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EDITORIAL: 1989 storm led to new day in preparation

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The S.C. Emergency Management Division has had its eyes for days on Hurricane Ian and its potential impact on the state.

SCEMD is the agency charged with preparing the state for hurricanes and other natural disasters, and keeping the state’s people safe. It's mission is indispensable.

Yet as much history as South Carolina has with hurricanes, there was a time when preparedness was not nearly at the level of today. South Carolina’s “storm of the century” in 1989, Hurricane Hugo, stands as a watershed event.

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 The T&D Region and nearly 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.

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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.

Born from Hugo’s devastation was a commitment to better preparedness for storms. A lot of progress has been made over three-plus decades.

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From reporting by The Associated Press:

Faster response -- South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell ordered 250,000 people to evacuate the Charleston area on the morning of Sept. 21, 1989, giving them only hours to get out before the storm’s outer bands started to lash the coast. Today, evacuations are ordered much further in advance. And the time is essential because if a storm like Hugo threatened the same area today, about more than a million people would be ordered to leave.

National Guard -- South Carolina’s Army and Air National Guard members are much better equipped than 32 years ago. 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.

Dedicated emergency management -- When Hugo struck, the state emergency management headquarters was in the basement of an old state office building in Columbia. In many counties, the emergency management director was a deputy or clerk who did the job when necessary and did little or no planning.

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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.

Statewide response: It took days for state and federal emergency help to reach inland areas of South Carolina. Now, officials have intricate plans to make sure enough help gets to people no matter where they are.

Important in looking back at Hugo is awareness that South Carolina remains a primary target for nature’s greatest storms. And while the state has been fortunate not to experience a hurricane of Hugo’s magnitude since 1989, there has been significant impact from hurricanes and tropical storms over the past decade.

Hugo: S.C.’s storm of the 20th century

Here's hoping today's storm experience will not be one for the book of memories.

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