Until Hurricane Fran roared through the state in September 1996, Hugo was the modern day benchmark for storm damage. We had been hearing about it for days as it grew to Category 5, then crossed over St. Croix and Puerto Rico and made landfall in Charleston as a Category 4 on September 21, 1989. It looked to be headed straight for the Triangle but turned instead toward Charlotte, where many had gone to escape the storm. On the first anniversary, N&O reporter Nash Herndon took a look at how the state had recovered.
By any yardstick, Hugo was among the worst storms ever for the Carolinas. It killed 41 people on the United States mainland, including seven in North Carolina. Eighteen others died in the Caribbean. Damage has been estimated at $9 billion for the United States and Caribbean islands, with $964 million in North Carolina losses.
Hugo slammed into the coast around Charleston, S.C., with 135-mph winds shortly before midnight on Sept. 21, 1989. During the early hours of the next morning, it churned its way inland to Charlotte, where it popped windows from skyscrapers and toppled 4,800 trees along city streets.
Through Carolina forests along the way, its vicious winds destroyed more timber than the Mount St. Helens volcanic explosion and the Yellowstone National Park fire combined, 2.7 million acres for the two states.
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In Charleston County, S.C., there was so much debris that it filled 17 years’ worth of space in area landfills, said Cathy S. Haynes, the county’s deputy director of emergency preparedness. “That was after burning and mulching much of the mountains of debris to make them smaller,” she said.
For the historic waterfront city of Charleston, it was the worst storm in 238 years. Damages for Charleston County alone, which includes Charleston, have been estimated at $2 billion. One person was killed in the city and three others in rural areas of the county.
“We know the tide got a tiny bit higher during a 1752 hurricane,” said Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who spent the night Hugo arrived inside Charleston’s antebellum City Hall, the command post for emergency personnel. “Of course, we don’t know if the winds back then were as bad as Hugo.”
The roof blew off City Hall, but Mr. Riley said officials inside didn’t know at the time because noise from the storm was so loud. They became suspicious when water began trickling down a light fixture above the mayor’s desk.
In Charlotte, the hardest-hit city in North Carolina, it took eight months to clear streets of the downed trees, said Jerry D. Wilson, Charlotte-Mecklenburg emergency planner. For most of the past year, the street-side fire hazard from dry piles of limbs and timber have worried city officials most, he said.
Mr. Wilson recalls driving into downtown Charlotte’s emergency center about 3 a.m. on Sept. 22, a few hours before the brunt of the storm arrived.
“Rain was blowing horizontally, big blue flashes would startle you as transformers blew or power lines snapped from falling trees,” Mr. Wilson said. “It’s really a miracle nobody was killed in Mecklenburg. Every street in town became one wall of debris.
“Charlotte’s pretty much back to normal now, you probably wouldn’t notice the impact of Hugo at all unless you remembered how certain roads or parks used to have beautiful shade trees.” The N&O Sept. 22, 1990
In the aftermath of the storm, N&O writer Sharon Overton told the story of Charlestonian Eleanor Pringle Hart, who remained unruffled as she stood with her 1856 waterfront mansion through the night.
Mrs. Hart, 79, climbed the stairs as several feet of water began seeping into the first floor hallway. She managed to brace her back against the bathroom door, keeping rain and flying glass from showering into the rest of the house. When the eye of the storm passed over, she went to the kitchen and brought back an antique chair, which she wedged against the door. There she sat until the storm was over, protecting her home, and listening as trees fell, glass shattered and roofs ripped off around her.
Later that morning, her daughter called, anxious to hear how bad the storm had been. Mrs. Hart – a 1927 graduate of Ashley Hall, member of the Colonial Dames, a woman who refers to her deceased husband as “the Captain” – reassured her: “Darling,” she said with considerable reserve, “you would have been horribly disappointed.”
It is typically Southern and thus particularly Charlestonian to put the best face on everything. Even during this Late Unpleasantness, which by most accounts was the worst hurricane this city has seen in more than 200 years. The N&O Oct. 7, 1989
Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.