Hugo babies: Taking the world by storm

jholleman@thestate.comSeptember 22, 2009 

Wind howled. Sheets of rain blasted windows. Lights flickered. And babies were born.

For dozens of South Carolinians, this month marks something more momentous than the 20th anniversary of the worst storm to hit the state in the past century. It's a 20th birthday celebration.

"My parents always say I've taken the world by storm ever since," said West Columbia's Melody Michalski, who turned 20 Sunday. "They're so corny."

The kids don't understand. They didn't feel the anxiety at the simultaneous arrival of a Category 4 hurricane and labor pains. Their little hearts didn't skip a beat when the power went out in the hospitals. They didn't deal with crying babies amid total chaos for days or weeks back at home.

Yet 20 years later, those scary memories have been tempered by 20 years of the even tougher job of child-rearing. Now, most parents look back on those difficult births fondly. "A bright light in the midst of a dark and stormy night" is how Joseph Pellicci describes the birth of his son Joel on Sept. 21, 1989.

Statistically, 179 babies were born in South Carolina on Sept. 21, 1989, as Hugo's winds and rain began to impact the state. According to state records, 146 more were born Sept. 22 as the eye of the storm tore a slightly curved path from Charleston to Charlotte. And 145 more were born Sept. 23, often in hospitals crowded with Hugo victims and operating on generators.

Now in college or out in the work world, many of those babies are probably tired of the stories surrounding their birth. The parents, however, have tales to tell.

JOEL PELLICCI

"Emergency power, jammed hallways, a nervous doctor and a friendly surprise are all indelible memories of our son's birth the night Hurricane Hugo introduced itself to the Palmetto State," wrote Joseph Pellicci when asked about the occasion.

Anita Pellicci went into labor at 6 a.m. Sept. 21 at Lexington Medical Center. Hugo was hundreds of miles off the coast at the time. It seemed Anita would beat Hugo to the punch, but little Joel had other plans.

As the day dragged on for the Pelliccis, the mood in the hospital changed. Patients evacuated from coastal hospitals filled every room, and beds with patients in them were rolled into hallways. The scene "became surreal as more and more patients began filling every crevice of the hospital," Joseph Pellicci said. "Power was eventually lost, and the emergency generators kicked in. I distinctly remember looking out our window and seeing the pine trees in front of the hospital bent over sideways."

At 10:26 p.m., as storm surge began to fill Charleston streets, Joel Anthony Robert Pellicci "made landfall," his dad said.

He slept peacefully through the worst night in many South Carolinians' memories.

CHRISTINA PEAY

By coincidence, the Pelliccis ran into friends Van and Pam Peay at the hospital. Pam arrived about 8 p.m. Sept. 21 and gave birth to Christina at 9:26 p.m. While Joel Pellicci took his time in the room next door, Christina Peay was almost too fast.

"The doctors told me if the hurricane came our way, chances were the change in barometric pressure would cause me to go into labor," Pam Peay recalled in a message written recently to her daughter. "I just had so much to do before you arrive!"

The Peays' 11-month-old son had been diagnosed with a bilateral Wilms tumor two months earlier and had spent 47 days in hospitals. Nurses at Richland Memorial Hospital gave Pam Peay a baby shower in a hospital room.

As Hugo approached Sept. 21, Pam hustled to the grocery store for last-minute provisions.

"The checkout lines were to the end of the aisles, and that is where we began our wait," she said. "However, occasionally I would have a pain, ... and one by one, shoppers let me head to the front of the lines. We were in and out in record time."

That night, Christina was nearly as fast. She later spent her first night outside the hospital sleeping in a dresser drawer at her grandmother's house because her parents' house had no power.

Christina and Joel grew up to become good friends. Christina is a sophomore at USC, while Joel attends The Citadel.

CODY EUGENE LEVER

Christina and Joel arrived slightly before the height of the storm. Cody Eugene Lever arrived just after the worst of the wind and rain in the Midlands. But he was born at Newberry County Memorial Hospital, far enough west of the storm's center to avoid the brunt of the damage.

That doesn't mean Cody's birth was simple. He came five weeks early. Fortunately, Linda Lever's mother worked in the labor and delivery unit at the hospital.

