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.


  1. Whew. Glad you made it. I feel a kindred spirit with everyone else who stayed. I was working at St. Francis in town that night.

  2. Having just returned from Galveston and the one year anniversary of Ike, I'm going to admonish you for not leaving! I heard stories of the people who refused to leave, and they are no longer here or were rescued at great effort and cost. That said, I don't know if I could leave under the same circumstances.
    And I would feel a lot safer with a sailor around;)

  3. Holy Cow! Riveting! Our little wind/storm things can last up to half an hour or so. SO different than your neck of the woods.

  4. Currently I live in the area that was devestated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I was not here at the time of the storm, but my husband was. The stories of the human spirit that not only survived, but thrived fill me with gratitude every time I hear them. Beautiful reflection Syd.

  5. On the West Coast, we live with the inevitable possibility of an earthquake. I take it for granted when we don't have any danger today. What a wonderful message to be reminded of a beautiful fall day, and all is good. We just never know when our lives could be suddenly changed.

  6. A great posting and all I can add is Amen!

  7. I just can't help but see the comparison of your description of the destruction done by Hurricane Hugo, its aftermath, the pulling together of people helping each other, and the return to normal - TO - the destruction done by my alcoholism, the fellowship of AA, and the return of health so many of us have experienced.

    Sorry for such a long run-on sentence. My mother, an English teacher, is probably turning over in her grave. :)

    Great post. Thanks.

  8. It is a tough decision to leave or stay. The experience here when Rita threatened the area left people stranded on highways and gas stations without gasoline. People died on the roads. Walgreen's abandoned the communities by closing 48 hours before the storm was to hit. The banks closed for three days in a row, an illegal move. People are not themselves.

    We stayed through Ike and were able to evacuate after the storm. Being without electricity and not being able to return home for fifteen days wore on me. I would prefer to never go through that again. But if I lived on an island there is no way I would stay, not after what Galveston experienced.

    Sorry, that was long winded.

  9. I recently saw some pictures of Chernobyl 20 years later, and it is amazing how the world just keeps doing what it does. Trees growing through floors, birds living in old classrooms. Life just keeps going. We get overwhelmed with the situations in our lives, but the sun (almost always) still rises, right on time.

  10. Somehow, when it's all over, and all is well...the memory lingers--like a ghost.

    Thank you Syd, for your memory.

    Naples, FL

  11. An important part of the learning curve for you, I am sure. The good that can come from disaster.


  12. Scary stuff. I thought I'd go out of my mind when we had our week without power last December, maybe because I was alone, I still don't feel quite right and I'm apprehensive about winter returning. If it happens again, I don't think that I would stay home because it's too hard emotionally at such a dark time of year. I will bide my time at shelters, at work and with friends. Burst pipes, be damned, I'll get them fixed rather than endlessly keeping the woodstove going.

    I'm glad you had minimal damage, unbelievable, really.

  13. Great story of an adventure and lessons learned.

    Blessings and aloha...

  14. I dunno bout all this stuff, no debate from me. I am grateful that y'all made it thru ok and I marvel at not only the destructive power of nature, but the healing power as well...

  15. Syd,
    What an important reminder about material possessions. You have it exactly right.



  16. Glad you and your love made it out ok. Here in my neck of the woods fire is our constant danger. Constantly having to keep everything cut back and trimmed....

  17. scary! thanks for sharing, and glad you two were unhurt.


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