Hurricane Hugo

Storm hits SC coast at high tide

On September 22, 1989 Hurricane Hugo made landfall near Sullivan’s Island as a Category 4 storm.
On September 22, 1989 Hurricane Hugo made landfall near Sullivan’s Island as a Category 4 storm. The State

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 first appeared in The State newspaper Sept. 22, 1989

Hurricane Hugo, gaining in fury and speed as it slammed into South Carolina overnight, sent thousands of coastal residents fleeing from its 135 mph winds and a huge, wind-shipped storm tide of more than 20 feet that swamped shore dwellings.

The storm was to bring strong winds and heavy rain as it moved north through the Midlands.

The huge storm, which had held a steady bead on the state for nearly three days, increased to extremely dangerous Category 4 strength just before the eye made landfall generally in the Charleston area. That would equal -- and likely exceed -- the force of legendary Hazel, which demolished the upper coast in 1954.

The location of landfall put the mid and upper coast, tremendously developed over past years, at the greatest risk for damage, for it is the right quadrant of the counterclockwise spinning storm that packs the biggest wallop of wind and water.

“This hurricane has such strong winds that it can produce damage equivalent to Category 5,” said Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla. Only two such storms have hit the United States in this century.

“We expect to see a 14- to 17-foot storm surge when Hugo hits,” he said. “And after the storm comes in, we will see a lot of tornado activity and flash flooding.”

The storm surge, the most dangerous threat of a hurricane, came ashore about the time of high tide, already higher than normal this time of year because of the moon’s orbit. Added to a normal 6-foot tide, the storm surge could produce flood tides perhaps 23 feet -- and still be made higher by heavy waves.

“In many cases, we expect to see buildings swept clean off some barrier islands,” Sheets said

“This hurricane presents to the Charleston community an extraordinarily dangerous event,” said Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. ‘‘It’s very important no one underestimate the danger of this hurricane.”

Thursday afternoon Riley ordered people who live in single-story homes on the Charleston peninsula to evacuate. Police and fire officials with bull horns went door-to-door in flood-prone areas and central Charleston ordering residents to leave.

“A large portion of the peninsula will be flooded,” he said. “There will be more flooding in this storm than any Charlestonian has ever experienced. It’s going to boggle the mind.”

Police cars swarmed through Charleston, and minor looting was reported on the Isle of Palms just hours before the brunt of the storm hit.

“Don’t be surprised if somebody right in the middle of the storm tries to loot,” said Bill McCaulley, a spokesman for the Charleston Emergency Preparedness Agency.

An unknown number of individuals tried to break into homes or stores on the Isle of Palms and were arrested by local police Thursday evening, McCaulley said.

The barrier islands were completely abandoned by the early evening, and emergency medical personnel in the area retreated to Summerville, he said.

The evacuation of other low-lying areas threatened by Hugo was completed by early Thursday evening, McCaulley said. ‘‘Everyone who is going to leave is gone by now,” he said.

Hugo evacuation.jpg
S.C. residents taped their windows and hoped for the best as Hurricane Hugo barreled toward the S.C. coast. File photograph The State

Throughout the day, people on the coast packed their portable possessions, gassed up their vehicles, taped or boarded windows and fled inland. In their wake came 1,300 South Carolina guardsmen and up to 500 military police with loaded weapons to prevent any looting.

Still, there were some hardheads, such as Patricia Dwight, 49, who, with her daughter and two grandchildren, was holed up on the second floor of the 130-year-old home she lives in on Legare St., a block and a half from the battery.

“I’ve evacuated the first floor and taken everything I own and put it on the second floor,” she said. “We’re utterly exhausted from lack of sleep, and now we’re really waiting to see if the water is going to rise. Our major problem is not wind, but water and where the water is going to rise to.

“But, we’ve always got another floor we can go to.”

Jim Lowe, lead forecaster for the National weather service’s Columbia office, said pretty much all of the city of Charleston would be under 10 or 12 feet of water if the central part of the hurricane passed over the city. About half of Georgetown was expected to be under water.

Lowe said the tide, storm surge and waves should put the Grand Strand under water only as far inland as the Intercoastal Waterway -- an area Gov. Carroll Campbell ordered evacuated Thursday afternoon.

The press of the ocean won’t cause any inland flooding, but heavy inland rains of from 5 to 10 inches will bring widespread flash flooding. The state is also under a tornado watch.

Northward along Waccamaw Neck area and the Grand Strand the battering winds were expected to severely challenge coastal construction.

In Myrtle Beach officials warned those residents who hadn’t already gone to shelters to stay put. “Batten down the hatches and wait until 2 o’clock” this morning, when the hurricane was expected to hit, said Catherine Lewis of the Horry County Civil Defense Department, based in Conway.

Myrtle Beach itself was practically a ghost town, with a few brave -- or by some appraisals foolish -- people staying behind.

