Weather News

‘This one’s got our name on it.’ The story of Hurricane Hugo

Pleasure boats are bunched along the shore of Isle of Palms after Hurricane Hugo wreaked havoc on the Isle of Palms in 1989.
Pleasure boats are bunched along the shore of Isle of Palms after Hurricane Hugo wreaked havoc on the Isle of Palms in 1989. File Photograph

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 appeared in a special section of The State newspaper on Sept. 24, 1989.

Before the killer Hugo had a number or a name, it was just a cluster of thunderstorms, a “tropical wave” near Dakar, Senegal.

Many hurricanes start as Hugo did, a wave developing off the coast of West Africa in late August or early September when ocean temperatures are near their peak.

Why Africa? Imagine the globe and its equator: The Northern Hemisphere has tradewinds that blow southwest; the Southern Hemisphere has tradewinds that blow northwest. Those winds have to converge somewhere, and that point is called the ITCZ -- the intertropical convergence zone, an area of clouds and thunderstorms.

Near where the ITCZ meets the coast of West Africa, an easterly jet of air also exists. The ITCZ and the easterly jet in the same area help waves form.

In the wave stage, a cluster of thunderstorms begins carrying warm surface air aloft. This happened the first week of September, according to Colin McAdie, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla., who explained how the killer named Hugo was born.

As the water vapor condensed, the air carried aloft was heated. This tends to reduce surface pressure. And any time low pressure exists, air rushes in to fill the low pressure.

Imagine a vacuum cleaner: Air is pulled in from a surrounding area to a small area. Now imagine cramming a lot of anything into too small a space: If a lot of air zooms into a central point, there are collisions. The air is forced upward, tending to increase the thunderstorm activity.

Just as a vacuum cleaner needs electricity, a hurricane, too, needs a power source. One of a hurricane’s requirements for this building of energy is a large expanse of warm water.

The tropical Atlantic became Hugo’s power source.

Monday, Sept. 11.

After a day or so, the wind of a tropical wave, because of the turning of the earth, starts to swirl. When this swirling occurs, a closed circulation around a center, the wave is designated as a depression and is numbered.

That happened on Sept. 10. The collisions within the new depression forced the swirling air upward and out of the system at the top. But this particular storm had something more.

Imagine a funnel: A mature hurricane resembles a narrow funnel, pulling air in at the bottom and spewing it out at the top. Hugo had an assistant in that, known as an anticyclone. The anticyclone, air moving in a clockwise direction on top of the storm, sometimes can accompany hurricanes. The anticyclone sucks out the air, speeding up the air’s exit and keeping the hurricane strong.

That was the case with Hugo. All the conditions were right for a rapid accumulation of power.

The swirling winds increased in speed, fed by the warm water and strengthened by the anticyclone. When the winds reached 39 miles per hour, the depression became a tropical storm.

That happened on Sept. 11. Still growing, the eighth tropical storm of the 1989 season got its official name: Hugo.

Wednesday, Sept. 13.

By noon of Sept. 13, Hugo had grown more dangerous still, its winds increasing to hurricane status.

Hurricanes are rated by wind speed on a scale of 1 (74 to 95 mph) to 5 (greater than 155 mph). In Mayan and Caribbean Indian languages, Hugo had become a “Hunraken,” or “hurakan,” a storm god or evil spirit.

By Saturday, Hugo had grown to Category 3 (111 to 130 miles per hour), and meteorologists were warning residents of the northeastern Caribbean that they could expect “quite a hurricane experience.”

Sunday, Sept. 17. Hugo continued to gain strength. By the time the hurricane reached its first victims, on the Leeward Islands, it had grown to a Category 4 (131 to 155 miles per hour). Early Sunday morning, Hugo hit Guadaloupe, a French resort island, killing five people.

By the end of the day, Hugo had torn through the 750-mile long string of islands, killing people on Montserrat, Antigua and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In St. Croix harbor, only four of more than 60 boats remained.

On Monday, Hugo reached the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, killing three more people. The governor estimated damage at “hundreds of millions” of dollars. Later, President George Bush would declare the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico disaster areas. In the wake of its tour of the islands, Hugo had left at least 27 dead and more than 50,000 homeless. When a hurricane comes into contact with land, it weakens because the friction slows it down. And a hurricane weakens when it lacks its power source, water.

Hugo, much of its energy spent on the Leewards and Puerto Rico, subsided to a Category 2. Late Tuesday, its winds were down to 105 mph around the central eye. But Hugo was back over warm, open water, and its 300-mile-wide cloud formation could grow once again.

Still on its way toward the continental U.S., Hugo sideswiped the Bahamas on Wednesday, causing minimal damage as it moved again into the open sea. Predictions were made that Hugo would remain a Category 2 hurricane, which could damage trees, shrubs and mobile homes, but not stronger buildings.

However, Hugo wouldn’t be pinned down by technology. Eight days before, it had made an unusually fast transition from tropical depression to tropical storm. Now it surprised again, accelerating toward South Carolina.

