South Carolina

Hugo at 30: Remembering the first US modern hurricane

COLUMBIA, S.C. — From evacuating hundreds of thousands of people from the coast to live TV coverage in the shrieking wind and rain, 1989's Hurricane Hugo might have been the first U.S. storm of the modern age.

When it slammed into South Carolina just minutes before midnight on Sept. 21, 1989, Hugo's 135 mph winds made it the strongest storm to hit the U.S. in 20 years and its $9.5 billion of damage made it the costliest storm in the nation's history.

The 20-foot wall of water that surged inland just north of where the eye made landfall in Charleston is still an Atlantic Coast record.

Hugo has been surpassed over the past 30 years both in strength and damage by a other hurricanes - from Andrew to Katrina to Harvey and Michael.

But the Category 4 hurricane has few peers, especially in South Carolina where it gouged a wide path of damage from expensive beachfront homes on the Isle of Palms to the thousands of trees toppled in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"I'll never forget the look on the governor's face when he got off the phone with the Hurricane Center and they said it wasn't changing course and was just getting stronger," said Warren Tompkins, chief of staff for Gov. Carroll Campbell, who died in 2005.

"His face was as white as a sheet. He said 'It might go to Cat 5 and it's going to hit the whole coast and we are going to be wiped out. We probably ought to pray,'" Tompkins said.

Hugo had a history before South Carolina. The storm crippled and nearly crashed a Hurricane Hunter plane as a Category 5 east of the Caribbean. It destroyed 85% of the buildings on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and killed 12 people and did $1 billion in damage to Puerto Rico.

Those images were beamed back to South Carolina, where the fear of a growing storm in the warm Gulf Stream waters off the coast led Gov. Campbell to an unprecedented decision. Instead of allowing local beach governments do their own evacuations, he issued a statewide evacuation order.

People had 24 hours or less to evacuate because Hugo was closing in fast. Nearly 250,000 people left. Campbell briefly reversed all lanes of Interstate 26 out of Charleston when it appeared people would be caught on the highway in the storm.

Thirteen people in South Carolina died in the storm. But even though the ocean washed completely over Isle of Palms - almost over the second story of some buildings - none of the barrier island's 3,700 residents were killed. They had nearly all left.

"We lost more people after the storm than during the storm," former State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart said. "Fires, electrocutions, trying to cut down trees."

Twenty-two people died cleaning up after Hugo in South Carolina.

Hugo also ushered in modern storm coverage. The Weather Channel covered it all night long, but from its Atlanta studio, where a young Jim Cantore worked a late afternoon shift . CNN had reporters doing live shots from Charleston and Wilmington. North Carolina. The CBS news magazine "48 Hours" did a live show the night of landfall.

Dozens of national reporters from TV stations and newspapers were hustled out of Charleston County's emergency center to a nearby hotel when the roof came off the building.

All that national attention led to a problem in modern hurricane coverage. So much was reported on Charleston that the devastation farther up the coast and inland got much less attention. Hurricane force winds were felt near Columbia. In Charlotte, North Carolina, schools were closed for up to two weeks.

"It was ugly everywhere," Stewart said. "We had fistfights at roadblocks. People wanted to go home. We couldn't get supplies everywhere they were needed. Ice was like gold."

The extent of the destruction led Campbell to do something else modern governors have followed after hurricanes. He begged for federal assistance and to get the military involved in cleaning up and restoring power.

"Tensions subside as the lights go on. You could see it. Things would calm down a little when people had power," Tompkins said.

South Carolina is accustomed to what to do when hurricanes approach now. The state's four coastal counties have nearly 1 million people - almost 75% more than in 1989 - but seamlessly evacuated four times in the past four years without a direct hit from a storm with half of Hugo's power.

There is a modern Emergency Management Center instead of the governor's conference room or the basement of an old state office building with a robust communication system. With 1989's radios, state troopers couldn't talk to state agents who couldn't talk to local police.

"The whole response and preparation to all these major storms have come so much more efficient and professional," Tompkins said. "We were just doing our best as we went along."