Monday, September 21, 2009
When Hugo came to town
Twenty years ago today, I crawled out from the closet under the stairs and opened the front door of the house that we had just built. What I saw made me catch my breath. I couldn't find the front yard because there were limbs and debris everywhere. The smell of ripped wood and torn leaves permeated the air. Hurricane Hugo had come to the Lowcountry.
My wife and I had decided the day before to stay even though there were dire warnings to get out. We boarded up the windows of our newly built home. I thought "This house is built like a fort with hurricane clips and earthquake rods. It can withstand anything." It sits on relatively high ground for this island with 23 ft. at the first floor elevation. I knew that storm surge from the creek could flood the property.
We had all the supplies that we needed. We did all the hurricane prep stuff. We listened to the head of the County Council tell everyone to evacuate. And we listened to the final statement that we were to hear for 23 days because of having no power. That message stated that if you were still in your home, it was now too late to leave.
As the day turned to night, we listened to the radio until finally that went off the air. When water started coming through the ridge vents and running down from the ceiling fans, that's when we moved to the closet under the stairs. The lights went out and with our cat and dog we listened as the wind howled and limbs hit the house.
It was a night that seemed to go on and on. And finally, when it was over and the dawn came, we realized that we had been lucky. Yes, every leaf had been stripped from the trees, there were broken limbs everywhere, but there had been no storm surge here and no damage to our house.
We later learned that others had not faired so well. There was massive destruction north of the city. The beach communities were ravaged. The beautiful national forest suffered major damage. Trees were snapped like twigs. Lives were lost, lives were changed.
But there were advantages from such a tragedy, as there inevitably are from all such things. People helped each other. We worked together to clear the downed trees from our road. We shared a generator with neighbors to have water from our well. We had community suppers where we all cooked something from our defrosting freezers. There was a sense of community, survival, and gratitude.
Since Hugo, there have been other hurricanes with greater destructive power: Andrew and Katrina wrought much more damage and suffering. Those storms hit highly urbanized areas whereas Hugo's path took it through a less populated area of the coast.
At the time, I didn't think that I would see things return to "normal" in my life time. The forest is still healing through new growth. The trees have leafed out. The houses were rebuilt. The spirits of the people returned. And the sense of community that pulled us together gradually dissipated. Some of the neighbors moved away because they didn't want to face another hurricane. The man who loaned us a generator died four years ago. Times have changed and many don't remember or know what it was like.
But today I reflect briefly on that storm. And I'm mindful of how quickly the material possessions can be gone. But what is left is our indominable spirit and a great sense of pulling together for the good of all. And gratitude for just this one day when the sun is shining and the breeze is light.