Twenty years ago this morning, I got a call in Fayetteville from my father here in Columbia assuring me that both he and my sister were fine. I was a bit mystified by why he felt I would have been wondering -- Yes, I knew there was a hurricane incoming, but we had had a number over the years, and both he and my sister were 150 miles from the ocean. Then I started listening to the news reports..
I eventually took off early from work and drove down to the coast, writing this email to a good friend of mine in California a couple of weeks later about what I saw. After trimming a few personal bits, here it is:
Subject: battered survivors!
Date: Tue, 10 Oct 89 01:17:14 EDT
I know it's the oldest story in the world, but believe it or not, I was just about to write you. I've been meaning to for a while, but for some reason I can't explain, I tend to put off pleasant things sometimes (not that I don't put off the unpleasant ones too!)
First off, let me avoid any suspense and say right off that our beach-house is unscathed, then let me say a word that pretty much describes a lot of my home state now: devastated.
Everyone was expecting the storm to turn north directly after landfall, and Fayetteville was battening the hatches, but all we got here was a strong breeze, not even enough to wake me up, and I sleep with the windows open.
The reports coming out of South Carolina were sketchy and ominous, so I took off work early Friday to head down to the coast and check out our house. I didn't see more than a few signs blown down until I hit the NC/SC border, but then it started to get worse in patches. I know you don't know much about SC geography, but essentially my route after the border was mostly east with a little southering.
Dillon had a few uprooted trees and some downed power lines, but was essentially untouched, the huge tacky South of the Border video display was going full blast, though one of their billboards had been appropriately altered to read "Admit you didn't stop!" rather than "Never admit you didn't stop!".
When I hit Marion I started to get worried. What traffic lights there were were all on blink, and lots of them were dead. Marion has a beautiful tree-lined main street, and dozens of the huge old Spanish Moss covered live-oaks were uprooted like weeds. These were in many cases trees 4 and 5 feet in diameter and many of them took up large sections of concrete sidewalk with them when they went. Most of them had fallen clear, but several were on buildings, and from the looks of things several had fallen across the road.
Heading out of Marion, things seemed to become almost normal again, aside from the occasional downed tree. I figured I was close enough to the coast to pick up WKZQ out of Myrtle Beach so I tuned in. KZQ is a rock station, heavily youth oriented and not known for news so I wasn't expecting too much, but I was wrong. The on air crew had been at the station through out the whole storm and had somehow managed to keep it on the air. They were obviously tired, but were doing perhaps the best and most electrifying job of reporting I had ever heard. Myrtle Beach, it soon became clear, was a wreck and the National Guard was out patrolling to prevent a recurrence of the looting that happened in the Virgin Islands. They didn't know anything about the rest of the coast. Communications were completely shut off, Garden City might as well be South America, and Charleston might as well be the moon.
Finally they got a man up in a chopper to do an aerial survey. Listening to his descriptions of piers washed away, seawalls down and houses carried for blocks or simply flattened as the pilot cursed in the background was really scary. He got as far south as Garden City before his fuel started to give out and he had to return. "It's getting worse", he said, "the further south we go. We can only speculate how bad it must be at Litchfield and Pawley's Island." Our house is on Pawleys Island and I was getting spooked.
West of Aynor, I saw an open quick stop and realized I hadn't seen an open gas station since Dillon. I stopped and filled up the tank, even though it was only half empty. Nobody inside knew anything more than I did.
Conway appeared to be almost normal, right down to working traffic lights. I passed a mobile home lot and all the trailers were still there. As I turned south on 544 and went past USC Conway "Coastal Carolina" there seemed to have been no more than a bad thunderstorm, with tree branches scattered occasionly. Just before the drawbridge across the Intracoastal Waterway there was a line down across the road, and a utility crew with a flagman waving cars through a few at a time. I went across and was on the Wacamaw Neck, the almost peninsula that holds the bulk of South Carolina's Grand Strand.
Heading through Socastee for the 17 bypass there were still few signs of damage. Fallen trees, though comparatively fewer than in Marion, and lots of debris. Store windows were all taped in Xes and none seemed to have broken. I hit the bypass and headed south. US 17 runs the East coast from Florida at least up into NC. It never strays far inland; at this point I guess it was about a mile west of the Atlantic. There was plenty of windblown debris (mostly tree parts), and a fair number of downed trees, but on the whole not too bad and I began to feel a little better. Murrels Inlet seemed fairly normal from the road though I did notice a roof blown off near the new mall that someone is convinced will be a good idea where 17 bypass meets 17 business.
At Litchfield I began to worry again. There is normally a dense stand of woods between 17 and Litchfield beach, almost enough to be called a forest. The beach is only about a half mile from the road here, but it was never possible to see it before. I saw it now. I would say 60 to 70 percent of the trees in the woods there must have been down, and as in Marion, these were by no means little trees.
