roughly 30,000 acres of protected land. 

Currently, more than 2.9 million people in South Carolina are living in areas with a high risk of wildfire. It’s crucial to be prepared! 

A few tips include checking the weather before you burn (no burning on days with high winds). When you burn debris, have tools and supplies to extinguish the fire in case it gets out of hand.

Never leave a fire unattended and always extinguish the fire completely by drowning it once you’re finished. 

Create defensible space around your home to prevent possible property damage.

Know your community’s wildfire risk, especially if your home is located near highly forested areas. Have an evacuation plan and memorize evacuation routes in your community. Practice drills with your family members.

For mitigation strategies and safety tips, check out our complete wildfire preparedness guide.

5. Extreme Heat & Drought

South Carolina has an average of 25 dangerous heat days a year. Some sources estimate that as summers become muggier, this number could increase to 90 days by 2050. In any case, over 160,000 people in the state are vulnerable to extreme heat. 

The state’s highest temperature was recorded on June 29, 2012, in Columbia, when the thermometer reached 113 °F. 

Along with the heat, the state faces periods of drought. Droughts cause significant damage to the state economy. 

The longest duration of drought in the Palmetto State lasted 156 weeks. It began on January 4, 2000, and ended on December 24, 2002. Over 1.2 million people are affected by droughts in the state. 

It’s important to learn how to stay safe during heat waves and how to recognize symptoms of heat illness, especially if someone in your household is vulnerable. During hot summer days be sure to stay hydrated. Take advantage of the cooling centers in your city. 

During periods of drought, be water-wise and conserve whenever possible. Check out this guide for more tips and safety information.

6. Tornadoes

South Carolina is vulnerable to tornadoes and averages between 11 to 14 tornadoes annually with an intensity of F1 or higher. One of the most intense years was 2020 with 57 recorded tornadoes. 

While it’s not located in ‘Tornado Alley,’ it is located in a region known as ‘Carolina Alley’. There has never been an F5 tornado but the state has experienced more than a dozen F4s. 

Tornadoes have touched down in every one of the state’s counties but more tornadoes touch down across the Midlands than anywhere else in the state.

These rotating storms can occur any time of the year so long that the weather conditions are right, but they’re likely to occur most between March and May— specifically in April.

It’s important to become prepared well in advance of a tornado since they occur without much warning. You should rehearse and practice safety procedures so you know how to act in the event that a tornado warning is declared. 

Identify a safe place to shelter in, such as a storm cellar, basement, or safe room in your home that has no exterior doors and windows. Learn all the tips on our tornado guide here.

7. Power Outages

It only takes one storm to destroy power lines and cut off the electricity to a community of thousands of people. The average duration of annual power outages in the Palmetto State is 6 hours. 

Hurricane Dorian resulted in one of the worst outages in the state’s history. It left more than 270,000 residents in the dark. 

Many of us rely heavily on the use of electricity, whether it’s to charge our phones and laptops, to watch TV, to keep our fridges cold and freezers frozen, or all of the above. Going a few hours or more without TV is generally not an issue, but when it comes to our appliances and other electronic devices, it might be important to keep those charged. 

To best prepare for a power outage, you should consider ways to keep those things charged, such as with a small generator.

Another thing to consider is your plumbing system since it will stop working properly, as well as how you plan to cook food without an electric stove that won’t work either. 

In this article, we offer solutions to all of these problems, as well as highlight important safety tips to consider during outages.

8. Landslides

Landslides can occur in areas where there are slopes, steep hillsides, and mountains. They’re generally triggered by periods of heavy or consistent precipitation when the soil becomes saturated or as a result of erosion. Areas with burn scars are at risk of debris flows several years after a wildfire has affected the region. 

The Northwestern region of South Carolina has a moderate/ high susceptibility to landslides due to the mountainous terrain, specifically near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Coastal areas have a moderate susceptibility to rockfalls near the cliffs.  

One of the first steps in preparing for the possibility of a landslide is by assessing your risk. Look at local maps and learn alternative routes in case a landslide blocks one of the roads you take frequently and there’s a need to evacuate.

The landslide risk in your property can be mitigated by reinforcing slopes and hilly regions surrounding your home. This guide offers tips on landslide mitigation and safety.

