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Lessons learned from Hurricane Hugo 28 years ago still help with today's storm preparations

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'People in way' of next Hugo (copy)

Fishing boats came to rest next to Silver Hill Plantation near McClellanville after the tidal surge of Hurricane Hugo on Sept. 21, 1989. File/Wade Spees/Staff

As Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean earlier this month, Keri Wilson kept a close eye on her Folly Beach neighbors.

“When it comes to hurricanes, I don’t mess around,” she said. “I lived through Hugo, but most of my neighbors weren’t here then and some of them weren’t even born yet.”

Thursday marks the 28th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which slammed into the South Carolina coast as a Category 4 hurricane overnight on Sept. 21, 1989.

“You know, it’s funny, I hadn’t heard one soul mention it this year,” said Rutledge Leland, who for 40 years has been the mayor of McClellanville, the quaint fishing village 40 miles north of Charleston that took the brunt of that storm. “We sort of stopped celebrating that anniversary. At about 25 (years), we started losing track.”

Even so, he said, “Obviously, we remember it, and we know what a hurricane can do. It’s something you have to think about, no question about it. It’s kind of like the hurricane of our generation in this area.”

By the time it reached the South Carolina coast, Hugo already had torn through the Caribbean as a Category 5 storm, causing two dozen deaths.

At 250 miles in circumference, the storm was the same size as South Carolina, and when it made landfall, its wind speed officially measured 137 mph.

“Hugo was a different animal, there’s no doubt about it,” Leland said. “It changed our thoughts about hurricanes forever.”

In the days leading up to Hugo, officials warned Charleston area residents of the impending storm and urged them to evacuate. But many did not take the threat seriously.

“I stayed through Hugo,” said Wilson, who lived in West Ashley then. “At the time, we thought it was just an excuse for a party. But it didn’t turn out that way, and I definitely wouldn’t make the mistake of staying again.”

Police went door to door on parts of the peninsula, advising people to go to the shelter at the Gaillard Auditorium.

Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms were under mandatory evacuation, but even so, some people stayed.

Charleston County Council Chairwoman Linda Lombard appeared on press conference on TV, sternly warning, “Get out now.” And as the storm drew near, that message changed to warn people that it was too late to leave.

Before Hugo, it had been 20 years since the United States had been hit by a major hurricane (Camille, which struck the Gulf Coast in 1969). It had been 30 years since Hurricane Gracie made landfall at St. Helena Island with 125 mph winds.

“I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes,” Leland said. “I can remember in the ‘50s and ‘60s we had some pretty bad ones. But it seemed like they didn’t do as much long-term damage as Hugo did.”

Many were caught off guard by the force of the storm as it made landfall just north of Charleston.

Hurricane Hugo Sires Street

The morning after Hurricane Hugo, rescue workers work to extricate Arthur McCloud whose house had collapsed on him on Sires Street in downtown Charleston. File/Wade Spees/Staff

McClellanville, in Hugo’s northeast quadrant, felt the strongest effects.

As the storm passed through there, hundreds who had sought last-minute shelter at McClellanville’s Lincoln High School found themselves huddled together as the water started to rise, and rise fast. Ankle-high, knee-high, waist-high, chest-high.

Desperate, they piled tables on top of tables on a stage in the school’s cafeteria. Some held children above their heads as the water got deeper. In another part of the school, a group of men broke through a window and climbed onto the roof as the wind and rain whipped around them.

The storm surge reached nearly 20 feet before receding.

When Hugo was over, South Carolina’s coast from Edisto Island to Myrtle Beach was damaged. In some areas, beachfront homes were gone or reduced to a pile of debris. With the Ben Sawyer Bridge left twisted (and the Isle of Palms Connector not yet built), the only access to Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms was by boat.

Hurricane-force winds reached all the way to Columbia and then onward to Charlotte, downing hundreds of trees and power lines along the way. Meteorologists estimate that about 3,000 tornadoes were spawned by Hugo.

More than 40 percent of the state was without electricity. Some didn’t get it back for more than a month.

Statewide, 29 of South Carolina's 46 counties were declared disaster areas. At last, 26 people were killed by the storm, and more than 26,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The total damage came to about $7 billion.

“Hugo changed McClellanville forever, I know that,” Leland said, and some changes, such as stronger building codes and better emergency planning, have been for the good.

"We live under a different set of rules now, for sure," he said, "I think actually we are better prepared now because of it.”

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Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713. Follow her on Twitter @brindge.

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