It was just brought to my attention that today is the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo’s landfall in coastal South Carolina. Wow, time flies.
I remember Hugo. We were living in Beaufort, South Carolina at the time, and had been nervously watching the weather updates over the past few days as the storm got closer. That morning, we looked at the forecast, and they said Hugo was expected to make landfall somewhere between Savannah and Charleston… Beaufort is smack in the middle of that zone, so we loaded up the car and got the hell out of there. My dad, a physician’s assistant with the Naval Hospital in town, had to stay behind in case there were mass casualties, so it was my mom, myself, my three siblings, some small family heirlooms, luggage, and three angry cats in an ’87 Ford Taurus for the next 14 hours or so.
The traffic on I-26 was unreal, like something out of a disaster movie. The westbound lanes were a 200-mile-long parking lot all the way past Columbia, while the eastbound lanes were completely deserted except for the occasional convoy of National Guard and Red Cross trucks headed for the coast. It was very erie. Eventually they allowed westbound traffic to cross the highway median and drive on the eastbound side.
We drove all the way to Cincinnati, since every hotel east of the mountains was packed with evacuees from the coast. At least we had family to stay with in Cincy, so we kept on driving all day and for pretty late into the night, not sure how long it would be before we could return to Beaufort, nor what we would have left when we got back. We got to my grandmother’s house in Mariemont at some ungodly hour of the night, turned on CNN, and saw that Hugo had turned north at the last minute and was ripping Charleston to shreds. Beaufort had a fair amount of damage, but was spared the worst of the storm.
We stayed in Cincy for a couple days before heading back. On the trip back to Beaufort, I remember seeing how the storm damage got progressively worse as we got closer to the coast. Around Columbia, it was mostly downed trees and branches alongside the expressway. Closer to Charleston, overhead highway signs, billboards, and gas station canopies were ripped to shreds. As we drove through mile after mile of pine forests, we saw that every single tree had been snapped in half. North of Charleston, all the trees were snapped toward the west; south of Charleston, all the trees were snapped toward the east. You could tell exactly where the eye of the hurricane had passed because that’s where the all fallen trees changed direction.
We were very fortunate. Our house wasn’t damaged, and most of the damage in the neighborhood was limited to some downed power lines and fallen trees. We have some relatives in Charleston who had five feet of water in their house and a tree in their living room. Many car windows on their block had exploded because the barometric pressure had dropped so fast.
The running joke was that Hugo was actually a good thing for South Carolina, because it finally gave them something to talk about besides the Civil War. As for me, I’ll be happy if that’s the closest I ever come to a large-scale disaster.