9. Winter Storms 

Snow is rare in some parts of the state so it means panic for those who are not used to it. The southern coastal region of South Carolina receives little to no snow accumulation whereas the

Upstate experiences winter weather with 2 to 3 snowfall events each year. The Midlands is the most unpredictable region because some years it won’t snow at all and others it might snow anywhere between 1 to 5 inches. 

The Blue Ridge Escarpment area is considered the snowiest place in the Palmetto State. It generally receives 12 inches of snow each year. 

If you live in an area where snow occurs annually, be sure to check your car around the fall season.

Keep winter supplies in your car emergency kit in the event of dangerous situations that may leave you stranded. Make sure to keep your car’s gasoline tank at least half full at all times. 

Keep enough food, water, basic emergency supplies, and first aid kits at home if you have to shelter in place for a couple of days. Consider the possibility of downed power lines and possible long-term outages. Learn more about preparing for a winter storm here.

10. Earthquakes

South Carolina is located far from any plate boundary but is still vulnerable to earthquake activity. The state records 10 to 20 quakes each year with only 3 to 5 of them strong enough to be felt by people. 

The cause of the earthquakes is linked to fault ruptures within the rocks causing the plates to be very weak, as well as regions near dams where there is significant water pressure.

The majority of the earthquakes in the Palmetto State have a magnitude between 2.0 and 3.5. Nearly 70% of these shakers occur in the Coastal Plain. The good news is you don't need to worry about major earthquakes! 

The worst shaker to affect South Carolina was the 1886 Charleston earthquake. The estimated magnitude was between 6.9 to 7.3. It caused over $5 million (1886 USD) in structural damage, including the destruction of over 2,000 buildings, and the death of 60 people. 

While no major damages or injuries have been reported from recent quakes, some sources suggest that a major earthquake in the Eastern US could cause significant destruction.

To prepare for an earthquake, be sure to secure furniture and loose items in your home. For instance, TVs and other electronics should be attached to the wall, valuables should not be stored on high shelves, etc. 

Earthquakes are unpredictable so be sure to practice safety procedures with the members of your household. Learn how to protect yourself and your home here.

11. Tsunamis

The tsunami threat for South Carolina is relatively low. Any tsunamis would likely be small and mostly just inundate the beaches.

Natural disaster resources for South Carolina

South Carolina is located in an area that is highly vulnerable to natural hazards.

The following information will help you become prepared to overcome them.

  • The National Weather Service app is amazing because it syncs to your location and sends you real-time notifications anytime hazardous weather is forecasted or occurring.

    Be sure to download the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA Weather Radio and turn all notifications on.

    Another place to get the latest information on developing weather patterns is through your local radio or tv and their social media sites.

  • There’s no question that disasters are destructive, but they are all so different! Oftentimes we overlook the importance of preparing for each disaster type versus preparing for disasters as a whole. Tailoring your family emergency plan to match the unique characteristics of each disaster will make your plan much more effective.

    We’ve done the research for you and have made 14 disaster-specific guides. In each guide, we discuss ways to mitigate possible damage to your home and property, how to stay safe before, during, and after the disaster, and a lot more. Find all of our disaster guides here. Read to the end to download the free checklists!

  • Learning about emergency preparedness alone can be challenging when you don’t have accountability. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) can become the bridge between you preparing on your own and you preparing alongside your community.

    This organization provides free classes taught by local officials and disaster simulations throughout the United States. You can find more information about your local CERT here.

  • A community affected by a disaster cannot thrive on its own. South Carolina’s Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is an organization that helps communities affected by disasters to get the supplies they need to cover their basic and immediate needs.

    VOAD relies on other businesses, city officials, and local organizations as well. If you can help in post-disaster relief, consider getting in touch with South Carolina VOAD.

    Another organization worth looking into is the American Red Cross. They provide emergency shelter, food, and supplies to disaster survivors. 

  • Your state offers disaster-specific assistance for all phases of disasters, such as the preparedness and recovery aspects. Be sure to check out the South Carolina Emergency Management Division website for more information.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the disasters that affect South Carolina. 

We created an in-depth resource to help you put your family disaster plans into action.

Our guides, templates, and checklists will allow you to customize your emergency plans according to your specific needs. Click here to get started!

Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here! 

Be sure to share this article with someone who you think may enjoy it too!