MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCBD) – An anchor at the time, TV 2’s Dan Ashley was one of the many voices who helped guide the Lowcountry through one of the worst natural disasters the state had ever seen.
Hurricane Hugo was a powerful Category 4 storm when it slammed into the South Carolina coast, making landfall near the Isle of Palms the night of September 21st, 1989.
Hugo’s catastrophic 140mph winds lashed the area, creating destruction unlike many had ever seen. Thousands of trees were snapped and uprooted; homes and businesses were badly damaged or destroyed; power was out for weeks and people were left in shock.
“I’ll never forget in the days leading up to the hurricane – when we knew and understood that this powerful storm was coming directly at Charleston – that we had very little time to prepare as a news organization; we were all young and eager to do a good job and it was a scary time,” he recalled. “We understood the responsibility to urge people to evacuate in the days and hours before the storm hit, to stock up on supplies, make emergency plans and we really focused on that effort.”
As the winds began to pick up that Thursday morning, he remembered reporting near the Ben Sawyer Bridge. An area that would later become an iconic image in the aftermath of Hugo – the bridge had become tilted in the storm’s strong winds.
WCBD’s staff would later evacuate the studios in Mount Pleasant as the storm neared Charleston. Management was concerned the building would be badly damaged or even destroyed during the hurricane and would prevent the team from being on the air.
Dan Ashley went to the transmitter site in Awendaw just north of Mount Pleasant.
“It was a smart place to be in terms of our ability to stay on the air as long as possible, but a frightening place to be,” said Ashley. “If you can imagine, 140mph winds just raking across that 2,000-ft transmitter tower right above our heads. To be honest, we thought we were going to get killed that night, we didn’t think we would survive. We thought that tower would come down right on top of our heads.”
As it turned out, a tower belonging to another station about a half-mile away did collapse – thankfully they did not have anyone at the site.
“It was dangerous, we knew it was dangerous,” he said. “But we tried to stay calm and collected as best we could and give people updated information.”
Being at that facility, though, allowed the station to remain on the air as the storm approached. In fact, Ashley was the only broadcaster left on the air as the eye of Hugo began to move across the area just before midnight, and the first back on the air the very next day.
“What followed in the days and weeks ahead was heart wrenching to see the extent and scope of the damage across such a wide area,” he remembered.
Hugo left a path of destruction through the barrier islands, across Charleston and North Charleston, up to Summerville and into McClellanville. The storm caused $7 billion in damage in the United States and nearly 80,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
“All of these communities were just utterly devastated,” he said.
Ashley and the TV 2 team went to work, reaching out to these communities and figuring out where the damage was.
“I’ll never forget, five or six days after – a week after the hurricane, nobody had power and I remember coming over the Cooper River Bridge back into Mount Pleasant to go to the TV station and for the first time when we cleared the top of the bridge at night, all of a sudden I saw sparkling lights – the power had come back on!”
The next several weeks was focused on recovery efforts. “It was the beginning of understanding what it was going to take to get back on our feet,” he said.
“One of the big frustrations, of course, was so many people were not allowed back into their homes – particularly in places like Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, and they became very frustrated and angry.”
There was also a lot of frustration with FEMA’s response. “Sen. Fritz Hollings thundered away in Congress complaining about the job FEMA was doing with respect to Charleston and some changes, I think, were made as a result of how that response was handled.
Interestingly, Dan Ashley said he ended up at his current station, KGO-TV in San Francisco, because of Hurricane Hugo.
“I loved living in Charleston. It’s still one of my very favorite cities on the planet, we had such a great time there and great experience. But when the hurricane happened, San Francisco sent American Red Cross and relief supplies to Charleston to help out. Three weeks later, the earthquake hit San Francisco and Charleston reciprocated and I followed that story out here.”
It was his first time in San Francisco and he worked out of KGO during coverage of that natural disaster.
“I remember thinking even though it was a strange time to be here, and of course a devastating time for the community, this was a place that I might like to work,” he said.
“It was a strange month for me. A hurricane on one coast, an earthquake on the other.”
Hugo has made a lasting impression on Ashley. “That was a transformative moment for my career as well. Covering something so intense, it was clear to me back then that I was growing rapidly both professionally and personally because of the experiences and intensity of the kind of reporting experiences that we were getting during that time.”
Even today inside his office at KGO-TV hangs a framed image of the TV 2 Action News team outside a trailer that was brought in after the studio was damaged during Hugo, and on another wall is a framed satellite image of Hurricane Hugo as the eye made landfall in Charleston County.
With the 30th anniversary of Hugo this month, Ashley said, “I’ll be thinking of everyone in Charleston and how proud I was and am of how the community stepped up and responded with grit and determination to survive that terrible disaster and rebuild even greater than before.”