"I had special treatment," Linda said. "I had a private nurse that came to my mother's house early that morning (after her water broke) with the monitors, and our doctor made house calls all during the day and night."

She finally headed to the hospital around midnight. The labor pains grew stronger around 3 a.m., when Hugo's eye was about 60 miles to the east. Cody arrived at 5:40 a.m. The doctor asked if they wanted to name the boy Hugo, which elicited laughs.

In an odd note, however, the Levers later moved to Jalapa, where a neighbor had a donkey also born Sept. 22, 1989. The donkey's name is Hugo.

RANDALL ADAIR

The passage of time tends to dim the memory of the horrors of Hugo, but there were serious problems those days.

Debbie Adair went into labor three months early during the depth of the storm's low pressure. Adair, who lived in rural Lexington County, just a few days before the storm had been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, a disorder that causes high blood pressure for the mother and baby during pregnancy

She was scheduled to visit her doctor Sept. 21 for a checkup. The doctor's office canceled the appointment because of the impending storm, Adair said.

That night, she started having severe pains in her chest and was rushed to Lexington County Hospital by ambulance. With her doctor delayed by Hugo-related problems at home, Adair was taken to Richland Memorial in another ambulance.

Worried about the health of mother and baby, doctors decided to perform a C-section. Randall was born at 8:05 a.m. Sept. 22, weighing just 2 pounds, 7 ounces.

Debbie was in intensive care for a month. Randall finally went home after Thanksgiving.

The little guy seemed to be developing normally for the first two years, though he didn't sleep much. Debbie told school officials he wasn't ready for kindergarten at age 5, and after two weeks, they agreed with her. Test showed he had mild seizures, attention deficit disorder and eating disorders. Later, he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a version of autism.

Doctors believe many of the problems are related to lack of brain stem development because of Randall's premature birth, Debbie said.

But she and her husband, Render Adair, did everything they could to raise Randall like any other child. He was mainstreamed in school and, with the help of tutors, graduated from Airport High School in 2007.

Randall is into Yu-Gi-Oh cards, loves to listen to music and plays on the computer all day if allowed. He has begun training through a special program his parents hope will enable him eventually to get a job and live on his own.

"He's my miracle child," Debbie said.

CHRISTOPHER OWENS

Sheri Owens beat the rush, giving birth to Christopher on Sept. 18, 1989. Mom and son arrived back home in Florence Sept. 20, as residents were preparing for the worst from the storm.

Like so many in the state, the Owens' house lost power Sept. 21. A day later, power returned to some of their neighbors' houses but not theirs. So they ran 1,000 yards worth of drop cords from house to house to provide minimal power for the entire neighborhood.

"We were able to power the TV, microwave and one lamp," Sheri said. "We used the microwave to sterilize bottles and to heat up formula. We prepared menus on a gas grill. Our relatives and neighbors who had power and water let us take baths and wash clothes at their house."

The Owens finally got power on Oct. 7.

"I joke about not suffering from postpartum depression because I didn't have time," Sherri said.

MELODY MICHALSKI

Melody Michalski arrived more than 24 hours before Hugo, but as was standard procedure then, she and her mother were still at the hospital as the storm swept through the Midlands.

Linda Michalski remembers when the hospital lost power briefly as generators kicked in. Bob Michalski remembers his wife breathing hard inside the hospital during birth while the winds began to pick up outside.

But the more lasting memory for them was the storm's aftermath. They had no power in their house and had to spend the first few days at Linda's mother's house. Because Melody was jaundiced, she had to stay in a clear box with a light in it and be turned every few hours.

The difficult circumstances robbed the Michalskis of the typical post-birth euphoria.

"When Melody's older sister was born, people were coming by for days, bringing gifts and cards," Linda said. "With everyone being displaced (after Hugo), it was a totally different story."

Melody didn't get much attention then, but she's been stealing the show ever since, according to her parents. Her dad is a saxophonist, her mother a music teacher. Melody has been performing her own songs for them and anyone else who would listen for years.

Melody plans to take her act to Hollywood next year, where she hopes she can do exactly what her hokey parents have been saying for years and take the music world by storm.

Reach Holleman at (803) 771-8366.

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