Hurricane Hugo

The hidden grace of Hurricane Hugo, 25 years later

It hardly seemed like the winds of mercy when Hurricane Hugo struck the Lowcountry 25 years ago tonight.

Beaufort County escaped its fury.

We dodged the expense, aggravation, loss and even death that Hugo delivered a few miles up the coast.

The newspaper staff hunkered down in Beaufort after putting together a Friday morning paper that no one was here to deliver or read.

As soon as the sun rose, we knew we could return home. We slowly began to realize the magnitude of what happened to our neighbors when photographs and television footage started coming out of Charleston, McClellanville, Pawleys Island and Garden City Beach.

Boats were stacked like toys in marshes and streets. A roof would be peeled from one house, while no sign remained of the house next door.

By that afternoon, we heard that Hugo had reached into the so-called safety of the northern reaches of the state, plowing over trees and knocking out power, disabling our sister paper in Rock Hill.

But when I look back on it, the story is not what happens during a Category 4 hurricane, but how people react to it.

MUDDY SLOG

Mac Hammett was pastor at the Sunrise Presbyterian Church the night Hugo left it for dead on the shores of Sullivan's Island.

Hammett learned the power of the Atlantic Ocean as a boy combing Hilton Head Island. His granddaddy, Henry Lawrence, was an Upstate insurance man who came to see that the first swing-span bridge to the mainland was built on time and under budget. Henry and Mildred Lawrence never left.

Hammett's mother, Whitney Hammett, taught him Sunday school in the barn at Honey Horn Plantation, where Hilton Head's First Presbyterian Church was born in a small chapel building.

As an adult, Mac Hammett faced the bridge to Sullivan's Island that Hugo had knocked askew, its two lanes of blacktop aimed straight into the water.

The young pastor tried to get a lift to the island to see what had happened. The fire chief was taking a small boat over and he had a lawyer aboard. He said there was no room for Hammett.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, you'll take the lawyer and leave the preacher behind?" Hammett recalls asking in jest.

"He said, 'If you'd done your job last night, we wouldn't need a lawyer.' "

It was the beginning of a long, muddy slog back to normal.

'HUMBLED'

What happened at the Sunrise church could be multiplied times thousands and still not explain the powerful reaction to Hugo.

Flounder were flapping in what was left of the parking lot when Hammett got his first look. The roof was gone. Windows were blown out. Everything was out of place. The communion silver washed away, but was returned.

Hammett found the pulpit Bible on the floor, opened to a page in Jeremiah. He lit on chapter 33, verse 11, which promises that the sounds of joy and gladness would return to a desolate land.

As the initial inconveniences turned into a grind, the church met first in Mount Pleasant and then a tent on its own land by Breach Inlet. Someone had to come early to wipe mold from the hymnals.

Some in the church lost their homes and jobs. They were buoyed by strangers who would pull up to the house and help scoop out mud. "You didn't even know who they are," Hammett said.

Sunday school kids in Kansas sent small donations. Churches on Hilton Head helped with larger sums. Island artist Elizabeth Grant sent an oil painting. A retired insurance executive helped negotiate the settlement. Architect Jakie Lee of Bluffton designed the new sanctuary, this time with the congregation facing the beautiful ocean view. Golf course architect Mike Strantz designed a stained glass cross.

"We were affluent Presbyterians who found ourselves in line like the pauper," recalls Hammett, now a mental health counselor in Mount Pleasant.

"Of course, the storm was tragic, but it is a very healthy experience to be on the other side of need. It was a life-changer for a lot of people. They have their own resources, know how to manage their lives, and then all of a sudden it all changes, like a heart attack.

"We found grace in being humbled and being in need."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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