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‘Never been that scared’: How one family survived Hugo inside an Alcolu country store

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Hugo: 30 years later

Three decades have passed since the killer storm, Hurricane Hugo, cut a path of destruction through South Carolina and beyond.

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Sheltered inside Shorty’s Grocery in Alcolu, SC, 23-year-old Jeannette Atkins and her husband Charles listened as Hurricane Hugo howled outside. As tornadoes threw trees to the ground outside and part of their roof caved in, Atkins, pregnant with her second child, wrapped her 10-month-old son in blankets and tucked him into a sturdy storeroom shelf to try to keep him safe.

“I’ve never been that scared in all my life,” she recently said.

Thirty years later, Atkins, now 53, still carries heavy memories of the night of Sept. 21, 1989, as do many South Carolinians who weathered that infamous storm.

In the early afternoon, before Hugo made its historic landfall near Sullivan’s Island, the Atkinses left their mobile home in Sumter and drove to Alcolu, about 15 miles to the southeast. There, they joined Atkins’ family at their country store, named for her stepfather, Shorty. The couple planned to rely on the store’s supply of food, ice and sundries if the storm was bad enough.

“I’d watched the news, and, well, I’d never heard of a Category 5 coming through South Carolina, so I was not worried,” Atkins said. “But the whole night turned into another ball game.”

Atkins remembers stormy weather picking up in Alcolu around 9 p.m. Winds intensified into the night until shortly after midnight, when the storm lifted a roof from a mobile home Shorty was building behind the grocery, crashing it back down onto the store and sending wooden 2-by-4s through the wall of the room where the family sat. One plank narrowly missed Shorty.

“We all got in front of the store,” Charles Atkins said. They pushed a Pac-Man machine against the door to brace it against the wind. But the storm forced itself against the barricade, sliding the machine across the floor.

“I pushed it back shut, and (the wind) moved it across again,” he said.

As tornadoes formed around them, the intensity of the storm gripped Atkins and her family with terror.

“The wind sounded like a freight train running right beside you. It never stopped,” she said.

Behind Shorty’s, several families who worked in nearby corn and tobacco fields had taken shelter in primitive board houses. Atkins remembers the homes as ramshackle at best: no insulation, tin roofs and unlikely to provide any kind of protection against the raging storm.

“Around 1:30, 2 o’clock in the morning, when the storm was really at its peak, you could hear them screaming for help,” Charles remembered. “Trees fell on top of the houses, roofs blown off.”

“They had babies. Small babies, like we did,” Atkins said.

Charles and the others waited until the eye of the hurricane passed over Alcolu, bringing 30-40 minutes of relative calm, before they went out to rescue their neighbors. Close to a dozen people returned with Charles. By the time the sun rose again the next morning, nearly 20 people had survived the storm together inside the battered grocery.

“When the sunlight came up and you opened the door and looked out, everything was just flat,” Atkins remembered. Fallen trees lay everywhere, and the trees that managed to stay upright were missing their tops. “You just stood there in awe. You couldn’t believe you survived something like that.”

Hugo destroyed the tobacco and corn growing in the fields behind Shorty’s, and the primitive board houses were gone, too. The grocery’s shed, as well as the under-construction mobile home roof were beyond repair.

Atkins said Shorty and her mother were ultimately unable to reopen the wrecked grocery store after Hurricane Hugo and ended up selling the property.

Atkins said it took years for her to get back to “normal,” and she developed acute anxiety during thunderstorms that lingers to this day.

“I can’t stand that noise. The sound of it … it terrifies me. I was never like that until after Hugo,” she said. “When you hear a thunderstorm? Bam. And when you see on TV they’re tracking a hurricane? You watch it.”