It was a last-minute decision, made as Hurricane Hugo churned off the South Carolina coast, poised to come ashore.
Twenty-five years ago today, on Sept. 21, 1989, Elizabeth Young had been at home in McClellanville, watching the evening news, when a reporter urged — one final time — local residents to head to a public shelter, especially if they lived in a one-story home.
Hearing the plea once again, Young changed her mind about staying put in the face of a powerful hurricane. Grabbing her pregnant daughter and two young grandsons, she headed off to nearby Lincoln High School, joining a few hundred other local residents preparing to wait out the Category 4 storm.
Hurricane Hugo already had torn through the Caribbean, causing two dozen deaths. Now, having traveled northeast across the Gulf Stream, it was ready to make landfall again, just north of Charleston.
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Though it had weakened since leaving the Caribbean, Hugo – the first major hurricane to strike South Carolina in 30 years – still had sustained winds of 135 mph. As the eye of the storm passed over Sullivan’s Island on the north side of Charleston Harbor just shy of midnight, Hugo’s fiercest winds assaulted McClellanville, a small fishing village of 400 residents another 40 miles north.
Many of those seeking shelter at Lincoln High took refuge in the school’s large cafeteria, where there was also a stage.
Young, who worked as a secretary at the school, camped out with her family in the home economics classroom, enjoying biscuits and coffee prepared by a friend. Anticipating a long night, Young had brought along a bag of books, and arts and crafts supplies to help pass the time.
Some time before midnight, the power went out at the school, leaving the shelter in darkness. A half hour or so later, Young reached down to the floor to retrieve something from her bag. To her surprise, her fingers touched water. The school, Young and the others realized, had started to flood.
The water rose quickly.
Within minutes it was above ankles, then knees, then waists, with no sign of stopping.
In the cafeteria, some nervous residents stood atop tables to escape the rising water. Others took to the elevated stage.
In the home economics room, a man in a wheelchair was hoisted onto a table, too. Young placed her two grandsons even higher, atop a refrigerator, hoping they would be safe. No one could be sure, however, since the water kept rising in the darkness.
What’s more, there was no obvious escape from the building. The floodwater seeping into the building sealed shut every door. It was a scene from a horror movie: Hundreds of people trapped in dark rooms that kept filling and filling with water.
About this time Young regretted leaving her home to seek shelter at the school. So did the other McClellanville residents trapped at Lincoln High. As one friend in the home economics room said as the water continued to rise, “Miss Young, we came over here to drown.”
‘We were totally trapped’
A mile away in the center of town, the storm surge had taken others by surprise as well.
Rutledge Leland, McClellanville's mayor since 1976, had decided to brave the storm by hunkering down at home with his wife and two children.
Close to midnight, he said, Hugo’s winds had died down, only to be replaced by the sound of his dogs scratching on the exterior door. Leland had tied them up outside, under a carport, and was curious why they seemed agitated when it was so calm. Opening the door, Leland was astonished to see his pooches in water up to their necks.
He let the dogs inside and, noticing the water continue to rise and seep into the house, soon moved with his family to the second floor.
His wife stood sentinel at the top of the stairs, watching the water rise step by step by step. Within what seemed like 15 minutes, says Leland, the floodwater was 6 feet deep on the first floor.
In homes across McClellanville, nervous residents were climbing to higher ground.
For some, that meant jumping on furniture. For others, it meant climbing into attics, or upon roofs, especially when the furniture they had been perched upon started bobbing around their water-filled homes.
All watched the floodwater with alarm, praying it would stop rising, if not recede altogether.
Back at Lincoln High, people went into a full-blown panic as the water continued to rise.
Some people sloshed through the halls, desperate to find an exit not sealed by water, the only light provided by flashlights and hallway emergency lights that remained illuminated. They could find no way out, and failed to break through Plexiglas windows when they banged them with a fire extinguisher.
Inside the cafeteria, people cried and prayed as they crowded onto tables and the stage, lifting children high to keep their heads above the water, now 6 feet high.
Some tired of being overcrowded and elected to swim around in the water, clinging to buoyant belongings.
Emergency personnel stationed at the shelter were alarmed by the danger posed by the floodwater.
As paramedic George Metts wrote later: “The enormity of our situation was staggering. We were totally trapped. The tidal surge had risen so rapidly that we had no time to call for help. My walkie-talkie had gotten wet earlier and now it had fallen into the inky darkness. We were on our own. The water was still rising and those that could were packed like sardines on the stage.”
A few men managed to climb out a window and climb to the school’s roof. They had escaped the floodwater but were now buffeted by ferocious winds and flying debris, including terracotta shingles being ripped from the school’s roof. Nonetheless, the men were glad to be outside the school. They feared that they might be the only survivors, that everyone below was doomed.
Fortunately, the water stopped rising.
Perhaps two or three hours after the floodwater penetrated Lincoln High School, it began to seep out, the storm having moved inland, toward Columbia and Sumter.
Daylight soon came, and people exited the building to inspect Hugo’s toll.
