Hurricane Hugo: 25 Years of Recovery

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September 21, 1989: A day etched in the minds of every South Carolinian. A day that, in just a few short hours, would see the destruction of historic landmarks, beloved beaches and communities.

Out at sea, the winds of Hurricane Hugo roared at 160 mph. At that time, Hugo was classified as a category 5 storm. It moved from the Caribbean to the U.S wreaking havoc along the way. Once ashore it became a category 4. Hurricane force winds of up to 135 mph extended 100 miles northeast and 50 miles south.

Hugo crashed ashore in Charleston, South Carolina just after midnight, bringing with it powerful winds and vicious storm surges. It was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since Camille in 1969 and the worst to hit South Carolina since 1872.

The storm left the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, South Carolina and North Carolina in states of disaster.

Marking the 25-year anniversary, this week I had the opportunity to explore the areas of Charleston that were devastated. The following images are before and after shots – from 1989 to today. View an infographic detailing damages caused by Hugo here.

Battery Park

The historical houses on South Battery Street in downtown Charleston received damages while streets were heavily flooded. The storm caused damage to 754 properties in the Historic District. A total of 756 suffered major destruction. In total, out of 652 historical sites in Charleston County, 65 were lost.

Riviera Movie Theatre

The Riviera Theatre made its Charleston debut on January 15, 1939. The historical site sits on the corner of King and Market Streets. Originally serving as a single-screen movie theatre, it was renovated into a conference center in 1997.

St. Philips Church

Located at 142 East Church Street is the historic St. Philip’s Church, a popular tourist attraction of “The Holy City.” The tourism industry is vital to Charleston’s economy.Ocean

The memory of Hugo continues not just in the minds of those who were directly affected, but by every passer-by. A boat deemed “The Folly Boat” stands as an icon of the destructive storm.

Prior to the storm, residents of the coastal town of McClellanville, SC – 39 miles from the heart of Charleston – took shelter in the cafeteria at Lincoln High School. However, storm surge flooded the room, with some people climbing up to the rafters for safety. A portion of the Ben Sawyer Bridge – linking Mount Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island – collapsed due to strong winds and storm surge. On Sullivan’s Island, water destroyed two or three rows of beach houses in some areas. At Isle of Palms, boats harbored at the marina were washed ashore and piled into a large heap. Losses at Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms alone reached nearly $270 million.

folly boat

Damages caused by Hugo did not just destroy landmarks and beaches. Businesses and the economy struggled to recover from the storm. Damages totaled over $10 million. That was equivalent to $17.5 billion in 2010.

The Coastal Seafood Industry took a hit in every way.

  • Fifty shrimp boats were tossed ashore
  • 600 small business destroyed
  • $750 million in inventory and income losses due to power outages
  • Five canneries and processing plants destroyed.

The logging industry did not come out of the storm any better:

  • $100 million in damages
  • 1/3 of state’s timber lost
  • Equivalent of four years of harvested timber destroyed
  • 40,000 workers out of employment
  • 4.45 million acres of forest damaged
  • Only 12 percent of damaged trees were salvaged

Adding to the devastation, immediately after the storm, media accounts “indicated that there were serious problems in South Carolina’s response and early recovery efforts.” According to Natural Hazard Research‘s analysis of disaster recovery, South Carolina was not prepared.

“Problems were found in all four phases of emergency management: preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. Some preparedness measures, such as those for warnings and evacuations were effective; however, preparedness was rather narrowly constructed. The recovery period revealed significant deficiencies with state and county emergency capabilities and serious problems in two national disaster response organizations, the Red Cross and FEMA.”

Hurricane Season is nearing an end, but that doesn’t mean you and your business should put down the guard.

Ways to prepare before a hurricane

  • Create a written emergency preparedness and action plan for your family and business. Review it, distribute it, be available to answer questions and concerns.
  • Call your insurance agent and/or carefully review your policy. Review insurance coverage for your home and business, and the contents. Determine your flood insurance eligibility – homeowners insurance typically does not cover flood damage.
  • Prepare crates or other safe transport for pets. Sixty-one percent of people will not evacuate if they cannot take their pets with them. Have food and familiar items ready for your pet.satellite image
  • Buy plywood or shutters for protecting windows. Trim trees to lessen flying debris. Store outdoor furniture, umbrellas, and other objects that have the potential to become projectiles and harm others.
  • Remember – many injuries occur before a storm from unsafe use of power tools before an emergency – stay calm and ask for help if unfamiliar with drills, saws and other tools.
  • Find out if you live in a hurricane evacuation zone by contacting your local emergency management office. Make an evacuation plan if you live in an area vulnerable to storm surge or fresh water flooding, if you live in a mobile home or if you live in a high-rise building.
  • Identify the evacuation route you will use if told to evacuate. Determine the nearest substantial, low-rise building outside of flood zones to which you can evacuate such as an official public shelter, a hotel or a friend’s or relative’s home. Find out if where you’re going will accept any pets. Gas up your car. Do not store extra gasoline in an unsafe manner.
  • Agree upon two places family members can meet if separated: one outside your home for an emergency while there and one out of the neighborhood if you cannot return home.
  • Test emergency equipment such as generators and flashlights. Replace batteries, have extra batteries on hand. If using kerosene lanterns or candles, guard against fire. Store flammable liquids in a safe and secure manner.
  • Decide where you will store your boat and RV during a tropical storm or hurricane and factor into your action plan the time to move it to storage.
  • Assemble a hurricane survival kithurricane survival kit. Obtain emergency supplies now to be self-sufficient during the storm and its potentially lengthy aftermath. If you wait until a hurricane is on your doorstep to buy these items, they will be in very short supply or even completely unavailable. Water for utility usage (not personal washing or consumption) may be stored in bathtubs and hot-tubs.

