Hurricane Hugo

Hugo hit coast with force of 460 atomic bombs a minute

The State newspaper

More from the series

Hurricane Hugo coverage from The State: Sept. 17 - Sept. 24, 1989

Read more stories from The State’s original reporting of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. From Hugo’s collision with the Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico to its catastrophic landfall near Charleston, The State kept readers up-to-date with vital news about the event that turned into the worst storm South Carolina has ever seen.

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Editor’s Note: This story originally published in The State newspaper on Oct. 5, 1989.

In 24 hours, Hurricane Hugo released the equivalent energy of one-half million atomic bombs the size of the one dropped on Nagasaki 44 years ago.

And the storm, a heat engine sucking its strength from the warm sea surface, generated enough power to satisfy the total energy needs of the United States for six months, said Brian Jarvinen, a research meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla.

The Nagasaki bomb, dropped on Aug. 9, 1945, released 22 kilotons of energy -- the equivalent of 22,000 tons of TNT. The Hiroshima bomb, dropped three days earlier, had a power of 13 kilotons.

It is a little like comparing apples and oranges, but extending the comparison, Hugo released the energy equivalent of about 460 Nagasaki bombs in each minute of its presence off the coast. Hugo, in its total energy, blasted South Carolina’s beaches with the power of 7.6 such bombs, or 167,200 tons of TNT, each second.

In other words, Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina with the explosive equivalent in total power per second of 2,675 boxcars fully loaded with TNT. For the statistically starved, that translates into 2,500 standard 50-pound cases of TNT, or 62.5 tons, per standard railroad boxcar.

Fortunately, no one place got hit with the total wallop at one time.

The comparison with Nagasaki-sized bombs was computer modeled from the total wind field of the hurricane, said Jarvinen. If it were possible to measure in three dimensions -- that is, if wind turbines could actually be placed all around the storm system -- the energy could be measured more accurately.

With that kind of power, Hugo -- the most costly and damaging in terms of property, though not most deadly in terms of fatalities storm ever to hit South Carolina -- has been classified as a “once-in-200-years event,” State Climatologist John Purvis said.

“We have been checking statistics -- and Charleston records go back to 1710 -- and based on past occurrences Hugo certainly fits this category,” said Purvis. “We got all the data we could get and the National Hurricane Center in Miami did a probability study, so this is as official as you can get.”

Preliminary numbers are still being sorted out, but it looks like Hugo sent his highest storm surge ashore at tiny Awendaw, a community of about 200 some 20 miles north of Charleston at Bulls Bay. The storm waters there flooded in 19 feet above mean sea level. Nearby McClellanville did not fare much better.

Jack Bevin, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Center, said Wednesday that Hugo was definitely getting stronger and moving faster as it approached the shoreline, but whether it would have become a monster hurricane given another six hours is anybody’s guess.

“We don’t know,” he said. “It might have bottomed out and stopped its strengthening. A lot of what goes on in a system that big is still not easily understood. But when a storm starts moving that fast -- 20 to 25 mph -- it doesn’t do a lot of wobbling around, it just comes on in.”

Bevin said the increased speed was attributable to the low pressure in the upper atmosphere, and that increase in strength could possibly be connected with the low as well. The storm and its eye had reorganized after skirting the Bahamas and had regained its integrity by landfall.

“Once that happened, the interaction between the upper level low and the outflow of the storm probably caused it to get stronger,” he said. “To keep a hurricane going you have to have as much air going out the top as you have coming in at the bottom. Otherwise it will weaken.”