Everyone in Gov. Carroll Campbell’s office was physically and emotionally exhausted after frenetic nights and days without sleep, and stunned by the task of putting a state back together. It was September 1989.
Hurricane Hugo had devastated South Carolina, its 140 mph winds starting at Sullivan’s Island and ripping through the coast, Midlands and parts of the Upstate. Coastal ruin was expected; inland destruction was not.
I’ll never forget the expression on the governor’s face when he returned from his first helicopter flyover. It was beyond sad, a mixture of shock and disbelief, much like Gov. Nikki Haley’s expression in a picture published in The State during her ride over the brokenness of the flood.
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The physical destruction is bad enough, but human suffering amid the crumpled houses and flooded waters is just too much to take in. Even for governors.
As Gov. Campbell began preparing to lead the state back from the edge, a nice woman who introduced herself as Katherine Trimnal came to my office with a stack of photographs. They were among 6,000 she shot two days after Hugo. Each told part of the story. One told the entire story.
She took the picture at Sullivan’s Island. It was an American flag — torn and tattered by the winds — framed between two palmetto trees. Even in its state of disrepair, it was flying, lifted by a gentle sea breeze. Like South Carolinians who were recovering from what at the time was the nation’s most destructive hurricane, it remained proud and strong.
Ms. Trimnal, whose photographs eventually would be displayed in art galleries as a pictorial essay of Hugo, gave me the picture of the flag. I had it framed, and it has been on my office wall since. Many times I have studied it, and it has spoken to me about tough times conquered by tougher people.
The picture that comforted Gov. Campbell in 1989 is speaking again, afresh and anew.
No state in the country has faced more than South Carolina this year.
There was the unnatural disaster in Charleston when evil disguised as human desecrated a sacred house of God and spilled the blood of nine innocent saints.
And now there’s the natural disaster whose vast powers confound the best efforts of mortal man and continue to flow into the streets and homes and businesses.
Both can be explained. Neither can be comprehended.
But I study the picture again and am reminded of us today.
After the murders of the Emanuel Nine, there were no riots. No looting. Little belligerency of any kind. The words of the families to the killer — God, forgiveness, redemption — swept across the state like living waters from a gentle stream. The families were torn and battered, yet their sweet spirit was lifted by heavenly breezes to every corner of our state.
Like the flag in the picture, the people held firm. They supported the governor and Legislature when it was time to take down another flag because it reminded many of our citizens of another distant disaster, a war against humanity.
I have no data to back me up, but it seems that the flood has exacted more of a toll in the Midlands than Hugo. Hugo came and left quickly; the rains tortured us for days — nature’s waterboarding.
Again, the worst of nature has brought out the best in us. We are rediscovering an important truth about ourselves: We are South Carolinians — quiet people in little places doing extraordinary things.
Stories of heroism are emerging. Untold thousands of our fellow travelers are opening their hearts and wallets to help each other. Volunteers are flooding South Carolina far and wide to help.
Vandalizing is at a minimum, so much so that two thugs stealing soaked belongings off the street corner made headline news.
Gov. Campbell promised the people, “We will rebuild and be better than ever.”
We did, and we were.
Gov. Haley has made the same promise.
In times of crisis, the people need strong leadership. And our leaders need strong people.
We have both.
That’s what the flag is saying.
Mr. McAlister, who served as communications director and later chief of staff for Gov. Carroll Campbell, owns a Columbia marketing and public relations company; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.