Having narrowly survived drowning within the school, they were in for another shock – McClellanville was in shambles.
‘Your world turned upside down in six hours’
At daylight, Mayor Leland began surveying the damage.
The first floor of his home was caked in inches of mud, his belongings waterlogged.
Outside, a 90-foot steel barge had obliterated his dock after coming loose in the storm. Boats of all sizes had come ashore, crashing into buildings and trees throughout town before the water receded, leaving the boats high and semi-dry.
Hurricane Hugo had moved homes off their foundations, and torn walls off others. Cars had floated every which way, too, some deposited on top of each other.
Perhaps most eerily, residents encountered coffins in the street and throughout town. The hurricane and tidal surge had washed the coffins out of their graves in a nearby cemetery.
Trees, formerly flush with a summer’s worth of new growth, had been stripped bare of leaves by Hugo’s winds. Limbs and trunks had snapped and been scattered. The damage was overwhelming.
“You just cannot imagine what it’s like to have your world turned upside down in six hours,” says Leland, who today, at 70, is still McClellanville's mayor. “Everything you’ve done in life is just on restart.”
Leland tallied the destruction in basic terms.
His house was ruined.
His seafood business, located just down the street, was ruined.
McClellanville, it seemed, was ruined.
But he and his family, at least, were alive.
Every McClellanville resident, in fact, had survived the storm.
But that information would not be known for some time, as residents emerged from their homes without telephone service or transportation, all their cars having been stuck underwater and most of the roads made impassable.
The absence of information was agonizing.
Sheila Powell, now the director of the South Santee Senior and Community Center in McClellanville, was living in Las Vegas when Hurricane Hugo roared through her hometown. She watched news reports of the storm damage from out West and was frustrated when she could not reach any family members to check on their safety. Two months later, at Thanksgiving, she made her first visit back home since the storm.
Powell was stunned.
“That was something I don’t care to ever see again,” says Powell, now 54. “It definitely tore up the entire town.”
‘Every time something starts twirling’
McClellanville was not alone in its suffering.
Downtown Charleston and the surrounding metropolitan area and islands also severely were damaged. Hugo wreaked havoc, too, as it spun up into the Midlands and through Charlotte and beyond.
Within South Carolina, at least 26 people were killed by the storm. More than 26,000 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged, and 1.4 million people were left without power. Hugo caused an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion in damage in the Palmetto State.
But tiny McClellanville was perhaps hit the hardest.
Cosmetically, it bounced back rather quickly, looking familiar again within a few years. Debris was removed. Trees sprouted new leaves. Houses were repaired and cleaned.
Other damage, however, was not so easily sorted out.
Many residents suffered economically through lost income and damages not covered by insurance. In a town clobbered by a 16-foot storm surge, few people had flood insurance.
Then, there was the loss of all the things that could not be replaced, including family Bibles and photographs. And the inconvenience of fixing leaky roofs, enduring the stench of rotting sea animals, and having students sent to temporary schools.
Some residents became annoyed with the delivery of government help following the storm, judging it too slow to come or insufficient. Yet South Carolina’s recovery from Hugo lacked the finger-pointing and dysfunction found years later in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans.
People in McClellanville do not complain much about Hugo these days. Instead, they remember the generosity of the many strangers who donated needed supplies to residents or volunteered for cleanup and rebuilding efforts.
“One thing I’ll always remember is the kindness of people around the country,” says Young, the former secretary at Lincoln High School, now 77.
Since Hugo, there have been significant improvements in weather forecasting, building codes and communication technology, including cellphones and personal computers. Together, they suggest coastal residents would be better prepared for another major hurricane.
Local leaders say, too, that, many improvements have been made to emergency planning in coastal South Carolina.
Most notably, evacuation routes have been made more efficient, and there is a greater sense of cooperation between local agencies and governments, especially in coordinating storm preparation plans and responses.
In Charleston County today, most storm shelters are concentrated inland at schools in North Charleston. Should a big storm strike again, that’s where McClellanville’s residents would seek refuge.
Never again would residents be sent to a flood-prone area.
It turned out that a mistake had been made when Lincoln High was designated a storm shelter. The school, just a quarter-mile from the Intracoastal Waterway, was wrongly thought to stand at a much higher elevation.
These days, it is clean and dry, bearing no sign of the calamity and near-tragedy that occurred 25 years ago — with one exception.
Right outside the cafeteria is a plaque, mounted slightly above eye level, marking the high-water line of the storm surge.
The plaque is one of the few visible testaments to Hurricane Hugo.
Since that ferocious night the storm came through, McClellanville has reverted to the sleepy, small-town existence its residents cherish. Hugo has become a somewhat distant memory, its details no longer so sharply recalled or as avidly discussed.
Instead, Hugo has become part of history. But, like the coffins the storm caused to come out of the ground, it has the ability to suddenly resurface. For Leland and many others residents, Hugo has a tendency to pop back into minds “every time something starts twirling in the ocean.”
“'Til we’re all gone,” says the mayor, “it will still be on our minds.”