COLUMBIA — This weekend’s 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo can remind South Carolina residents of the devastation wrought by their worst storm in the past century — and to be ready in case another such tempest comes.
Hugo made landfall north of Charleston just before midnight on Sept. 21, 1989, with maximum sustained winds of 138 mph. The eye of the Category 4 hurricane was 35 miles wide, with storm surges of 15 to 20 feet above normal. It punched through all of South Carolina and still packed hurricane winds as it passed through Charlotte, North Carolina, and into Virginia. The National Hurricane Center said Hugo killed a total of 49 people in the islands of the Caribbean and on the U.S. mainland.
The storm left 60,000 people in the state homeless, 270,000 temporarily unemployed and 54,000 state residents seeking disaster assistance. Many were without power for two weeks or more.
It also changed the way the state and the national government handled storms.
Here are some of the lessons learned from 25 years ago and how they are being applied today in a state where 16 hurricanes have made landfall since 1900.
South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell ordered 250,000 people to evacuate the Charleston area on the morning of Sept. 21, giving them only hours to get out before the storm’s outer bands started to lash the coast, South Carolina Emergency Management Division spokesman Derrec Becker said.
If a storm like Hugo threatened the same area today, about 1.2 million people would be ordered to leave, and officials would like to have three days to get them all out, Becker said.
It’s now considered critical to take action several days before the storm. “We are very proactive now. It was a very reactive sensibility 25 years ago,” said Kim Stenson, the state’s Emergency Management Director.
The state’s top military officer, Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, said South Carolina’s 11,000 Army and Air National Guard members are much better equipped than they were 25 years ago. Recent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have familiarized them with working under difficult conditions.
Communications and computer equipment is more robust, using satellite imagery, streaming video and a separate military communications system, Livingston said.
“We have much more lift capability with aviation assets and better engineer capabilities,” said Livingston. He cited the Guard’s ability to build pontoon bridges until repairs can be made, as well as its heavy-lift helicopters and heavy transport trucks.
When Hugo struck, the state emergency management headquarters was in the basement of an old state office building in Columbia. The storm ripped the roof off a warehouse that was being used as Charleston County’s emergency headquarters. In many counties, the emergency management director was a deputy or clerk who did the job when necessary and did little or no planning, Becker said.
Hugo forced emergency planners to realize they needed better buildings and full time employees to train and prepare for disasters. The South Carolina Emergency Management Division moved to a state-of-the-art building in 2000 that can withstand hurricane force winds and includes transmission equipment so television stations can broadcast live if necessary.
A STATEWIDE RESPONSE
Hugo remained a hurricane during its entire trip across the state. Areas far from the coast like Kingstree, Sumter, Camden and Lancaster reported widespread devastation as they all saw hurricane force winds.
It took days for state and federal emergency help to reach inland areas.
Now, officials have intricate plans to make sure enough help gets to people no matter where they are, Becker said.
South Carolina hasn’t seen a major hurricane since Hugo, when 3.4 million people lived in the state. Today, South Carolina has 4.6 million people with the heaviest growth taking place along the coast.
The state learned lessons from Hurricane Floyd, which brushed past in 1999. Evacuations were ordered, but some people sat in traffic for over 20 hours while lanes were not reversed. Now the state practices reversing lanes every year, but the new plans have not been tested by a wide scale evacuation.
Getting people out of harm’s way is the single most important thing when a storm threatens, Livingston said.
“My concern is citizens that have moved in since Hugo and don’t know how devastating this storm was,” the two-star general said.
Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to the report.