Hugo was now a hurricane with a 400-mile-wide stretch of tropical-storm- force winds aimed at a state with a coastline only 187 miles long.

Forecasters were concerned that South Carolinians wouldn’t take their predictions seriously. Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. warned against relying on the short memories of those who might have forgotten Hurricane Hazel, which rearranged Myrtle Beach when it hit the North Carolina coast in 1954, causing $3 million in damage and killing one. Or Gracie, which came ashore at St. Helena Island in 1959, causing $27 million in damage and killing seven.

Wednesday, Sept. 20

Gov. Carroll Campbell declared a state of emergency. Mayor Riley asked residents of barrier islands or low-lying areas to leave.Hugo’s menace increased. By noon it was 360 miles east of Nassau with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph, hurricane-force-winds extending 60 miles out from the eye, tropical-storm-force winds 200 miles out from the eye.

By 6 p.m. Hugo was 600 miles southeast of Savannah.The hurricane would arrive at high tide to saturated ground, it was feared. The experts began to sound nervous.

”I think this one’s got our name on it,” said Tom Beckham, assistant director of state Emergency Preparedness Division.

”I think this one may be one of ours,” said state Climatologist John Purvis.Hugo was intent on the East Coast, on a straight trip to destruction.

“The big ones don’t stall around. They charge right on, taking long, straight treks, not making any detours,” said Milton Brown, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Within a few hundred miles of the Savannah and Charleston, Hugo’s forward motion abruptly picked up speed.

Thursday, Sept. 21

At 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 21, Campbell ordered mandatory evacuation of all barrier islands, all beachfront peninsulas, all beachfront property, the entire coast of South Carolina. The order was expanded inland as the day progressed.

Mayor Riley ordered people who lived in single-story homes to evacuate the Charleston peninsula.

”We’re prepared to save lives, not property,” said Tommy Harrison, emergency coordinator for Horry County.

At 9 a.m. Hugo was 350 miles southeast of Savannah, its maximum sustained winds 110 mph. At noon it was 105 miles southeast of Savannah, maximum sustained winds up to 115, hurricane-force-winds stretching 70 miles from the eye, tropical-storm-force winds 250 miles from the eye.

Now Hugo gained the distinction of being labeled a “major hurricane.”

“It’s a possibility crossing the Gulf Stream gave it energy. It had remained at 105 mph then suddenly it was 115, 125,” meteorologist Brown said.

Hugo was reclassified a strong Category 3 hurricane, which meant a potential storm surge 9 to 12 feet above normal. The storm surge is the most dangerous part of a hurricane. The combination of wind-driven water, an uplift because of the pressure drop and, depending on timing, the whammy of high tide can lead to powerful, far-reaching walls of water that can wipe out a coastline.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, Campbell ordered all three lanes of Interstate 26 into Charleston converted to outbound traffic to speed the evacuation.

At 3 p.m., Hugo’s winds increased to 125 mph; hurricane-force-winds extended 100 miles from the eye.

At 6 p.m. Hugo was 180 miles south of Myrtle Beach and labeled “extremely dangerous.” Maximum sustained winds were up to 135, hurricane-force-winds up to 140 miles from the eye. Hugo had again become a Category 4.

Friday, Sept. 21

After traveling approximately 3,000 miles on its trek from West Africa to North America, Hugo slammed into South Carolina about midnight. The center of the storm made landfall over the Isle of Palms, just east of Charleston.

The hurricane crashed through Charleston, carrying a wall of water 12 to 17 feet high at high tide, leveling at least 30 buildings and damaging hundreds, flooding streets, causing fires from natural gas leaks.

City Hall lost part of its roof, and part of the roof of the Slave Market was damaged. Fort Sumter suffered $1 million in damages when a 17-foot wall of water roared over it. Hugo’s winds were just 61 mph less than Camille’s, a Category 5 hurricane that ravaged Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in 1969, killing 256. However, Hugo’s 139 mph winds and 17-foot storm tide resulted in only one death in Charleston.

“We feel very fortunate,” said Riley. “The lesson from this is be prepared, and we were.”

None of the city’s famous antebellum homes were destroyed, but few residents were untouched.

Dan Ravenel, a 41-year-old realtor, was philosophical as he searched for the undamaged bricks of the Ravenel House at 68 Broad St. Seven generations of his family have lived there since they built it in 1796.”

Charleston goes on,” he said. “Charleston isn’t a place; it’s an experience. It will continue.

”Gadsden Street resident David McCann was more impressed with Hugo.

“I’ll tell you what, this thing really let’s you know who’s boss -- nature.” Inside his house when the eye hit, McCann watched water move furniture and leave behind a carpet of pluff mud from the marshes.Mayor Riley, who imposed a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew, estimated $1 billion in damages to his city alone.”

Everything on the beachfront from Charleston harbor to North Carolina is heavily damaged,” said Brian Ellison, a spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Preparedness Division.