All the businesses on 17 that are part of the Pawley's Island community were intact, including the famous Hammock Shop. I reached the North Causeway and saw Sherrif's deputies guarding the approach. I figured I could legitimately get past them with no trouble, but I had my doubts about the main road on the Island, so I went on towards the South Causeway so I would have to traverse less of it.
There was a National Guardsman with a HUMV guarding the South Causeway. I told him I wanted to check on our beach-house. He said no one could come on that way and that the deputies at the North Causeway were letting people on only until 6pm. It was 5:30 now.
I sped back to the other entrance. "I'm xxxxxx xxxxx", I told one of the deputies, "I have a house on the Island." It occurred to me I didn't have any papers to prove that. "I'm in the phone book." He didn't look it up, just told me I had 10 minutes to check my property and waved me on.
The Island is only 1/4 mile wide at the widest spot and considerably narrower in most places; there is only one main road. We had a sewer line installed this spring and the road had been repaved rather tentatively. Now it wasn't paved at all. I drove over packed damp sand and through puddles of salt water. There were boards everywhere and I worried about hitting a nail, or several nails. It wouldn't be a good time to try and find a tow truck.
Finally after cresting a small hummock of sand I found I couldn't go any further. The road in front of me was strewn with piles of lumber, mattresses, doors, decks, stairs, shingles, chairs and other pieces of peoples lives. I was still a block from our house. I stopped and shut off the engine, grabbed my camera and started to pick my way through the debris. There was little bare space and lots of upturned nails. I thought about my last tetanus shot, which seemed like a long time ago, and concentrated on being careful. Finally I hit clear ground again.
As I turned the corner at the "White House", there was a small wooden head floating forlornly in a puddle. I couldn't imagine what it had come from, not a doll. A dog howled mornfully from upstairs. I hoped it hadn't been left there through the storm. Down at the end of the street I could see another pile of debris similar to what I had just come through. I took another few steps and finally I could see our house, still standing on its pilings. As I got closer, I surveyed the damage.
Our front porch is screened in and the screens were down. No surprise there. All the windows looked unbroken, the steps were still there. I rushed up them and onto the porch. There had obviously been heavy salt spray on the rocking chairs and picnic table, but so what? I unlocked the front door and went inside. It was like stepping into another world, one where the previous twenty-four hours had never happened. The curtains were still all drawn, the air was still and musty. The power and water were, of course, out. I opened the back door and went down the back steps. The back yard was a real mess. There was every manner of debris, including someone elses steps, part of a deck, lots of boards and several sizable tree parts. Part of the trailer next door, the trailer that HAD been next door was on top of the clothes-line, forcing it down but not breaking it. The plywood panels had been torn off the east side of the enclosed shower, and it was filled with branches. Although I didn't notice it at the time, the old wooden johnboat my grandfather had made was gone from underneath the house. (We later found it again)
I went back upstairs. The refrigerator was still cool inside. I got a plastic bag from a drawer and removed the few jars that were in it. I left it open, top and bottom, so it wouldn't get stale and mildewey in there. I went to the circuit breakers and turned them all off. It looked safe enough, but I wanted someone watching the next time power was applied to the house's wiring. My time was running out, so I locked up again and went down the front steps, a happier man than before. The debris hampered my efforts to do much looking around but I verified that Mrs. Ward's house, the "Suits Me" was still standing, though her stairs were down. Mr. Ward built that one from all the lumber strewn by Hazel in '54. The "Red House" (which is not red) was off its pilings and almost in the street, stopped only by running into trees. I couldn't get around front to see, but I later learned that it had been rammed into by three other houses closer to the ocean than it and traveling inland. If not for those trees, we might have been next. Of the two trailers next to us, one was completely flattened; the other had been twisted about, and the end facing me had been shorn off. I could see into it now, like the set of a sitcom. A closet had abutted the missing wall, and I could see the clothes still hung as though nothing had happened. I took some pictures and headed back for the car.
I left the Island without incident and decided to head for my hometown, Columbia. My father had called me before I went to work that morning to let me know he and my sister were all right, but the storm had roared though like a freight train, and I suspected there would be a lot of picking up to do. Also, I had told him that I was heading for the coast, which had worried him some (more so than me at the time, he had been raised in Florida so I guess he had a better idea of conditions), so I needed to get word out that I and the house were OK, preferably before I actually got to Columbia.
I headed back down 17 towards Georgetown. There were few signs of bad damage between Pawley's and Georgetown except for the Quality Inn "Seagull", which had had the side blown off a second story room so that you could look in and see the bed and all the furniture. Coming over the bridge into Georgetown, where the Wacamaw river empties into Winyah Bay, boats from the small marina were all strewn around, with 3 of them being jammed up against the bridge in the hollow where it met the ground. The sun was starting to go down, and there were no lights in sight. Thinking back, I realized that I had seen no signs of electricity since Conway. On the radio they were talking about the Myrtle Beach curfew. I pulled into a restaurant parking lot to try the phone, but two guys in another car pulling out told me it was dead. I found another one in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot that had a dial tone, but I couldn't get a long distance line. I gave it up and headed for Andrews on 521.
