Retired Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities Electric Division Director David Gillam remembers September 1989 well.
He and his wife, Harriet, had just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a two-week stay in Hawaii.
They arrived back to Orangeburg to their Haywood Street home on Sept. 11 and their immediate attention was directed toward the tropics.
“I am a utility guy,” he said. “I look at the weather. That is what I do.”
A tropical wave had just formed off the coast of northwest Africa.
Four days later, what was just a fleeting thought was becoming more of a concern.
The storm had formed into Hurricane Hugo and had its sights on the Caribbean Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
On September 18, Gillam and the DPU team began mobilization.
“It included everything from checking inventory of nuts and bolts to transformers and power poles, getting commitments of supplies from vendors and contacting contractors for available work crews,” he said.
The next two days were spent in preparation.
The 20th was a day of hope and prayer.
“We waited and hoped Hugo turned north,” Gillam said.
It never happened.
The category 4 hurricane made landfall north of Charleston Harbor around midnight Sept. 21 with an estimated maximum sustained wind of 138 mph.
“I stayed at DPU until 11 p.m. that night,” Gillam said. “I had three engineers that worked for me at the time. Each was a very capable person.”
That night Gillam said he slept fairly well — despite increasing winds and buffeting rain.
“It was after that when it all went downhill,” he said. “The engineers were working 18 hour days and the line crew 16 hour days.”
On the day Hugo made landfall, DPU had a situation room in Sprinkle Avenue’s warehouse. Here all storm response would occur.
As winds continued to gust and driving rain pelted the Orangeburg area early Friday morning, the sources of DPU’s power from South Carolina Electric & Gas failed.
“Orangeburg is dark,” Gillam recalled, noting it was the worst weather event he ever experienced in the utility business. “I was too busy to be scared. I had 30,000 customers I had to keep the lights on for.”
Gillam said there was not much one could do during the storm as it was too dangerous for crews to go out.
“You had to grit your teeth, batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to subside,” he said.
At 5 a.m. Friday, Gillam, along with DPU’s full engineering staff, reported back to work. An hour later, work crews trickled in.
“Shortly after the first light, we sent out assessment crews to assess the damage,” he said. “It was boots on the ground with little automation as far as the condition of the electrical system, electrical equipment and substations were concerned.”
Downed trees and power lines made work and access both difficult and dangerous.
Gillam recalled over a mile of power lines were down along Cameron Highway. With SCE&G’s power down,the diesel-powered plant on North Road served as the utility’s power temporary power source.
Despite the widespread damage, Gillam said the utility’s substations were relatively damage-free.
Through steady and long hours of work, Gillam said power was restored to the majority of DPU customers by Sept. 30.
When all was said and done, he said more than 450 transformers were repaired or replaced, 300-plus power poles were replaced and more than 8,000 “trouble cases” or storm-related problems were recorded.
“We found that if a line were drawn south to northwest through the approximate center of Orangeburg, all the area that lay east was almost total devastation,” Gillam said. “The area west was not so bad, more like a severe thunderstorm.”
For Gillam, the long work hours made it difficult to attend to family needs.
His elderly mother lived on Gue Street but it was not until about five days after the storm before he could attend to her needs.
“I came home in the dark and went to work in the dark,” he said. “I was so involved in the work that I did not take off.”
His mother was fine with only a few shingles missing from her home.
Bob Wannamaker/Calhoun County
A little farther north, Tri-County Electric Cooperative then-General Manager Robert Wannamaker had spent much of the last day before Hugo at the utility making final preparations for the storm.
“We had plenty of time to prepare for Hurricane Hugo because of our National Weather Service bulletins,” Wannamaker said. “We did not plan and could not plan for the disaster and damage that was the result.”
Wannamaker said the days before the storm entailed stocking up with power line materials, food vendors, motel accommodations and fuels for equipment.
“I was worried for the safety of our employees and the loss of power to our membership,” he said.
But there was another worry, and that was his home and family near Lone Star. His wife and two young children were home alone and they needed protection.
Wannamaker said as he went home that evening he recalls the winds started to pick up.
“You could see that the trees started swaying,” he said.
