Hurricane Hugo

July 31, 2009

Living by Candlelight

“If you haven’t left town by now, it’s too late. All we can do is pray.”

The anxious voice of Mayor Riley surfed over the static on our radio. We were scared. Every year we’d heard the hurricane warnings, we’d bought the tape, candles, batteries, water and canned goods. Nothing happened.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” laughed my husband. “Every year it’s the same warning and every year the storms head for Cape Hatteras. Quit worrying; we’ll be fine.”

The children weren’t so sure. “But everyone else is boarding their windows and most of our friends have left town.”

With a sigh, Ron nailed a piece of plywood over the picture window in the family room. It didn’t quite cover the window but it eased the panic of our family. The wind was picking up. We ate our dinner quickly and gathered our four children, aged 12 to 17 years, to wait out the storm.

The TV flickered and gave up. Our battery -powered radio reported calls from frightened residents. Broadcasters answered questions with surprising calmness. As the wind increased, electrical transformers exploded on power lines. Cascades of green and blue sparks lit the sky before all went black. Wind whistled down our chimney, rattling the glass cover of the fireplace. Pine cones thudded like boulders against the roof, and the entire home shook and groaned as though an angry giant had wrapped his hands around it and tried to shake us loose. There were cracking noises outside too scary to explore. Paralyzed with fear, all six of us held tightly together in the dark, whispering prayers and words of comfort.

“What have I done to my family?” Ron whispered in a trembling voice. Our radio signal disappeared. Hands shook too hard to light candles so we gripped our flashlights until sweat made them slippery. Air conditioning and ceiling fans had been silenced when the power failed, and mid-September humidity crept into our room with intensity.

There was a blessed, eerie silence as the eye of the storm passed. Gingerly we opened the door and peered out into the blackness. Finding no stars, moon or light to illuminate anything, we quickly closed the door. Water could be heard dripping into a bedroom, and our flashlight search revealed a massive pine tree had split the roof. There was just enough time to move furniture before the storm resumed its fury. Sleep came intermittently until the howling wind died. Through it all, Simon, the family cat, slept soundly.

At last, the light of dawn entered an unboarded window. The open door ushered in the sweet smell of pine needles that carpeted every inch of ground. But this landscape was as foreign as a new country. Where tree trunks had stood, enormous roots stretched skyward. Mature azaleas dangled precariously from new heights. Our son, Matt, stared in silence at the decapitated head of a duck in the backyard. Its body was nowhere in sight. Neighbors moved slowly around their properties, speaking in hushed tones as they would at a funeral. We stepped carefully over spaghetti-piles of electrical lines, not knowing it would be weeks before they surged back to use.

The shock of destruction was transcended by a single thought...we had survived this disaster.

Within an hour, two sounds became our constant companions: the buzz of chain saws and the chop-chop of helicopters.

Repair work was therapeutic. Neighbors we’d never met before offered help. Within hours homeowners boarded windows, sawed limbs and carried debris. A single generator served a block of neighbors, keeping perishables cool in a garage refrigerator. The same generator offered an extension cord that reached across the street to a different home each night, enabling a few hours of TV, a light for reading or a fan’s use.

As freezers thawed, abundant feasts followed. Block parties shared seafood and steaks, accompanied by canned goods and backyard produce. Outdoor grills became our daily kitchen.

Our home was one of the lucky few with a gas water heater. Hot showers by candlelight were the highlight of the day.

As days without power dragged into weeks, little irritations made tempers short. Sleep was fretful through sticky nights, and we amused ourselves by pushing the blades of ceiling fans as long as they would spin. It was hard to shake the habit of flipping light switches in every room to no avail. No milk for dry cereal, no morning coffee, no vacuum to clear the dirt we tracked inside every day. Even ten candles in a room provided sorry illumination. Without traffic lights, cars hovered at every intersection like angry swarming bees. Debris piled on both sides of the road turned familiar streets into canyons, the pavement littered with shingle nails. Car tires were pierced daily. Would life ever again be normal?

There were glimmers of encouragement. A trip past the local shopping mall revealed a sea of repair trucks from every state in the country. We honked our horns and waved wildly. One friend, who owned a generator, had enough power to run the washer and dryer so at last we had clean clothes. Super markets opened in dim light for five customers at a time and tallied purchases on a hand calculator. Water was distributed from trucks protected by National Guardsmen, their weapons drawn to ensure orderly conduct.

After almost a month, flickers of light returned to one home, then another, like the first stars at twilight. Relief flooded over us. Normal had new meaning.

Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston twenty years ago. Why even mention it today? Because we survived. It provided a blueprint for recovery from life’s challenges. Because of Hugo, we found new friends. Destroyed vegetation was replaced by healthy new growth, and forests were reborn. Homes were restored to a condition stronger and more attractive than before. We discovered how many things we could live without.

My father’s favorite words echoed inside my head: “Things will work out; they always do.”

-- Ruth Varner, Lexington

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