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Hugo: A view from the front row

September 21, 2009


By Michael S. Smith II
A former copy editor and features writer for the Charleston Mercury newspaper, Mr. Smith is an SCHotline contributing editor.

On September 22, 1989, I, then age 8, had what some might call a front row seat for the main event: Hurricane Hugo making landfall on the East Coast where two rivers named Ashley and Cooper meet to form the Atlantic Ocean just south of the Holy City.

At the time, my family lived at 2 Water Street, a Charleston Harborfront house that overlooks High Battery from the corner of East Bay and Water streets, the latter of which proved aptly-named when the “wall of water” Hugo tossed up from Charleston Harbor flooded it and many other streets situated below Broad and east of King streets.

During the morning of September 21, Mother Nature kept secret from Carolinians the Category 5 hurricane that was creeping ever closer to our shores. There was not a cloud in the sky when I joined my father for a last trip by Elegant Rags, our family’s women’s casual wear store located on King Street in what’s often now called the antiques district.

I remember thinking how all of the plywood strewn across the facades of structures throughout the city would eventually make for some great skateboard ramp materials as we made our way to the store. Days after the storm, a photographer from Greensboro, N.C.’s daily snapped a shot of me while I was skateboarding in our concrete covered back yard, a sheet of plywood laid on the steps leading up to our pool deck as a makeshift ramp. That photo graced the paper’s cover a day or so later. Coincidentally, my Aunt Sue and Uncle John Middleton, who my mother, brother, and I would leave Charleston to stay with for a week soon after the storm passed, lived in Greensboro.

I also remember sensing in others a new feeling that day. It was a feeling expressed by the quiet yet anxious focus — on what I wasn’t fully certain — that was apparent on the faces of every adult I saw that day, everyone but my 6 foot 5 inches-tall giant of a father who was, in hindsight, obviously trying to allay my and my mother’s concerns about whether a fairly late-made decision to remain in Charleston for the storm was the right choice. Today, I can now make sense of that focus. It was a focus on something quite big, but something altogether unknown for most who had remained in Charleston to either protect their property, gain some bragging rights from attending the cocktail parties hosted later in the evening, or because they were either unable to leave or unwilling to take seriously the magnitude of the ensuing disaster as forecast by local and national weather reporters — the majority of whom, in every case, had never before been confronted by anything like the Category 4 hurricane Hugo would be downgraded to before greeting all of us that night.

In 1989, 2 Water Street was a much larger house than it is today, according to my memories, that is. The grand oaks that cast shade on the turquoise waters of our backyard swimming pool from the garden of Mrs. Colbert’s next door East Bay home — from the verandas of which comedic journalist Stephen Colbert watched the Carolina Yacht Club’s Wednesday Night Regattas as a boy — seemed the stuff of permanent fixtures part of the peninsula’s landscape. Then again, the Ben Sawyer Bridge that connects Sullivan’s Island to the Lowcountry mainland seemed a steel fortress as we crossed over it en route to the Isle of Palms just days before. (Back then, the southern-facing views from Goat Island were unencumbered by the massive IoP connector, and one’s visit to the Isle of Palms was made either by way of Sullivan’s Island or, much as would be the case for several days after September 22, by way of boat.)

Around 4:00 p.m., the afternoon’s breezes began turning to solid gusting winds as my father and I made our way on foot back to Water Street after having moved the family cars into a nearby parking deck. The sun was still shining brightly.

Upon our return to the house my father asked me to help him crack the windows on each floor, explaining this would help air flow through the house during the storm. As I would later learn from the example offered by one of the family cars whose windows were left sealed, pressure within closed spaces during a storm like Hugo can build to such levels that windows will literally explode outward.

We then crossed the street for a visit with members of the Geer family at their 0 Water Street home. How cool I though it was that we would communicate with them throughout the night via walkie-talkies like the ones I saw on all of those 80s war movies.

When we returned home my father set up our battery-powered television/AM FM radio/cassette player as my mother finished her work placing candles and flashlights throughout the three stories we occupied, the first of which was on the second floor of the structure. I’m unsure if that piece of equipment that would bring us bits of news and entertainment for days thereafter still works, but it’s traveled with me wherever I’ve lived since.

My first realization of the enormity of the experience that was Hurricane Hugo came to me as my marbles, scattered about the heart pine floor boards beneath our large dinning room table, began to subtly sway back and forth on their own as if laid down for a round of gaming aboard a sailboat during a fairly still day afloat. Outside, however, calm was nowhere to be found.

How could this be? Was our house literally shaking? Would those earthquake rods protect us, I wondered.

Then came the eye of the storm, and the decrescendo of the freight train like sounds that had persisted since darkness fell upon us that night. With flashlights and our newly-purchased camera in hand, my father and I chanced a visit out of the front door for a quick look down the street. We could determine that a portion of the stucco-covered brick wall which protected our yard from tourists had been washed out by the river of water that was flowing in the street below our second-story perch. I would later learn people risked their lives looting stores on King Street during the brief pause in Hugo’s destructive passage over the city.

Thirty or so minutes later, the winds resumed their howling, rattling the plywood and storm shutters protecting our home.

The morning after was unlike anything I’d experienced before. Not until reading the works of magic realist author Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a high school student would I discover a means by which to measure and describe our upside-down-, albeit downside-up-turned world.

We awoke to a pluff mud soaked paradigm in which utterly bizarre imagery was the norm.

Boats littered certain streets like cars during 5:00 traffic. A sand shark floated dead in our brackish water-filled swimming pool. Several of those immense, indestructible oaks had fallen from Mrs. Colbert’s yard into ours, crushing a several-hundred-years-old brick wall as they fell. A chimney stack sat atop someone’s flooded sports car. The massive Church Street-facing doors at St. Philip’s Church leaned outward. The personal belongings of too many Charlestonians to count were strewn all over the city.

Later, the arrivals of armed National Guardsmen only heightened the parallels between the post-Hugo landscape of the Lowcountry with that of a war zone. Years after that, Southern novelist Pat Conroy, who I’m not sure was actually around Charleston for the storm, would take a stab at depicting this scene through the recollections of one of his main characters who also resided on Water Street.

Porter-Gaud School, where I attended at the time, was closed for weeks. Sullivan’s Island elementary, which stands nearby S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford’s multi-million dollar beachfront home, was literally under water for several days.

The atmosphere was as foreign as the snowfall that consumed the sub-tropical city the following Christmas holiday.

Life was never again the same.

Some have said things changed for the better. As they tell it, the world suddenly discovered Charleston, and Charleston’s the better for it.

As I see it, Hugo was an adventure for some. But more than that, it tested the integrity of a city whose sense of place is steeped in history. And I don’t mean a test of its structural integrity.

Last weekend I mulled over some of the photos taken by my mother and father to catalog the havoc that had been wreaked on Charleston by the great storm of ’89. On my way down from the attic I looked at that old radio and wondered if it still works. I then thought: I hope I won’t need to test it out anytime soon. Then again, the veritable house of cards my wife and I own on Daniel Island, built as cheaply as most fast food meals are prepared, but with a foie gras price tag, is not the sort of place in which one would chance a stay during the next hurricane like Hugo.



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