Steps to follow after a hurricane

In preparation for Hurricane Season, the following resources include an excerpt from Firestorm’s Book, Disaster Ready People for a Disaster Ready America By Harry W. Rhulen, James W. Satterfield and Suzy Loughlin. You may download the entire ebook for free.


Look at the recovery in post-disaster stages, so as to not get overwhelmed.

  • Immediate recovery
  • Short-term recovery
  • Long-term recovery

Immediate Recovery

  • First and foremost, remain safe. Is the event completely over? For example, the earth no longer quakes, but damaged buildings may continue to fall; the hurricane no longer dumps rains, but the levees then fail.
  • In some cases, law enforcement officials and emergency personnel may be in a position to tell you it’s safe to re-enter certain structures. In many cases, however, the aftermath of a disaster is as chaotic as the disaster itself, and they will not be available, at least initially. Don’t panic; use common sense.
  • Gather your family—this is your mutual support system; make plans together.
  • Handle immediate medical needs—check everyone for wounds or injuries. Use your first aid kit and/or seek additional treatment.
  • It’s during this time that outside help will probably begin to arrive. Local emergency services people will probably be first on the scene, followed by state representatives, and, if the disaster is large enough, eventually FEMA and other Federal resources.
  • Remain alert, as there will still be a great deal of confusion. The various assistance agencies might not be communicating and coordinating well with each other, which means you may get conflicting instructions and information. If someone, even an official, tells you something that doesn’t make sense, if at all possible, wait before you act on that information. Before long, the situation will begin to clarify itself.
  • Avoid obvious hazards—downed electric lines, the smell of gas, standing water, etc. Make sure everyone remains alert and knows how to spot and stay away from danger.
  • Listen to your emergency radio—use it to determine your next moves, which may be to remain where you are. Be careful of rumors; they can exacerbate a disaster, leading to unnecessary risk or pandemonium.
  • Defer making major decisions—focus on the present; when your life is suddenly in upheaval and your status quo is interrupted, you will not be in the frame-of-mind to make sound decisions. But, don’t worry, for the emphasis now should be on your immediate needs. You will not gain anything by deciding or feeling pressure to decide something under duress.
  • Expect emotional reactions—emotions run high after a disaster and swing back and forth. Some people are elated, because it’s over; others are depressed, because things are such a mess. Fear is likely to continue for some time. Do not ignore these feelings and reactions as they come up; address them with love and understanding.
  • Take in enough food and water—provided you still have your reserves, stay hydrated and nourished in order to maintain energy and stay as comfortable as possible.
  • Stay off the phone—lines will be jammed, if they are working at all. Conserve your cell phone batteries.

Short-Term Recovery

  • Once you’re sure the disaster is over, you move into the short-term recovery phase. Again, your first job is to stay safe. During this period (which could be anywhere from a few hours to several weeks), keep providing emotional support to each other, as the healing process is gradual.
  • Depending on the kind of disaster you’ve gone through, at this point, you’ll need to start making some decisions.
  • Do you or can you return home?
  • Do you need to find temporary housing? In doing so, do not rush to any conclusions. Calmly and rationally assess your situation. Now may be the time to activate your contact list.

Long-Term Recovery

  • For a particularly severe event, recovery can take time, and lots of it. In fact, it can take years before a community regains a sense of normalcy. Emotional reactions really set in at this stage. Children, even some adults, may suffer from nightmares or depression. The disaster preparations you made and practiced will help through this tough time. If the concerns persist, seek professional guidance; there is no shame in doing so.
  • Again, keep your cool, yet stand up for yourself when that’s required. Be as flexible and resourceful as the situation warrants. Speed-up/Expedite the recovery process with your identity papers and financial records. If for some reason they are not in your evacuation kit, access those that you mailed to a friend and start things moving forward.

2014 images credit Candace Kaiser for Firestorm. 1989 images credit to The State: South Carolina’s Homepage.

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