As the wind continued to increase in strength, Wannamaker said the evening was spent filling up bathtubs and making sure there was enough water on hand.
“We knew it was going to be bad news there,” he said.
There was a lot of praying going on as well.
Wannamaker said the family’s house was solar and there were glass panels on the roof and a Florida room on the south side of the house. There were fears the house would not withstand Hugo’s onslaught.
“We waited for the storm to hit Calhoun County,” Wannamaker said. “You pray for safety and no accidents with your employees and the safety of your family and loved ones,” he said.
“I am trying to forget that evening and night,” Wannamaker said. “The winds really picked up and shook the house.”
During the night, he said the power would go out and for the remainder of the night the family’s Lone Star home was propelled into darkness.
“At first daylight, the next morning I tried to get to the office where the workers were standing by,” he said. “My driveway was completely blocked and the main roads to the office were also blocked with downed trees. It was a horrific scene.”
Upon his arrival to the utility, the news only became more troubling.
“We had damage to our system from Eutawville to Sandy Run near the lakes and river,” Wannamaker said, noting the system on the windward or the Santee Cooper Lakes side of the hurricane was the hardest hit. “The remainder of our coop’s system in the lower Richland and Sumter side where the system was almost a total loss.”
He said Tri-County Electric’s entire system was without power. This was a first and only time in its history.
“The Public Service Authority (Santee Cooper) lost their ability to generate power because of Hugo,” Wannamaker said. “It was not very long because they cross connected with the Southern Company and others to supply their electric grid to restart their generation stations.”
Wannamaker said because of the lack of water, he and his family had to move to his in-laws’ house until power was restored.
He was not the only one.
“Most members without a water pump were without water,” Wannamaker said. “Water was a big problem for our rural folk. Many utilized the water from municipal and other water systems.”
Generators were often shared in an effort to keep freezers operational.
Downed trees and power lines made the roadways nearly impassable.
“The wind pushed the trees on top of our power lines breaking the power poles and wires,” Wannamaker said. “At first the tremendous amounts of rain softened the roots, then the high winds did the final damage.”
“Emergency vehicles could not travel and the National Guard was activated to help the SCDOT clear all the roads,” he said.
The removal effort actually pushed trees down onto power lines making it more difficult to restore power, said Wannamaker.
Wannamaker said utilities from Alabama and Florida helped to rebuild the system. The challenge was finding a place for these crews to stay.
“We had crews staying in Columbia,” he said, noting that many of the rooms in Orangeburg were full due to those who had evacuated from the coast.
It took about two weeks to power the main circuits and substations.
“Some of the work was temporarily built for members with special needs and we returned later to make it permanent,” he said.
After working long days and hours to rebuild the system, Wannamaker said an incident after the storm required crews to have to go back out.
“A member who was cutting a danger tree near his home cut down a tree across a power line our crews just rebuilt,” he said. “This caused another outage and we called out a line crew to remove the tree and rebuild the line again.”
The storm aftermath also called for some ingenuity.
Low areas off of Highway 48 in lower Richland County were too soggy with rain and swollen creeks made getting heavy equipment to repair a large power pole impossible.
In an effort to have power restored more quickly, linesmen climbed a gum tree, trimmed off lower limbs to mimic a power pole and installed the necessary hardware to attach power lines and energize the circuit.
“The tree held the circuit,” Wannamaker said.
The recovery effort was a time when all came together.
“Most of our members understood about the storm damage and even provided assistance in the way of meals and drinks to our employees,” Wannamaker said. “Many line crews ate food from members who fed these crews the food that would have been lost in their freezers.”
Federal reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped the utility recover.
Wannamaker said the hardest hit area were the resort areas of the lakes.
“The destruction of the homes as well as our system was unbelievable,” he said. “These areas were both vacation homes and permanent residents. We were blessed with no accidents and no fatalities.”
Looking back, Wannamaker said the utility is better prepared today.
“We have strengthened our system with redundancy and with better right-of-way cutting,” he said. “Our system has grown to justify larger conductors with larger poles closer together on our main circuits.”
The Tri-County headquarters now has room to house and feed employees if needed.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 803-533-5551.