Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hurricane Hugo Twenty Year Anniversary

Twenty years ago Hurricane Hugo swept through South Carolina's Lowcountry with a hurling force that only mother nature can muster. A category four storm with wind gusts estimated up to 135 miles per hour, Hugo changed our landscape, lives and sense of security all in one night.

Days before September 21, 1989, Charlestonians had already begun preparing. Hugo was coming right at us. Bottled water, coolers, ice and batteries had disappeared from grocery store shelves. Lumber and plywood had been bought up. Flashlights, candles and camping equipment had vanished. My own hurricane supply checklist assembled, I spent the morning scrubbing the bathroom tubs and refilling them with water (for general water use & toilet flushing in the aftermath), cleaning up and listening to officials on the news warning residents to, "get out." Located in the town of Summerville (at the time), I figured we'd be alright considering the twenty miles between my humble abode and the coast. Several friends were even scheduled to arrive at the house later that afternoon, themselves escaping to higher ground in anticipation of Hugo's ravaging visit. I taped the windows, as directed by neighbors (taping is the cure du jour for inland residents in the event windows shatter). After taping, I walked the exterior of the house collecting items that could be picked up in the wind, and I got a strange feeling. Then it hit me! It was the calm before the storm (I learned it was true; not just an old saying). The air was completely still. There was not a cloud in the sky. Nothing, NOTHING was moving, except people. It almost seemed like even the birds had gone away somewhere. Still today, I give a nervous laugh over my youthful ignorance, for I had no idea the magnitude of what was going to unfold later that evening. Yes, I was twenty years younger and twenty years stupider (lol).

As the hours passed, I noted the alarm in officials' voices heightening. They were now taking the air waving pointed fingers and making grave announcements that it was our very last chance to, once again, "get out." With only hours before Hugo was scheduled to make landfall, it was quickly becoming too late to leave. Police and Firemen had been deployed on the islands to collect dental records, I had heard. There were stragglers on the barriers who refused to leave for various reasons. Some were concerned about their property, while others wanted a rush, and stayed on the islands to throw hurricane parties. Dental records help identify bodies.

As you can imagine, the calm outside broke sometime toward dusk. A brisk breeze picked up. The friends had already arrived with food and more water. And the wind blew harder. I allowed the dog to go out one last time. The outer bands of the storm started to move over the area at intervals that grew closer and closer together as the giant storm lumbered onto land. Hugo had arrived. I watched out the windows as the rain poured down in sheets. Once the wind really sped up, it was too dangerous to stand close to windows, but in my last look, with a bolt of lightning filling the sky, I saw that it was raining horizontally. Downtown, the news told us, they were worried about the storm surge which had already begun pushing the sea up into the creeks and onto land.

Somewhere in the thick of things I remember clearly thinking about what a stupid idea it was to stay behind, even twenty to thirty miles inland, because I was pretty sure in that moment it was possible that we were all going to die. The walls were shaking - visibly, and the power and cable had gone out. All that was left was the little radio and things weren't sounding so good there. 96 Wave was taking live call-ins. We listened out for callers from downtown Charleston knowing that whatever they were getting, we would experience within about a half hour's time according to our distance. With each passing hour, the storm got worse. The sound of the wind outside had grown so loud that our little group didn't even bother trying to talk anymore. With many of the radio callers-in reporting spin-off tornado action, we simply turned up the radio as loud as possible and huddled near the center of the house.

After what seemed to be a lifetime of screaming winds and unknown objects loudly smacking against exterior walls, finally, Hugo's eye immersed us in a serene calm. Everything was completely still in the center as Hugo's devastation hoola-hooped for miles around us. Within about five minutes it went from sounding like multiple locomotives were running through my living room, to an absolute eerie stillness. Hugo was right over top of us and we had what was estimated to be about an hour of eye-time based on his size to think about our existentialism. I peaked out the windows. Then I dared to open the front door. Crap was everywhere. Hugo's front side had already snapped trees and uprooted anything untethered. Timidly, I walked the front yard in the dark for a few minutes, then suddenly realized I was completely exhausted. I didn't want to participate in further exploration with the others anyway, what, with the threat of downed power lines looming in the dark, and all. No, if I was going to die on this night, Hugo would have to take me because I was not about to be electrocuted by South Carolina Electric & Gas. Everyone else was going outside, but I went to my room to catch a few z's. I slept instantly, although for what seemed to be only minutes. The howling winds shook me awake again and the whistling was like an annoying alarm clock I could not turn off. Hugo certainly was not going to let little me sleep through his wrath when he was only half way finished with Charleston and her surrounding islands, towns and villages.

