Twenty years ago, we were so naive about hurricanes. We existed in a world without memory of what they could do, physically and emotionally.

We never thought it could happen to us. But it did.

On the night of Sept. 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo came ashore here in Charleston with 150 mile-an-hour winds and a storm surge unlike anything we ever imagined.

For several hours, the wind, rain and floodwaters took their best shot at the Holy City and surrounding Lowcountry communities.

What nobody realized in those hours before the storm was how widespread and wholly devastating such a storm could be.

Sure, our elected officials tried to warn us. They went on television and radio and begged people to evacuate before it was too late.

While many heeded those warnings, many did not, or could not.

And it proved to be a fateful decision.

Hunkered down

Like many other news reporters, I hunkered down in our building on Columbus Street and waited for the storm to do its worst.

For us, it was an exciting event. I remember the mixture of enthusiasm and dread that rippled through the newsroom as the storm approached and the lights went out.

Of course, none of us had ever been through a real hurricane. We'd reported on tropical storms and hurricanes that almost came our way.

But never in our lives had we experienced the lashing we were about take.

To be honest, our building was built for just such a calamity. While it's not a thing of beauty, its thick walls and sparse windows make it the place to be when winds are high and the water is rising.

At the height of Hugo, you could stand in our newsroom and you couldn't even hear the howling winds outside.

That made some of us think perhaps the damage wasn't too bad. Until, of course, the next morning, when we walked outside.

Sound of saws

It was eerie strolling the quiet streets of an empty city.

The only noise was the squawking of sea birds and the scratchy sound of tin roofs that had been peeled off buildings.

I remember standing at Meeting and Broad streets, the famous Four Corners of Law, thinking this was a historic moment. As a reporter, I felt lucky to be there. As a citizen, however, it was devastating.

A few hours later, I waded onto the barrier islands and witnessed firsthand what looked like a war zone. The power of such a storm made houses on the island look like they had been inside a blender.

In the days to come, the sound of chain saws would dominate our senses as we all witnessed the aftermath of a nightmare.

I remember walking through the rubble of people's homes and wondering how long it would take for us to recover from such a disaster.

Turns out, some of us never will.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598. To read previous columns, go to postandcourier.com/burger.