Memories of Hurricane Hugo still fresh after 20 years

The Associated PressSeptember 20, 2009 

— Twenty years after Hurricane Hugo pounded the South Carolina coast with 135-mph winds, driving inland and then sweeping into North Carolina, memories from the storm are still vivid:

At Lincoln High School in McClellanville, residents seeking shelter in the school gym climbed onto the stage, holding children above their heads to save them from the storm surge.

Near the Isle of Palms, boats were tossed into a pile like toys, and only concrete pilings were left where oceanfront homes once stood.

In Charlotte, 170 miles inland, trees snapped and power lines fell, leaving the area in the dark for days.

The day after Hugo, which smashed ashore 20 years ago Monday, residents awoke to the surreal scene of helicopters flying overhead and National Guardsmen patrolling Charleston's historic district with its smashed store windows and tangle of downed utility lines.

The nation has witnessed other storms since: devastating flooding from Hurricane Floyd a decade ago in North Carolina's worst natural disaster, residents trapped on rooftops in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, widespread destruction last year from Hurricane Ike.

But Hugo remains the storm to which all others are compared in South Carolina. It claimed 13 of its 49 victims in the state, and one in North Carolina, according to the National Weather Service.

The eye crossed Charleston about midnight Sept. 21, 1989, its fiercest winds hammering the sea islands northeast of town and the shrimping community of McClellanville 30 miles up the coast. After blustering through Sumter and Columbia, it was still a Category 1 hurricane, with winds of 85 mph, when it passed just west of Charlotte. When it was over, Hugo had caused $6billion in damage.

Officials say better technology, building standards and planning mean South Carolina is in a better position today to deal with such a storm.

"The city is stronger now and more beautiful now than at any time in its history," said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who spent the night Hugo hit in City Hall. Winds ripped off the building's roof.

Riley said evacuation would be easier now than 20 years ago because the state has plans that allow lanes on major highways to be reversed.

John Boettcher, chief of preparedness for the state Emergency Management Division, said weather forecasts and coordination have improved, too.

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