“We’ve got a brick home,” said Henry T. Moore of his house three blocks from the ocean in North Myrtle Beach. “We built it ourselves, and it will withstand anything.”

Those who stayed behind had to survive without power after officials turned off power east of the Intracoastal Waterway -- wherever nature hadn’t already done so.

Those who left Myrtle Beach found shelters as packed as sardine cans. Myrtle Beach shelters, deemed too close to the beach, were evacuated Thursday evening, leading to overcrowded conditions at the shelters inland.,

“We’ve got over 2,000 in here,” said Conway High School Principal Tommy Lewis, surveying the throngs camped out in the school’s cafeteria. More were packed into the gym and other parts of the building.

Only a few hours before, there were no more than 100 refugees spread out in the building. But then Hugo appeared to change its course, taking aim at the Grand Strand and forcing the evacuation of coastal shelters.

“That overwhelmed us,” Lewis said. “You just can’t deal with 600, 700 people coming in 15 minutes.”

There had been no reports of flooding or tornadoes, Carter said, but police reported downed power lines all over the county.

Grand Strand Hospital in Myrtle Beach was evacuating some of its patients and taking few other new ones, a receptionist there said.

Gov. Campbell ordered the evacuation of a wide swath of Horry county, most everything east of the waterway.

There was nothing to do Thursday night in Georgetown but sit in shelters -- where more than 4,000 people sought refuge -- and in inland motel rooms or other safe havens and wait for Hugo to hurl itself ashore.

And if the blowing rains and high winds weren’t enough to keep folks inside, a dusk-to-dawn curfew was being strictly enforced.

Cable television went off the air about 8 p.m. as wind velocity peaked near 60 mph. At the courthouse downtown, where the civil defense command post was established, officials watched hurricane reports on a television with snowy reception.

There was at least one report of a resident who refused to evacuate his waterfront home and move to safety. But most of the county’s residents headed for safety early in the day.

“We ask ‘em to leave, and if they won’t, that’s their problem,” Chief Deputy B.A. Grantham said. Although evacuation was mandatory, no residents could be forced to leave their homes.

City officials planned to shut off power on an area-by-area basis.

“When the lines start falling in a specific area, they’re going to cut the power in that area,” said Lt. Joey Tanner of the Georgetown Police Department.

Beaufort County officials were on standby Thursday night, waiting to see how much damage Hurricane Hugo did to their county.

“Our latest information is that the hurricane should touch down close to Charleston,” said Sgt Jim Palmer, chief spokesman for the county’s emergency operations center. “But we’re expecting winds of 100 miles per hour sometime during the night.”

Palmer said evacuation of more than 20,000 county residents had gone smoothly Thursday, although there were some diehards who stayed.

Bud Boyne, a spokesman for the county’s emergency operation center, said residents of all of the county’s low-lying areas -- particularly its barrier islands -- were ordered to evacuate as were Beaufort residents living close to the water. Area marinas were virtually devoid of boats.

The Marine Air Corps Station in Beaufort evacuated F/A-18 fighter-attack jets and both the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and air station prepared shelters for personnel during the day.

Boyne said a steady stream of traffic into Beaufort County’s seven evacuation centers filled them with 10,000 people by late afternoon and necessitated the opening of more emergency centers in Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties.

At the State Ports Authority, crews were busy battening down hatches, moving cargo from low-lying areas and reducing stacks of shipping containers, spokeswoman Ann Moise said. All ships will be asked to leave port within 24 hours after a warning is issued that a hurricane could hit.

The Red Cross made plans to staff emergency shelters and was checking to see how many hotel rooms might be available, if necessary, for evacuees.

“When our real work will start is after the storm is over -- assisting families,” said Glenn Ellis, executive director of the Carolina Lowcountry chapter.

Guests were asked to leave Kiawah Island Inn and Villas resort, weekend reservations were canceled and employees were told not to report to work Thursday, said Michael Wilkins, director of marketing.

Employees spent Tuesday and Wednesday boarding up windows and securing equipment and furniture, while some of the inn’s records and some equipment were moved off the island, Wilkins said.

Local authorities -- not the governor -- will decide when people can return to their homes and when roadblocks will be removed, a spokesman for Gov. Campbell said.

“Those decisions will be made at the local level,” spokesman Tucker Eskew said, adding that it is to early for people even to consider returning.

The best way for people to know whether they can return home is to listen to the radio. They can also call the State Emergency Preparedness office of the emergency office in their home county, Eskew said.

“People who want to go down there to see should be told not to go,” said S.C. Army National Guard Lt. Col. Donald Burson, who was in charge of the state Emergency Preparedness Office’s command center in the basement of the Rutledge Building on Thursday night.

In fact, Burson said, the curious won’t be allowed into the affected areas until officials consider it safe.

“People will be screened going back in. The coast is going to be secured. We’re doing that to protect lives and property.”