A white aluminum can with black lettering that reads “Drinking Water” is the only visual reminder Donnie Hilliard still has of the havoc Hurricane Hugo caused in Orangeburg and Calhoun counties 25 years ago today.
It is one among thousands of cans of drinking water distributed by Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co. as part of relief efforts to the region.
“But there aren’t any visual reminders left,” Hilliard said.
His memories of making preparations for the hurricane, waiting out the storm and months of recovery remain vivid and forever emblazoned in his mind and soul.
“One of the things that still haunts me to this day is that as far as disaster preparedness for the county, we were ready. But we didn’t get the response from the citizens to adhere to the early warnings,” Hilliard said, noting people weren’t expecting the extent of the damage Hugo inflicted.
“We had shelters set up throughout the county,” he said.
When Hugo came calling on Sept. 21, 1989, Hilliard was the assistant administrator of Orangeburg County. He’s now the mayor of Santee.
When the Category 4 hurricane made landfall along South Carolina’s coast, its winds were already whipping inland areas.
“I was in Norway getting a shelter ready when the storm hit,” Hilliard said.
In the western end of county, the “wind was good and strong,” he said.
He said he drove cautiously back to the Orangeburg County Courthouse where county officials set up the Emergency Response Center in the basement.
At daybreak after Hugo had departed, Hilliard and other officials attempted to drive to the eastern end of the county to assess the damage.
Normally, a drive from Orangeburg to the closest town in the eastern section of the county took about 30 minutes.
“It took a half a day to get down to the lake area,” Hilliard said.
Homes, vehicles and livelihoods along the shores of Lake Marion were in ruins.
“I was devastated. All we could see was debris and trees everywhere,” Hilliard recalled.
Three days after Hugo’s departure, Hilliard saw the full scope of the destruction from his seat aboard an airplane. Eric Thompson of Lower Savannah Council of Governments accompanied him as they looked down at the devastation on the ground in eastern Orangeburg and Calhoun counties.
Hilliard said in retrospect, the views from the air were the “most interesting” observations of the impact of Hugo’s wrath.
“From there, I was able to look down upon the destruction and debris, and I thought, ‘My Lord, how are we going to get rid of all of this?’” he said.
Hilliard and his family were living in Orangeburg at the time. They now live in the Santee National Golf Course subdivision. The Santee development was in the middle of construction when Hugo arrived.
From the airplane, Hilliard saw Hugo’s nasty scrawl throughout the neighborhood.
“They were in the middle of developing the golf course at the time, and Hugo destroyed it,” he said.
After assessing the damage firsthand, Hilliard, along with officials, residents and volunteers, began to address the needs in Santee, Vance, Holly Hill, Eutawville, Providence and other rural areas.
Hilliard said over the nine months that followed, crews hauled piles of downed trees, branches and vegetative debris to a central location off Dawson Street between Eutawville and Holly Hill.
“It was piled up about four to five stories high, and then we decided to burn it,” he said. “It burned for months!”
Reflecting on the recovery efforts in the difficult months following Hugo and over the quarter of a century since, Hilliard said, “I think the county has responded and come back tremendously.”
Orangeburg County learned lessons about coordinated debris removal and clean-up efforts that have become more refined as the years have passed, he said.
He recalled that a Disaster Preparedness Center had also been set up at the Santee Outlet Mall site.
“We didn’t have too many crises. The distribution of food and water went smoothly,” Hilliard said.
Officials communicated over two-way radios and a relay system that was set up at U.S. 301 and Interstate 26.
In Orangeburg, a warehouse was put to use as a center for receiving goods and supplies that were then distributed to areas throughout the county.
“We had volunteers. We had tractor-trailers every day coming in there. That was a nightmare,” Hilliard said.
He said he and other residents were grateful for the generosity that overflowed from neighboring states and throughout the nation, but he added, “We had no way of knowing what was coming or when it was coming.”
As the tractor-trailers arrived with various goods, volunteers scrambled to organize the items.
“That, too, was a nightmare,” Hilliard said.
Once the nightmares ended, the realization set in that the county and its people would recover.
“Hugo tested the resiliency of Orangeburg’s citizens, and it was determined that the citizens were much stronger than the storm,” he said.
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