Weather News

Hugo’s aftermath hurricane follows beaten path, effect on SC uncertain

Hurricane Hugo appears to follow the same path as hurricanes David and Gracie, although whether it will hit the U.S. mainland is still unknown.
Hurricane Hugo appears to follow the same path as hurricanes David and Gracie, although whether it will hit the U.S. mainland is still unknown. National Weather Service

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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This story first appeared in The State on September 20, 1989.

Hurricane Hugo, potentially the worst storm to affect the Southeast in a decade, is on a track well-worn by other hurricanes that have hit South Carolina, although no one knows yet where it is headed.

“It’s an interesting storm and on the beaten path of storms that have caused us trouble,” State Climatologist John Purvis said. “We certainly can’t write this one off yet.”

Hugo, after taking a hard swipe at Caribbean islands on Tuesday, was moving past the Bahamas late in the day and could affect Florida by early Friday, forecasters said.

At 9 p.m. Hugo was 23.6 north latitude and 69.3 west longitude, about 950 miles from Charleston. Fifteen degrees equals about 1,000 miles.

Forecasters warned that a number of weather factors could send the storm blowing off in different direction.

Weather systems as far away as Canada could alter Hugo’s course, but the most likely impact will come from a combination of a low pressure system moving west across southern Georgia and a broad high pressure ridge — the “Bermuda high” — to the north.

The high pressure system probably will block Hugo from spinning harmlessly out into the Atlantic as Hurricane Gabrielle did last week, while the low pressure could lure the storm westward toward land.

“When you look out two to three days in the future, that’s when we have our most difficult problem,” said Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla.

“We were just looking through a bunch of the old hurricane charts,” he said. “They’ve done everything. They’ve done loopity loops, they’ve gone into south Florida, they’ve gone into central Florida and all the way up into the Carolinas.”

On that subject, Purvis observed, “Hurricane David in 1979, the last storm to really wallop our area, was on a track just a little farther west than this one. And Hurricane Gracie in 1959 had a very erratic track but not too different than Hugo.

“And the 1940 hurricane — the last one to kill a lot of people in this area — was on a path similar to Hugo’s. That storm turned northward pretty much like this one and came in around Beaufort. It killed 37 people.

“Hurricanes respond to pressure changes aloft,” he said, “and at the present, Hugo will continue on its northwest course. But there appears to be a good possibility of a blocking action which will make its path uncertain after Wednesday. That’s the problem. When they get blocked, then you don’t know where they will go.”

As if it weren’t difficult enough to forecast Hugo’s path, there is the additional complication of Tropical Storm Iris, which is trailing Hugo in lock-step about 650 miles to the east.

Satellite photos indicate the two storms are interacting, but exactly how they ultimately will affect each other is guesswork.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center sent an instrument-laden tracking plane into the region around the storms Tuesday afternoon to gather enough data to give them a better idea of what’s going on.

They already know it isn’t coincidence that Iris is following Hugo’s track: Both are close enough to be moved by the same prevailing winds.

Having two full-blown tropical cyclones traveling so close together is a rarity in the Atlantic, though it’s not unique: In 1955, Hurricanes Connie and Diane hit North Carolina near the Outer Banks with a one-two punch just five days apart.

“They can both exist at the same time if they don’t get too close,” forecaster Hal Gerrish said. “If they get too close, one will sap the strength of the other.”

The motions of Hugo and Iris also might be affected by each other. Under the right conditions, two approximately equal nearby storms can circle each other in a counterclockwise direction, like two ice skaters swinging each other around their common center of gravity.

The phenomenon is known as the Fujiwara Effect, after a Japanese meteorologist who studied its occurrence in Pacific storms.

Hugo and Iris are unlikely to go into a full Fujiwara waltz — there isn’t really enough room before they run into land.

Meteorologist Scott Sidlow of the State Water Resources Commission, said the immediate threat, Hugo, is currently forecast to remain a Category 2 hurricane — a storm of moderate strength. Late Tuesday, Hugo was packing winds of 105 mph around the central eye — winds that could strengthen over warm, open water.

“The forecast puts Hugo a couple of hundred miles east of Cape Canaveral at 8 a.m. on Friday,” Sidlow said. “But that forecast is for guidance purposes only and could be off by several hundred miles. Currently, we are not sure if South Carolina will be affected.”

Last year, Hurricane Gilbert walloped the western Caribbean and took a southern route through the Gulf of Mexico, killing more than 300 people and causing billions of dollars of damage in nine nations.