Hurricane Hugo

A view from the Omni Hotel

In September 1989 I was a senior geology major at the College of Charleston. I was also working part time as a bellman at the Planters Inn, located on North Market Street, and living the good life, young and single in an apartment on East Bay Street in downtown Charleston. All through early September I half paid attention to the news about a storm called Hugo. When it gathered enough power to be named a hurricane and subsequently devastated Puerto Rico, I really began to keep an eye on the forecast.

By September 22 it was clearly obvious that Hugo had Charleston in its sights. Being in the young and invincible mindset and never experiencing a hurricane before, I decided to stay in town and ride it out. My East Bay Street apartment was located on the bottom floor and with talk of a 12-foot storm surge I scrambled around for a higher, more secure place to stay. A friend had a third-floor apartment on Hassell Street and she agreed to let me and another friend stay there for the night. We were all set to camp out at my friend’s third-floor place when at the last moment another friend, who was an assistant chef at the downtown Omni Hotel, which is now Charleston Place, secured us a room for the night in the hotel.

We arrived at the hotel around 5 pm the afternoon of the 22nd and turned on the TV to see the coverage of the massive, swirling storm trek its way to the Charleston area. Later that evening the electricity was intentionally cut off for safety reasons and all we were left with was a small radio to keep apprised of news concerning Hugo. The rooms on the first floor of the hotel remained unoccupied but the second- and third-floor rooms were all full with guests, emergency personnel, hotel employees and nearby residents.

So it was two friends and myself who tried to get comfortable for the night to come in a third-floor room of the Omni Hotel. Honestly we felt safe and were generally in an excited anticipatory mood. We had one small window to observe the sky and courtyard below. As the night deepened and the winds picked up there was a knock on our door and the bellmen at the hotel were delivering chemical glow sticks to all guests. Since my friend knew the bellmen we were generously supplied with the artificial lights so we proceeded to remove all the light bulbs from the room lamps and replace them with the green light emitting glow sticks. In a matter of minutes we had the room looking like a psychedelic rave party when the wind began to angrily rattle our small window.

I took up station at a desk beside the window and was able to get a few channels on the radio. I have no idea how the broadcasts were being transmitted, but I remember hearing live reports from Charleston residents about what was going on at their homes. During this time I remember looking out of the window and seeing a green trash Dumpster tumbling through the hotel courtyard trying its best to take flight. This is when I finally realized that this hurricane stuff is serious business.

As the rain continued to slash at the window we watched palmetto trees being stripped of their fronds by the massive gusts of wind and blown about with all kinds of other trash and pieces of buildings and their roofs. It was about this time, I’d say around 11 pm, when there was another knock on our door and we were instructed by the hotel personnel to leave the room and go into an interior, windowless conference room. Apparently there were a number of room windows that had blown out by this time due to pressure differences and high winds. As we made our way with the other guests down a flight of stairs it was then that I caught a wider glimpse of the night sky above Charleston. I saw massive swirling, gray very low clouds that were briefly illuminated by green flash type lightning. It was eerily similar to the color of the chemical glow sticks in our room and when I saw that deep green lightning emanating from those clouds and heard the wind whip around that corner stairwell I was frightened.

When we had made it to the interior room and had huddled together with all the others some time had passed when silence came upon us and a strange calm descended. The wind had suddenly stopped! We all seemed to figure out that this must be the eye of the storm. I made my way to a window that overlooked King Street and was amazed at what I saw. There were people coming out of buildings up and down the street. They seemed to materialize from the pavement and they were walking around talking and yelling among the detritus scattered in the street. I saw a few looters with clothes and beer running up King Street going only God knows where. They seemed like fleeting shadows amongst wreckage.

About this time I remember discussing with my friends that overall although it had been scary, it had not been too bad. However that was before the back wall of the hurricane hit. It seemed like the eye was over us for approximately 10 minutes when the winds once again began to pick up. As quickly as the people appeared on King Street during the calmness of the hurricane’s eye, they disappeared. Myself and the other guests were once again brought into the interior conference room and all we could do was hunker down and listen to the wind. Although I could not see what was happening, the winds in the back wall of the storm sounded much more fierce and sustaining. Having seen what King Street looked like during the eye of Hugo, we could only imagine what kind of destruction was taking place as the winds once again wrapped around us and buffeted the building.

When the winds died down for the second time we were allowed back to our room and as dawn broke I was astounded at the sight of downtown Charleston. We left the hotel and began walking the devastation with our mouths agape. We first checked on our apartments and luckily my East Bay Apartment had fared well. No real water damage was apparent but the wind had ripped large sections of the wood siding away. My friend’s place was another story. He and his girlfriend shared a small downstairs apartment near the Battery that was a part of a carriage house. We saw where the water level had been at least 6 feet inside the apartment and how the water from the storm surge had sogged and strewn about clothes, furniture and dishes. Basically anything that was not placed up in a higher location was ruined by the storm’s surge. The Hassell Street apartment where we had originally planned on staying had a telephone pole hanging out the window. We shook our heads in disbelief and grabbed our bikes that had managed to make it through the turmoil locked to a wrought iron gate in my apartment’s courtyard.

We then traversed the peninsula on our bikes to survey the damage. The main thing I remember about it all was the vegetation all scattered about. Palm fronds, leaves, tree limbs and torn shrubbery all blocked many roads for vehicles in the downtown area. I remember the large stone plaque at the Battery which must weigh at least 1,000 pounds, was torn asunder and lay in the middle of the road. There are hundreds of images on the Internet that one can peruse that capture the devastation, however I’ll never forget that feeling of loss and sadness for Charleston as we rode the streets under that clear, early morning sky of September 23rd. How surreal it was that just hours ago these same skies were unleashing such fury.

By the grace of God I somehow placed a call through at a payphone to my girlfriend who was in Columbia at the time. I let her know we were OK and I made plans to leave Charleston and visit her then make my way to Rock Hill and stay at my parents’ house. I was able to catch a ride with a friend who had the foresight to park his car on top of a local parking garage. However when leaving Charleston little did I know then that my parent’s home in Rock Hill would be without power for over a week due to Hugo’s devastating winds as they blew through the upstate and into North Carolina. I felt as I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire when I did finally make it to Rock Hill and was cooking our supper with the Coleman Stove we used for our camping trips!

When I did return to Charleston a couple of weeks later to resume classes at the College of Charleston my apartment still did not have electricity. However we all managed somehow and the lessons of Hugo were worth at least a semester’s credit. Everyone had their story to tell and the togetherness and renewed spirit of the city was palpable. It was all quite an experience and I consider myself lucky to be able to reflect back upon it without extreme sorrow or loss as was very much prevalent for so many who endured Hugo’s wrath.

-- Chris Forrest