Charleston after Hurricane Hugo

Hurricane Hugo tore into the Lowcountry with a ferocity that left bridges twisted, boats piled on shore and more than 50,000 homeless. A woman takes a look at the sailboat Guppy on Lockwood Boulevard. File/Brad Nettles/staff )

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was published in 2014 on the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo. While Hurricane Florence is a larger storm, its projected path doesn't mirror the hypothetical analysis in this story. But the Charleston area also has become far larger and more vulnerable since 1989.

Hurricane Hugo was not a direct hit but still left a staggering toll of devastation on the Charleston metro area. The damage would be nearly incalculable if the area took the full blast from a storm that size today.

It's been 29 years since Hugo tore into the Lowcountry, its eye passing just north of Charleston Harbor and leaving an indelible scar on the lives of the people who lived it.

If a storm that powerful made landfall today just south of Hugo’s path, at Kiawah Island, the buzz saw of its worst, north-side winds would shear nearly all of the Charleston metro area and the storm surge would submerge the barrier islands.

According to an experimental Hazus computer model run by a College of Charleston team, a landfall just south of the city from a Hugo-scale hurricane could tear up nearly half the homes in the region and destroy tens of thousands of them. Tens of thousands of people would be homeless, at least temporarily, and thousands forced to shelters. Businesses and jobs could come to a standstill, and the loss to the economy alone could be far more than $2 billion.

The worst damage would occur on the barrier islands, in Mount Pleasant and between the Cooper and Edisto rivers as far north as lower Dorchester County. Inland towns such as Summerville would be torn up by winds and falling trees.

And those damage estimates are based on 2000 census data used by the federal government’s Hazus software, which doesn’t account for the massive growth here over the past 18 years.

Because of new population, building and businesses, actual destruction would be much greater. The damage could be more than $40 billion for Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties alone — a figure that by itself would make the storm the third-costliest hurricane on record (or at least the seventh costliest, considering storms since 2014).

Debris would be thrown through the air like missiles. Enough trees would shatter or fall to leave more than 4.5 million tons of tree debris, cutting off streets and roads for miles, some of them for weeks.

“Total devastation,” said Sullivan’s Island Fire Chief Anthony Stith, who evacuated the island as Hugo roared in and the Ben Sawyer Bridge began detaching beneath his truck. “They say a 21-foot storm surge hit McClellanville. I just can’t imagine 21 feet of water in the city of Charleston.”

The surge would cut the Washout at Folly Beach into an inlet creating two islands, opening channels through a dozen or so other low-lying spots along the coast and gouging drainage runs through inland properties and roads.

Much of the Charleston area would be brought to a standstill and stay that way for a while. People would be on their own for hours if not days, emergency managers have warned.

Folly Beach at its highest point is 10 feet above sea level. Mount Pleasant is 24 feet. If a 21-foot surge of water came in, Folly would go under, as would much of Mount Pleasant. Most of West Ashley and James and Johns islands would be swamped, much more than the areas around rivers and creeks that took the worst of Hugo flooding.

Electric, water and sewer service interruptions could be widespread and lengthy, while repairs would depend on how quickly crews could get in amid the wreckage.

Cell towers might not work, and there would be no wireless communications if power goes out. It could be weeks if not months before power was fully restored.

Land line, DSL computer access would be disrupted or fail as lines or power were lost.

Area hospitals staffs are confident they have put measures in place to continue to operate during and after that powerful a storm. But the Hazus model indicates that 13 of 14 hospitals in the area would be damaged at least somewhat. Four would be damaged extensively.

Only 2 percent of hospital beds would be available after one week; only 7 percent after one month, the model projects.

Even emergency operations centers would take a hit. The model run suggests one of the three would be wrecked. Other damaged service facilities would include:

  • 168 of 207 schools.
  • 13 of 19 police stations.
  • 16 of 58 fire stations.

And the Hazus model is a broad sweep projection based on population and building densities, not damage to individual properties. Storm surge data was unavailable for projections for Berkeley County, including low-lying Daniel Island.

The recovery would be torturous, something Maggie Elrod knows well.

Elrod spent the night of Hugo in a Medical University of South Carolina hallway after giving birth to her son, Jeremy. The Goose Creek woman had to be wheeled from the recovery room into the hallway because the recovery room windows started buckling in the wind. Staff gave her husband a patient ID tag too, just in case.

She went home to a shattered landscape.

“Oh, God, if it had hit us direct, I really don’t know if there would have been much of anything left,” she said. “Hugo was extremely powerful. I don’t think people (today) realize how devastating it was for us.”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.