CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Who knew? What started out as a wave off the coast of Africa would later be remembered as one of South Carolina’s worst natural disasters and leave a lasting impression for many years to come.
The storm formed near the Cape Verde Islands on September 9, 1989. Strengthening over time, Hugo would be upgraded to a strong Category 5 hurricane as it trekked across the Atlantic, but wavered in intensity as it moved near Guadeloupe, St. Croix and Puerto Rico.
Still powerful in nature, the storm caused widespread damage and claimed several lives as it passed through the islands before later setting its eye on the Lowcountry.
The storm was heading this way. Leaders knew they had to evacuate the coast in order to save lives. Powerful voices boomed from the Charleston County Emergency Preparedness Center – it was time to move.
South Carolina’s governor Carroll Campbell declared a State of Emergency as the storm approached and emergency officials knew they had to do whatever it took to make citizens heed their warnings. This storm was serious and dangerous.
For many, that chilling message from then-councilwoman Linda Lombard still rings clear in their minds today. “It is imperative that all residents of Charleston County, especially those living in beach areas, low-lying areas, barrier islands, property adjacent to tidal creeks and all mobile home residents in the county- leave as soon as possible.”
“I just explained to everyone on television what was going on, that he was coming- those were my last words, ‘get out of town as soon as you can,’” she recalled.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley knew people had to leave or many lives would be lost. They were hanging onto his every word as he spoke to the citizens of Charleston.
“I had to thread the needle between fear and panic and convince the citizens that they needed to get out,” he said. “People are not going to leave because ‘I’m Mayor Riley and its important to evacuate.’ You’ve got the thread the needle between fear and panic and you’ve got to get them out – because if you don’t get them out they are going to die and it is your fault. I knew my job was to save lives and get people motivated and afraid of hanging around.”
Not only did they instill fear in those thinking of staying behind, authorities also went door-to-door to get people out. “Or they would have been killed,” he said.
As the storm approached, the crew at WCBD TV 2 also evacuated the station in Mount Pleasant. Crews were scattered around the area. Meteorologist Rob Fowler went to the National Weather Service in North Charleston and anchor Dan Ashley went to the station’s transmitter site in Awendaw.
“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.”
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 on September 21st, 1989, and the first back on the air the very next day.
It was a frightening experience for those who stayed behind. Hugo’s winds howled as they created catastrophic damage across the area. Trees were snapped like twigs, doors and windows pulsated in homes, the rain blew in sideways and the flood waters began to rise and storm surge moved in.
The Category 4 storm made landfall just north of Charleston in the dark of night with 140mph sustained winds – 160mph gusts.
Daylight would be the real bearer of bad news. People emerged from their homes to witness utter devastation. Homes and cars were destroyed by debris or felled trees – lives were turned upside down and heartbreak began to set in.
The city we all loved, the neighborhoods we lived in, the communities we visited, the islands and beaches we treasured were now destroyed.
The sound of Hugo’s howling winds would be exchanged for the chewing grind of chainsaws that next day – a sound that would continue for days, even weeks later – along with the sound of helicopters hovering above communities, surveying the damage.
Power was gone. Water access was gone. Authorities did what they could to keep looters at bay. Island residents were prohibited from returning home for some time because of the dire situation – homes were in piles if not completely gone and tensions ran high.
Elsewhere, people relied on what supplies they were able to gather ahead of the storm or waited in extremely long lines for essentials. A hot cup of coffee was worth its weight in gold. Ice, water and diapers were a hot commodity. Neighbors met with neighbors to share food, laughs, and lend a helping hand or shoulder to cry on.
Hurricane Hugo caused $7 billion in damage in the United States and Puerto Rico. At the time it was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
Nearly 80,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. While many deaths were reported, only one was in the City of Charleston due to a home collapsing.
The road to recovery was long and exhausting. Still, through the devastation, pain and grief, the sense of community is what kept the people of Charleston and surrounding areas going. An unbreakable bond – a new family – everyone had experienced the storm in one way or another. The new story was of resilience.
Truck-loads of supplies and volunteers began to pour into the Lowcountry from across the country. Charleston became a shining example and proved to the world we would be not be beaten – our story was not over.
It’s hard to believe it has been 30 years since Hurricane Hugo ravaged the area. The memories are as strong today as they were in 1989 and any true local will tell you their story of surviving that powerful storm.
Hugo’s mark can still be seen in scars on the Lowcountry landscape, identified in markers revealing high flood levels, shared through the telling of time; before Hugo and after Hugo, and in the memories of those who experienced its gut-wrenching power.