Hurricane Hugo

Hurricane Hugo: Its fury, its legacy

Hurricane Hugo devastated the South Carolina coastline and inland communities on September 21st and 22nd 1989. The barrier islands shouldered the worst of what Hugo had to give. The storm's chainsaw winds and hammering waves wiped out places like the Isle of Palms with the force of an atomic bomb.
Hurricane Hugo devastated the South Carolina coastline and inland communities on September 21st and 22nd 1989. The barrier islands shouldered the worst of what Hugo had to give. The storm's chainsaw winds and hammering waves wiped out places like the Isle of Palms with the force of an atomic bomb.

MCCLELLANVILLE — A shrimp boat chugged its way up Jeremy Creek on a recent Monday afternoon as a flock of seagulls shrieked overhead, hoping for scraps.

This symphony of boat motor and bird is a fading sound along the South Carolina coast.

Listen long enough and another noise punctures the air. The whack of a hammer building another expensive home is the new sound of South Carolina.

It’s an ongoing story of the state’s coast, one that has been evolving — even as a recession lingers — for 20 years since Hurricane Hugo blasted its way into the state’s history books.

“Hugo brought us into the 20th century even though it was almost over,” said McClellanville Mayor Rutledge Leland. “The whole coast has seen some sort of revolution. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know.”

When Hugo made landfall overnight Sept. 22, 1989, South Carolina was a sleepy Southern state just beginning to emerge as a destination for tourists, retirees and golfers. Its politics still had a Democratic influence. Charleston’s reputation as a world-class center of culture, food and history was in its infancy.

People who lived through the storm aren’t sure how much credit Hugo should get for the way things have changed since then. But it would be impossible to survive such a devastating event without coming out different on the other end.

Since the storm, South Carolina has become a destination for retirees and those who enjoy high-end beach vacations.

The state has added a million new residents.

Republicans rule the General Assembly and hold every constitutional office except one.

“In 20 years, we’ve gone from what was pretty much a Democratic majority in the General Assembly and in constitutional offices to one that is predominantly Republican,” said South Carolina historian Walter Edgar.

Building codes have evolved, and evacuation plans are more thorough.

While Hugo does not deserve sole credit for many of the changes, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said disasters accelerate trends that already are in place. In Charleston, the city was well on its way to revitalizing downtown and inviting people to soak up its Southern charm.

“If you’re on the skids and have a natural disaster, it could hasten the downward path,” Riley said. “If you’re on the rise, it can accelerate that path.”

After the storm, Riley and other officials capitalized on the optimism that already existed.

“We accepted the responsibility to get the community rebuilt as quickly as possible,” he said. “We gave it all of the energy and determination we had.”

Reconstruction after the storm gave people a chance to follow through on ideas they already had, he said. For example, a family considering an addition to its home would add it after rebuilding from Hugo’s destruction.

Charleston’s revitalization efforts worked. Since 1989, the city’s population has grown 25 percent to nearly 350,000 people.

It’s that growth along the coast that has been the most dramatic change since 1989. But growth has not been limited to the coast.

In 1989, South Carolina had 1.4 million housing units, which includes houses, apartments and mobile homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

By 2008, that number had grown to 2.1 million.


Twenty years ago, McClellanville claimed about 333 residents. Most had lived there for generations, and their families worked on shrimp boats or in fish houses, said Mary Duke, the town administrator.

Today, the town’s population is about 450.

But Mayor Rutledge Leland estimates half of the houses are owned by nonresidents.

And the fishing industry has dwindled.

“South Carolina shrimpers are almost an endangered species,” Edgar said.

When McClellanville’s last crab processing house closed 10 years ago, it was replaced with a waterfront development where homes cost nearly $1 million.

That crab house was the last in the state, Leland said.

Still, McClellanville is a sleepy town compared with other coastal communities.

Just 30 miles down the road, Mount Pleasant is a hustling and bustling suburb of Charleston.

At 5 p.m., traffic streaks down U.S. 17’s four-lane blacktop. Cars and trucks pass shopping centers filled with national retailers such as Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble and upscale subdivisions with names such as Ivy Hall.

It wasn’t always like this.

Twenty years ago, U.S. 17 was more narrow, and the traffic was slower. The community was filled with wood-framed houses and mobile homes.

Many residents were descendants of slaves who worked on the Lowcountry plantations. They lived on land passed down through generations.

Remnants of that culture remain in the rickety wooden stands along U.S. 17 where the residents sell sweetgrass baskets.

“You see this traffic?” asked Robena Blake as she sat in her stand weaving a basket. “Everybody from up North came in.”

Blake and other family members blame Hugo for the growth.

“People came here to help with Hugo,” Blake said.

“And they stayed,” said Althea Washington, who also works in the stand.

The women said Hugo cleared the path for the community to build anew.

For example, I-526 was paved to connect North Charleston with U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant, carving a quicker path to the beach.

“They thought after all those pine trees fell back there and they had all that land, that they might as well put a highway on it,” Washington said.

Blake and Washington say the only way they can afford to live in Mount Pleasant is because of land that has been passed down through the family.

“You can’t afford to eat in Mount Pleasant unless you go to your mama’s house,” Washington said.


The entire coast has become more expensive.

“Beaufort was just a sleepy little town a few years ago,” Edgar said. “Now, the housing prices are close to Charleston prices.”

It’s nearly impossible to ask people about how the state has evolved since 1989 without listening to the tales of Hugo’s wrath.

At the time, most people in the state hadn’t endured such a severe storm since Gracie blew through in 1959.

In McClellanville, people stayed in their houses but regretted that decision when the 17-foot storm surge sent them scrambling to their second stories in the middle of the night.

“We had never experienced a storm surge, and no one we talked to in McClellanville ever had,” said Duke. “That started about midnight, so you could see outside. We watched the water slowly coming up, and we didn’t know when it was going to stop.”

Hugo showed people that they need to evacuate. Hurricane Floyd taught them how not to do it, Duke said.

When Floyd threatened in 1999, Duke took a three-car caravan out of town. They sat for hours in traffic with adults, teenagers, dogs, cats and a mouse.

“Which was worse, Hugo or the Floyd evacuation?” Duke said. “It’s a bad joke in our family. Of course, Hugo definitely was worse because of all the destruction.”

South Carolina is more prepared than ever for hurricanes, she said. The 2009 South Carolina hurricane response plan, which fills a thick, green binder, sits on a top shelf by her desk.

That binder rests near another manual in Duke’s office. This one contains the city’s building ordinance.

“Of course, when we went to rebuild, we had to comply with federal laws to get the grants,” Duke said.

That meant adding a city building department and an inspector.

It’s the same story up and down the coast, where building codes were “loose,” Edgar said. He recalls seeing a beach house on Pawleys Island where a visitor could see water below cracks in the floor.

“That all washed away with Hugo,” he said.

Houses today are built higher to avoid storm surges. And their structures can withstand stronger winds.

Most of those changes have been for the better, Duke said. And McClellanville not only survived but has prospered.

So has South Carolina.

“I remember the day after Hugo, I thought it would never be the same again,” she said.

“It’s beautiful again.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.