It's difficult to provide many details from this point. I think I was so tired, I was slipping in and out of consciousness. At any rate, the second storm wall was worse. We knew things were bad on the flip-side when a caller on the radio dropped the f bomb on live air as he screamed something about bricks being blown out of an exterior wall. To this day, I don't know if that story was ever confirmed.

Eventually, the wind stopped. For the next morning, there is nothing else to say but that it was a complete disaster. I had never seen anything like it until that point and I have never seen anything like it since. Things are different in the daylight. And things are very different when your neighbor's roof has been neatly lifted off of his house to be set in the middle of a street totally covered over by detritus and organic debris.

In Hugo's wake, the power was out, the water was unclean and bees were everywhere. The best I could figure, a nest nearby had been destroyed. For hours we walked around awestruck by the damage. One by one, people emerged to observe Hugo's toll. But, within the day, people also began to organize. Charleston has been through many disasters before. These people are proud, and resilient. We started to dig our way out street by street, clearing and sweeping, and generally helping out friends and strangers whenever necessary. We also learned on that first day that we were under Marshall Law. No one was allowed out past dark to deter looting and possible injury.

Within days most of the roads were passable. But a full two weeks would go by without power. The water came back on within the week, but when it did, it ran brown; and without power, only cold showers were on tap. We lived by candle light and played cards. There was nothing to do. There were no computers to pass the time, no tv, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere. Ugh. I fried eggs in a pan on a charcoal grill and had to figure out how to cook everything in the fridge/freezer before it went bad. How exactly does one cook useless microwave meals without a microwave? Say, on a grill? I couldn't wait for the electricity. To humor myself, I left a light switched to the on position so that I would know the exact minute when power was restored! Hurricane Hugo was a formidable reminder of just how fragile our modern lives actually are.

Hugo's devastation was drastic and took years to repair, yet, somehow we got through it. There were cases of price gouging and looting, but there was also genuine goodness and compassion shown by the greater majority of people as we worked together to repair our infrastructure and lives. So, with that I say, Happy Anniversary, Hurricane Hugo. Several of us here at The Cosmopolitan Charlestonian rode you out, and we will never forget being in the eye of your storm.

Here's a gallery of pics I scanned in for posterity. I remember not having a lot of film and not being able to go far. But, enjoy.

And here's a bunch of old news footage if you want to watch.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Leave your Lover - Go to Charleston

The Battery; Charleston, SC

Everyone loves a good song about Charleston, and its been quite a few years since one's been written. But then, out of the blue comes, Sons of Bill (not from Charleston), with a steel guitar, raw country-rock sound and a heartfelt story of leaving a worn out relationship behind to start anew in the holy city. Of course, starting anew happens after getting drunk on the Battery. My advice? Don't forget your brown bags, boys, because the CPD will have your achey-brakey hearts at Leeds Avenue (a street not mentioned in the song) faster than you can say, "I was just lookin' at Fort Sumter, Officer." For future reference, the battery is a park overlooking the site where the first shots of the civil war were fired.

Son's of Bill's (SOB), Charleston can be found on their sophomore release, One Town Away. And despite the fact that we're not big country fans here at The Cosmopolitan Charlestonian, this "under the radar" band is kind of growing on us. Word around town is they are also a favorite pick of The Windjammer staff (see City Paper review).

"But tonight, girl, you can sit there by the phone
Because tonight, ya know, I don't think [your man's] coming home
I'm gonna go down to Charleston
And get drunk on The Battery
Then stroll up and down King Street and find myself a queen
Then take her down to the ocean and watch as the waves roll in
And build a castle in the sand
And never come home to you"

Side Note: Yes, we find it ironic that the shortening of the band's name to the acronym, "SOB" provides yet another connection to the city. In Charleston, SOB is the well-known acronymic reference to the area known as "South of Broad." Anyway, just sayin.'