Journalists felt the panic, resiliency of Hugo victims'

Everything was flexing in the hotel'

September 20, 2009 

In September 1989, South Carolinians were settling into a lazy autumn lull - it was football season, and the biggest news from the coast was the recovery of gold from the bottom of the Atlantic, courtesy of the ship Central America, which went down in an 1857 hurricane.

But by Sept. 19, 1989, all eyes turned to the prospect of another hurricane - Hugo, a Category 4 storm that was heading straight for the S.C. coast.

Readers of The State newspaper on Sept. 20, 1989, were warned: "Hurricane Hugo, potentially the worst storm to affect the Southeast in a decade, is on a track well-worn by other hurricanes that have hit South Carolina, although no one knows yet where it is headed."

JOURNALISTS' ROUNDTABLE

Perry Baker, interactive manager and photographer with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, worked for The State and teamed with Tim Dominick.

Tim Dominick, a photographer with The State, was sent to the Lowcountry as Hugo approached and wound up in Charleston and along the coast.

Sammy Fretwell, now a staff writer at The State, worked as a reporter at The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News.

Dawn Hinshaw, a reporter with The State, primarily reported on the storm from Columbia.

Dawn Kujawa, The State's assistant metro editor, designed front pages for The State and was in Columbia during the storm.

Maxie Roberts, now retired, was a photographer with The State.

Megan Sexton, now a staff writer with The State, was working as an editor with The Sun News at the time of the storm.

Several award-winning writers, editors and photographers who were working for The State and The Sun News gathered last week to remember being on the ground when "the storm of the century," Hurricane Hugo, roared through South Carolina in the early morning hours of Sept. 22, 1989.

These journalists spent months covering the destruction and the rebuilding of South Carolina 20 years ago.

Excerpts from their conversation about being in the eye of the storm.

As Hugo threatened the S.C. coast, newspapers prepared to weather the storm but continue publishing. Production staff from The Sun News and The Charleston Post and Courier took shelter in Columbia on Wednesday, Sept. 20, and Thursday, Sept. 21, 1989, working at The State's Shop Road office.

SEXTON: We sent our whole copy desk here.

KUJAWA: I do remember thinking that Hugo was coming and wondering about how life was going to be different. ... I remember that sense of anticipation and almost dread the night it was supposed to come ashore. It was kind of an eerie and unsettling feeling.

HINSHAW: It really hit home to me - that this was going to be a hurricane and it was going to hit and it was going to be bad - when they settled on the headline and went to press before the hurricane even hit.

That headline in Friday morning's editions of The State: "Hugo thunders ashore"

SEXTON: I spent the night in Conway at the Field and Herald office, which was our weekly paper there, with a whole bunch of people. ... The Weather Channel guys were knocking on the door about midnight for a place to stay; everybody was sleeping on the floor.

That night (Thursday) the power went out. You could just hear things falling, signs breaking, things just falling to the ground.

Dominick and Baker spent several days along the coast - primarily in Charleston, Folly Beach, Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms - before and after the storm. But first, they had to endure Hugo as it made landfall.

DOMINICK: I was sent to Beaufort when we thought it was going to come in. I drove one of the old SUV utility trucks we had here. As I got into Beaufort, it promptly broke down. Perry came (from Charleston) and got me.

The two holed up in a North Charleston hotel and waited for the storm.

DOMINICK: (It was) next to a trailer park. Trailer park on one side, Waffle House on other side. We were hearing things explode.

BAKER: We were hearing transformers popping. Signs were falling.

DOMINICK: We took a mattress and put it up against the window. We could feel the whole hotel shaking. I got up and went into the bathtub, closed the door, trying to get some sleep.

Next thud I hear is Perry jumping off the bed onto the floor after something smashed into the front door.

BAKER: Everything was flexing in the hotel room. I rolled off that bed several times.

The eye of the storm passed over the hotel about 11:30 p.m.

BAKER: It was so dangerous to be outside, trying to do anything.

DOMINICK: With all the lights and transformers out, it was pitch black.

As dawn broke Friday morning, reporters and photographers set out. But with trees down, electricity out and street and directional signs blown away, otherwise everyday tasks, like driving, were more complicated.

DOMINICK: I remember it being the most beautiful day.

FRETWELL: The next morning we drove over to the bridge at (U.S.) 501 to see the damage. The National Guard was preventing anyone from getting back over the Intracoastal Waterway to the oceanfront.

People were pretty upset. Property owners were pretty upset. My estimation was that there were probably 100 reporters ... who were trying to get across the bridge.

By early afternoon Friday, reporters finally were able to cross the 501 bridge and see damage for the first time. Others made it to other coastal towns.

FRETWELL: (Some who had been at the disaster zone earlier said), "You wouldn't believe it, Myrtle Beach is gone." But when we got over there, Myrtle Beach was not gone.

The south end of the beach was just ravaged - sand in the middle of the roads, houses in the middle of the road.

SEXTON: You'd see some houses on Pawleys (Island) that looked fine and then you'd see the ones right next to them just in pieces. Then you'd go inside and the houses were all messed up but their cabinets would have dishes that weren't touched.