Andrews was dark too. I was off the coast now, heading generally westerly. I tried several more phones, again the ones that "worked" wouldn't give me a line to Columbia. I tried my aunt in Hartsville, still no luck. Hugo had stirred up all the swamps and the mosquitos were out in unseasonable force. Standing at the phone, I must have been bitten several dozen times. Heading out of Andrews, I noticed too that a large number of frogs was out and playing tag with the traffic. Mostly they lost. Not that there was much traffic, most people were smarter that I was. I drove on for Salters. It was as dark as I had ever seen it.
Just outside of Salters, there was a tree down across the road. 521 is no interstate, but it is a major rural highway and I was surprised, both that there was that much damage this far inland (about 50 miles) and that noone had cleared it. I looked ahead as best I could, no oncoming lights, so I drove around it. I came up behind a car going at what I considered a crawl, but I stayed there and that fellow probably saved my life a couple of times, since as it turned out the downed tree was the norm, not the exception. If I had hit any of those doing 50 (and I would have since there was no light to see any further than my headlights), I probably would have been at least badly hurt. I followed him to Greelyville then he turned off and I kept on. I didn't think I was going go get through there, there were so many trees down that I was either in the wrong lane, or off the road entirely more often than not in the downtown section (if Greelyville can be said to have a "downtown"). I made the main intersection and it cleared slightly, but as I began to leave town it rapidly got worse. There is a long stretch of nothing between Greelyville and Manning, swamps and forest with few houses and no business. With no lights from the sparse residences, I might have as well been on another planet as I inched my way around fallen pines. For some reason, my lane (westbound) seemed to be more often blocked than the eastbound lane, so I would have to wait for the few eastbound vehicles to pass then pull over into their lane, or all the way off onto their shoulder to pass a tree, then do it again in another quarter mile. I was beginning to have serious doubts about reaching Columbia.
Things cleared up a little and I had a pretty straight shot into the outskirts of Manning. I saw the first electric light I had seen since nightfall, but it was a National Guard armory on generators, no power here. I drove into town and saw a warehouse that had been completely flattened I couldn't tell what else was damaged, but it didn't look good. A
policeman stopped me near the court house to tell me that Manning was under curfew and that I should go home. I said that was Fayetteville, and could I get through to I95? (At this point I gave up completely on reaching Columbia). He said yes, but be careful of downed power lines. I must have driven over a dozen by the time I reached the interstate. I didn't even bother to try a phone in Manning.
I headed north on 95 went a few miles and took an off ramp at Sardinia to see if I could find a phone. The service station there looked like it had been pounded into the ground by a giant fist, so I got back on and went to Turbeville. Finally there, in the pitch black parking lot of a service station, with hopefully reputable people standing around in the
dark, I found a phone that both had a dial tone and could reach Columbia. I called my sister's, where it turned out my father was also and told them that the house was OK and I just couldn't get through to Columbia. I headed north again, and when I hit Florence, I saw the first lights, though there were still many dark stretches. Things normalized again as I came full circle and hit the NC border at Dillon.
When I hit Fayetteville, I called KZQ long distance (incoming calls still had a chance of working for some reason) and told them some of what I just told you (though I'm afraid I got Andrews and Conway mixed up). Later I learned that above where I was able to get on the Island, the South Spit was breached entirely, splitting the Island into two pieces. It is currently being filled with bricks taken from ruined parts of the Citadel in Charleston, another bit of history for both places. This spring I visited the quaint fishing village of McClellanville and thought it might be a nice place to live with its shady streets and Victorian houses; it is now almost erased from the map. In fact there was almost major
loss of life there as the water came within feet of the evacuation center where the population had been moved. Garden City and the Isle of Palms were almost wiped out, Charleston was heavily damaged. 100 miles inland, Sumter was flattened, Columbia was shaken and all the way up in Charlotte major damage was sustained. We are expecting high fall tides this weekend, and there is a frantic project underway to raise up a dune line to replace the one just lost to protect the houses that are left from the high water.
It's hard to convey the scope of what happened; I still don't really grasp it myself, but the important thing is that due to modern storm tracking, and the Governor's politically risky order for an early evacuation very few lives were lost. We rebuilt after Hazel and we'll rebuild after Hugo.
Argh, sorry about that, once I got started, I couldn't stop. Anyway just one more note on that. The following quote is approximate, I wish I had clipped it
"My son raises chickens,
You know, them fighting chickens.
Well anyways, during the storm he went out and
tied them all down so they wouldn't get
blowed away. And it worked mostly, but
not a one of them chickens had a feather
on him next morning"
-- woman in Macedonia SC
20 Responses to 'Hurricane Hugo, South Carolina: 21 September 1989'
Subscribe to comments with RSS