This fall marks the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, the last big storm to savage the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Having worked for several years in Charleston, I went back to see what that “lunatic wind” (James Dickey’s later book title) had done to a city that I loved. This recycled newspaper column is by way of remembrance.
Starting conversations with veterans of Hurricane Hugo wasn’t a problem last week.
People were more than willing to talk, and there was no shortage of stories. Friday morning, in fact, Charlestonians began lining up at 6 a.m. outside the King Street Palace — normally used for pro wrestling — to tell their stories to Oprah Winfrey.
Alas, only a small percentage could get Oprah’s ear, much less her autograph.
But there were other ears, two of them, belonging to a visitor from an obscure Virginia newspaper, and not once did I find someone unwilling to talk.
A woman from shell-shocked Folly Beach even gave me the addressses of her rental properties and urged me to visit them so I could see the damage.
“Just go right in,” she said. “Look around. And don’t worry about the golden retriever at the one place — he’s really a pussycat.”
Starting conversations was easy. Finishing them was hard, because the traditional ending phrases were unavailable. I couldn’t exit with “Good luck” or “Take it easy” or “It was nice talking to you.” There was really nothing for me to say.
Or to write, at this point — not in the sense of hard copy for the 6 o’clock news or USA Today. Or to photograph, because this is one case in which pictures and newsreel footage are ineffective.
After all, we’ve become numb to collapsed houses or washed-out bridges or overturned cars. There’s a disaster somewhere in the world every day, most with far higher body counts than the 20-some killed by Hugo.
What blew me away (so to speak) was the sheer magnitude of the destruction. Hugo gave South Carolina a stinging backhand slap across the coast, and the bruises stretched for 60 miles north and south and 150 miles inland, a collage of broken trees and overturned trailers and imploded roofs.
I would have expected a wall of wind to create uniform damage, but Hugo was a roll of the dice. Flimsy wooden houses stood next to brick ones that had buckled. A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant was gone, but the neon bucket bearing Colonel Sanders’ smirking face remained.
There was post-Hugo adrenalin for awhile, no doubt, a giddiness born of danger and relief and the attention of every TV anchorperson in the country. Within days, though, that rush of emotion had bled out, replaced by a crushing weariness. With no homes to take shelter in and no workplaces to go to, people wandered the bleak cityscape of North Charleston and the highway shoulders of Berkeley County like refugees from a nuclear war.
Suddenly, all the radio commercials were Hugo-related. Let us rebuild your home. Car ruined? We can help. No payments until 1990. Bring your insurance checks.
I encountered a gaggle of car salesman sitting inside a dealership in downtown Charleston, drinking coffee. There were no windows in the formerly glassed-in building, and the 130-mile-per-hour blast of the hurricane had pelted the cars in the outside lot with shingles from a neighboring roof.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the salesmen.
“Oh, no,” it’s fine,” one of them replied. “All of this is insured. And when people start getting paid from their own insurance companies, all of them are going to need new cars. We’re ready.”
Others weren’t so lucky.
“My favorite T-shirt,” said Sabrina Kallberg of the local Red Cross, which lost the roof of its building, “was one that said, ‘I survived Hugo, but the aftermath is killing me.'”
So true. At first, hurricanes are terrifying and monstrous. Then, they’re a pain in the neck. If you’ve ever been without power for a few days, imagine having your lights punched out for three weeks. Your drinking water fouled. Your furniture coated with mud.
Half the stoplights in Charleston weren’t working last week, creating some interesting traffic patterns Somehow, drivers adapted. As many as 20,000 homes remained without power. People shared.
“I heard about one woman who let 50 people take showers in her house one day,” said Rick Davis, director of the McClellanville Red Cross shelter.
My daughter Cindee went down with me, because she had been born in a duplex on James Island and wanted to see if the house was still there. It was, although both oak trees in the front yard were down. If there’s one thing South Carolina won’t be short of this winter, it’s firewood.
Nevertheless, Cindee came away impressed. A storm-toppled tree sprawled with its roots up is one thing. Trees sheared in half as if by a giant weedwhacker — as were evident all the way up the King’s Highway between Charleston and Georgetown — are quite another.
“This doesn’t happen very often, doesn’t it?” she said.
Nope. And steel girders aren’t twisted by the wind very often, or automobiles tossed into the back of pickup trucks, or mobile homes deposited onto the median of interstate highways.
So we drove around two days and looked, and listened, and then we drove back to a house with lights and water and a roof in a city that was very fortunate not to have met Hugo firsthand.
“It was supposed to hit Lynchburg, actually,” I said to the woman from folly Beach.
“Count your blessings,” she told me. “You have no idea.”
Afterthought: On a pile of broken brick and mortar across the street from the News & Courier, where I used to work, someone had spray-painted this defiant message: “We Demand a Rematch.”
So far, thank God, that hasn’t come about.