Hugo was responsible for 14 deaths in South Carolina, and 500,000 homes without power. Ellison said damage statewide from Hugo could reach $3 billion. President Bush quickly declared seven counties disaster areas.

Destruction could be measured in what was flattened, smashed, tossed to toothpicks, in some cases, simply gone.

Imagine sand castles kicked down then washed flat by waves: Hugo destroyed 80 percent of Folly Beach’s houses. The Atlantic House restaurant, which symbolized Folly Beach, was gone.

The hurricane’s tidal surge ripped away nearly all of the front of Sullivans Island. The drawbridge section of the Ben Sawyer bridge to the island was on its end in the water. The Breach Inlet Bridge from Sullivans to the Isle of Palms was impassable. Both islands had been totally submerged.

Pawleys Island was sliced by a 100-foot channel of water. “There are now two Pawleys Islands, if you will,” said pilot Jack Sellers after flying over the island.

Ninety percent of the homes in Garden City, which sits astride a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Murrells Inlet, were heavily damaged or destroyed.

Captain Dick’s Marina at Murrell’s Inlet was gone; only a bait cooler remained.

The roller coaster at the Grand Strand Amusement Park still stood, but the merry-go-round was gone. All but 150 feet of the resort’s well-known landmark, Springmaid Pier, were gone.

Another of Myrtle Beach’s attractions, Ocean Boulevard, was a highway of mud as much as 10 inches deep.”I don’t think there are 5 percent of our sand dunes left,” said Rep. Dick Elliott, D-Horry, in North Myrtle Beach.

At the Holiday Inn south of Atlantic Beach, palm trees loomed inside oceanfront rooms.Seaside and inland, the whimsy of Hugo was haunting. Houses were gone, but the steps leading up to them remained. Buildings were missing, but refrigerators inside sat tall and clean. Houses were carried across roads, but the china inside cabinets remained stacked.

Garden City’s pier was shoved under a house three blocks away. Boats from ritzy Wild Dunes were stacked like cordwood across the marsh on Goat Island; cars were piled five high outside an evacuation shelter in McClellanville.

Lampshades sat on the second story of a Florence inn, sucked upward when the roof was peeled off. Carbon paper fluttered like bats around a printing store; a pine tree sliced a Camden home in two.”It is the worst storm, the worst disaster, I’ve ever seen anywhere,” Gov. Campbell said after surveying the destruction by helicopter. “We’re going to be a long time digging out of this and rebuilding.”

He deployed 2,600 National Guardsmen to patrol streets, enforce the curfew, help remove debris, purify water and perform other duties.

But the more than 50,000 people who had sought shelter in 225 emergency locations in the Midlands and Lowcountry counties didn’t want to wait for water and electricity. They wanted to go home.

”I just want to see. It’s scary,” said Sheri Skakini, who lived on a second row of houses at Myrtle Beach.

Imagine all you have gone: a house reduced to boards and nails, furniture soaked, a basket still hanging from the remnant of a ceiling, appliances and stuffed animals in the streets.

Late Friday and early Saturday, at the discretion of local officials, most Horry County residents were allowed to return home, or to where their homes had once been. Returns were discouraged, though, because people could interfere with crews assessing damages or cleaning up dangerous situations.

But problems didn’t exist only at the coast, because Hugo hadn’t stopped there. The storm rushed inland with winds of more than 100 mph, causing wind damage and power outages as it went through Sumter, Orangeburg, Columbia and Camden.

And Hugo didn’t stop with South Carolina. Reduced to a tropical storm at 6 a.m. Friday, Hugo traveled further inland, reaching Charlotte, N.C. at 8 a.m. Friday with winds of 90 mph. There, Hugo left nearly 90 percent of the city’s residents without power. The storm was responsible for four deaths in North Carolina.

By 6 p.m., Hugo had weakened further, its winds down to 40 mph. Still, Hugo confounded the experts again, sustaining itself, swirling farther west than predicted, moving into Virginia, where it killed two people; West Virginia; Ohio and western Pennsylvania.Ironically, Hugo moved so quickly through these states that the threat of severe flooding was eased.

Just west of Pittsburgh, Hugo became no more than heavy winds and rain. South Carolina’s storm of the century died in Canada, its remnants darting through the St. Lawrence Valley and lost to tracking devices in another weather front.

This special section was written by senior writer Claudia Brinson, with reports by Michael Sponhour and Charles Pope at Charleston; Steve Smith at Sullivans Island; Holly Gatling at Georgetown and McClellanville; Bobby Bryant and Bill Robinson at Garden City Beach; Pat Butler and Richard Greer at Myrtle Beach; Bob Stuart and Frank Heflin at Beaufort, Fripp Island and Hilton Head; Mike Livingston, Dawn Hinshaw, Dottie Ashley, Cindi Ross, Warren Bolton and Clark Surratt in Columbia; Jan Tuten in Sumter, Camden and Orangeburg. Contributions also came from artist Lou Kinard and photographers Maxie Roberts, Ginger Pinson, Linda Stelter, Joe Jackson, Tim Dominick and Perry Baker.