Dominick and Baker headed to a boat landing near the Ben Sawyer bridge, linking Mount Pleasant to Sullivan's Island, hoping to find an acquaintance with a shrimp boat to take them across the waterway. Instead, a volunteer firefighter took them across in a jon boat. They think they were the first people to see damage along the Isle of Palms.

BAKER: We walked all the way down the beach, from Isle of Palms to Breach Inlet and shot pictures. You could tell the storm surge had gone through and just taken everything and covered it with sand and debris. Houses were off foundations; cars were turned over; it was just like a dream when you saw it.

When we got to Breach Inlet, we couldn't figure out how we were going to get off the island. We just sat there in the sand.

Then all of a sudden, this pleasure craft comes tooling up the Intracoastal Waterway. We were flagging them down.

This guy pulls up and says, "whatcha all doing?"

It was just a fluke; we could have been stuck there all night.

Dawn Hinshaw was sent to Florence on Friday morning.

HINSHAW: I remember driving up with the windows down and (there was) this strong scent of pine in the air because all the trees the whole way up had been snapped; you could just smell that pine scent.

Reporters' homes on the coast were destroyed or damaged, but many of them couldn't get to their houses because the roads were blocked, and they were working non-stop.

SEXTON: One guy had to get a ladder to get in the second floor of his house because the steps were washed away.

FRETWELL: I lived on the north end of the beach. I just bought a new secondhand TV, and I didn't want to leave it in the house so I lugged this huge TV out in my car.

HINSHAW: How much did you pay for that TV?

FRETWELL: $25 (laughter)

The Sun News reporters returned to the coast to cover the story.

SEXTON: We had power back in a couple of days. We weren't supposed to shower or flush toilets, and we had port-a-johns at the newspaper. We had a features editor who had a ... house in Myrtle Beach with a pool. We were washing our hair in her pool.

Dramatic stories began to trickle out in the first few days after the storm - including one from a shelter set up at Lincoln High School in McClellanville, where evacuees scrambled up bleachers and pushed children into air conditioning ducts to escape rapidly rising waters.

SEXTON: I remember reading a story, editing it, and I just kept asking, "Are you sure, did this really happen?" That was one of the most chilling stories I remember reading.

Reporters out in the field didn't have cell phones or means of transmitting stories and photos easily. So they stood in line to dictate stories at pay phones. Staffers drove down to the coast to pick up film for processing.

SEXTON: They couldn't deliver (the paper) to a lot of places. They delivered to shelters.

FRETWELL: We actually delivered the paper ourselves when we went out to interview people.

MAXIE ROBERTS: I was in the governor's helicopter, and we stopped in the Charleston airport to refuel. ... ETV photographer Alan Sharpe was there, and he said, "We're going back to Columbia now, would you like me to take your film?" So I gave him all the film that I shot that morning, and that's how early stuff from the area got in the paper.

BAKER: We didn't know what was going on; we had no radio, we had a little tiny TV, battery-operated TV.

FRETWELL: Covering that storm, you only knew the little world you were in; you really didn't know the big picture. You only knew where you were and what it looked like at that spot. We didn't really realize it until later.

SEXTON: Everybody was trying to get information from you, too. They were all stuck in a shelter. ... "What have you heard? What about my house?" People were just dying for information.

KUJAWA: It was really cool to think you were the only information source. They were waiting for us. They were waiting for anything that we knew. It was exciting to know that what you were doing was something that people really needed.

FRETWELL: Two days after the storm, I was working so hard down at Myrtle Beach. I finished for the day about 11 o'clock. ... I checked the sports wires, and there was a headline that said, "USC defeats Georgia Tech." I was a huge fan at the time and had completely forgotten there was a football game.

The people they encountered had such stories to tell and were inspiring.

FRETWELL: Every person you ran across would on any other day have been a whole story unto himself. The volume of destruction was so great they were pieces of a larger story. It was just astounding.

BAKER: The people that Tim and I ran into Friday morning and Saturday and Sunday were gracious about their plight. I can remember asking permission to take pictures of people in downtown Charleston and only had one person telling me I couldn't.

I wouldn't even consider asking to take a picture of somebody who didn't want to that day. It was such a private moment, but all these people shared that private moment.

DOMINICK: Yeah, they had a hard time, but they were worried about their neighbor, they wanted to help their neighbor, they wanted to help a stranger. It was (a) real coming together of the whole coast.

ROBERTS: Everybody was just phenomenal, the way everyone was pulling together. It's amazing how disasters like this really bring out the best in people.

For a while, though, the scene left everyone feeling hopeless about rebuilding.

SEXTON: You remember seeing it the next day, and you're thinking, "This is never going to get done. I mean how long is it going to take?"

BAKER: I can remember front-end loaders and bulldozers and trucks going everywhere just trying to move all that debris out so they can get back to doing what they needed to do in the street.

FRETWELL: And that debris was there for months.

Damage in interior counties was considerable and much more profound in poor, rural communities. Many of these people could not afford to replace basic things, including mattresses, which grew moldy after being soaked in the storm.

BAKER: They were still sleeping on them. I remember going with Red Cross volunteers. They didn't even know they had a problem.

National attention to the damage waned when the San Francisco area suffered a massive earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989. It was up to South Carolinians to rebuild.

KUJAWA: It was the resiliency of people here, in reaching out to each other, that helped get us through.

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