Now we know better

Bob Trowell, Hartsville

July 31, 2009 

In September of 1989 I had just moved to Hartsville, SC from Rock Hill to teach chemistry at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics (SCGSSM). I had announced to my classes that they would have their first test on Friday, Sept. 22.

I had heard that hurricane Hugo was on its way towards us, but was unconcerned, because most of the hurricanes that threatened the South Carolina coast in the past, had bypassed us and either gone out to sea, or struck somewhere north of us. The few hurricanes that came inland were mostly wind and rain by the time they reached this far inland.

Early that Thursday night, Sept. 21, I was actually enjoying watching the wind and listening to the coverage on our local TV station, until it suddenly went off the air about 11:15 p.m. Shortly after that the electricity went off. At that point I was beginning to wonder if Hugo would be stronger than I predicted. A short time later I noticed that the storm windows in my small rental house were pulsing in and out with the increasingly strong wind. I was no longer amused. I realized that we were in for more than a typical storm.

The wind continued to intensify until it became so loud that I was unable to sleep. Looking out of my window about 2 a.m. I was shocked to see the large pine trees around my house being whipped around like sea oats on a windy day at the beach. The trees were bending over so far that I felt certain it was only a matter of time before they would be blown down or snapped off. The trees were large enough that if one struck the small frame house that I was in, I was sure that it would crush the house.

I looked around for a safe place, and settled for my desk. During the worst part of the storm, I crouched under that desk. Fortunately, no trees fell on the house. The winds eventually subsided so that by 4 a.m. I chanced going back to bed to try to get some sleep. I awoke about 6 a.m., and since the power was off, I got up and took a brief, cold shower. I still intended to go to school and give that test.

As I left for the usual 5-minute drive to school, I got about 100 yards from the house before I saw that the main road out of my neighborhood looked like a log jam. I doubted that I could have climbed over it much less driven through, so I turned around and by driving around limbs, trash cans, and other debris, I was able to make it to highway 15, a four lane road that goes through town.

I drove to within a half mile of the school where the road was again blocked by a log jam of trees, so I parked and walked the remainder of the way picking my way over trees, limbs, downed power lines, and other objects that the wind had blown into the streets.

When I finally made it to campus, SCGSSM was located on the Coker College campus at that time, I found Fred Lynn, the academic vice president of the school, keeping guard at the doors of the residence hall. A few students were in the first floor lobby, but were not allowed to go out because of the danger of live wires and falling debris. There would be no chemistry test that day. I did escort a couple of students around campus as they took pictures of the damage for the yearbook. I occasionally look at those pictures to remind me of the devastation that Hugo brought to Hartsville.

Later that morning I packed a few things, and left for Rock Hill where my wife and daughter were living. They were staying there until our Rock Hill house sold and we bought a permanent home in Hartsville. This was in the days before small, affordable cell phones were available, and I my landline was out. I assumed that I would be able to take a hot shower, eat a good home-cooked meal, and relax in air-conditioned comfort.

As I drove the 80 miles to Rock Hill with just a few detours around trees and limbs, I got a good look at the damage. Among the sights that I saw were a family sitting in their yard because a huge, old oak tree had caved in the roof of their house, pine forests in which most of the trees were either blown down or snapped off, house trailers that were smashed or blown apart, and of course there were downed trees and limbs all over.

When I arrived home, I found that my Rock Hill home had not been spared. We had nine trees down and the power was off. We did not get power back on for about a week. So much for the hot shower and hot meals! For the next few days we cooked on our gas grill and heated water in pots for an occasional warm bath. Fortunately, the weather was not too hot, and we found entertainment without television.

My daughter, Ami, had been terrified before as well as during the storm, but her mom kept assuring her that hurricanes were always too weak to do any damage that far inland.

Now we know better.

-- Bob Trowell, Hartsville

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