'Ground Zero'

A look from above the buildings on the corner of Broad and Meeting streets shows the damage wrought by Hurricane Hugo on Sept. 21-22, 1989.

I spent the night of Hurricane Hugo with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who was embarking on the first major disaster of his political career. Riley, Howard Chapman, the city transportation director suddenly turned disaster coordinator, and I were traveling down Meeting Street, huddled in the front seat of a city pickup truck, when Bob Sheets of the National Hurricane Center called Riley with the chilling news: "Charleston is Ground Zero … it's going to be a dead hit on Charleston Harbor."

Riley's eyes widened. Chapman and I could hear Sheets through the mobile phone, one of the first-generation mobiles that were carried in a bag and plugged into car cigarette lighters. It was deathly still inside as howling winds rocked the truck. Then Riley broke the silence: "We have to get back to City Hall. We have a lot to do." None of us had any idea that statement would soon become a mantra for the next two years of his life.

It was after 11 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1989, and we were headed back downtown from Garrett High School in North Charleston, a major evacuation shelter where Riley had just been interviewed by the CBS news program "48 Hours." Both CBS and CNN had headed to Charleston when forecasters started to project that a monster storm would hit somewhere between Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach. Previous storms had been revealed the day after they happened -- Hugo was one of the first to be reported as it unfolded.

Riley had no inkling that he would soon be the national spokesman for Charleston, the human face of one of the first weather disasters broadcast worldwide by cable news. None of us were the "hurricane experts" we would soon become. But we knew it was dire -- beyond any storm we had seen before -- as we watched traffic lights, stop signs and debris fly in the beam of the truck's headlights.

As the newspaper's city beat reporter, I was given full access to Riley, his team and the process - I heard every discussion and was there when most actions were taken. In retrospect, it was quite fearless of Riley to

permit that level of insight into his education in disaster coordination.

Twenty years ago, weather forecasters didn't break into regular programming to report on swirling air masses in the Atlantic or track hurricanes for weeks. We were cavalier in 1989 -- people had "hurricane parties" on the beach or at The Battery. We barnstormed stores for supplies and milk only if a storm was predicted to hit the next day, and we thought driving 15 or so miles up Interstate 26 to Summerville was far enough to evacuate from the coast. Only a few old-timers vividly remembered 1959's Hurricane Gracie, which hit near Beaufort, causing 10 deaths and damage all along the S.C. coast.

Unexpected lessons

Because it had been so long since South Carolina was a serious target, Riley had his staff contact other cities that had experienced recent hurricanes to find out the big lessons. One overwhelming message was clear: You must evacuate everyone you possibly can because the storm surge brings in flood waters, trapping people in their homes. It seems absurd to issue that particular warning in our post-Katrina world, but it was a little-known fact at that point. Riley took the message to heart - he had a news conference the day before (an event that would now happen much sooner) and urged people to get out of town. Knowing how unlikely it was that people would respond, he also mobilized the police and fire departments to prepare for rescue operations.

Back at City Hall that night, 15 key city staffers and I sat with Riley in his candlelit office. It started as a disaster coordination meeting, but it became a bonding experience as the wind and trees rattled the 200-year-old building. We were working, but there were silent, wide-eyed looks of terror as the storm continued to build power. On the handheld police scanners, we could hear rescue workers trying to reach people who had stayed in their homes on the East Side.

At one point, I left to chat with a few other reporters who were gathered in City Council Chambers, a lovely two-story room that is the second-oldest council chamber in the country. Bruce Smith of The Associated Press had the best mobile phone and graciously shared with those of us whose batteries had long since died. As I sat at a desk on the third floor calling in a report to the newsroom on the borrowed phone, water suddenly gushed out of the ceiling from a trap door that led to the attic. When I ran down the stairs, I saw the other reporters racing from Council Chambers, where they had just felt a "whoosh" of air that nearly sucked them upward toward the ceiling. Once the initial fear passed, everyone mobilized to save the expensive paintings that lined council chambers - our reporter/city official lines were blurring from the knowledge that we were now in this thing together.

When the eye of the storm passed overhead, we all discovered what had happened -- the roof of City Hall had blown off and was sitting in the middle of Broad Street between our building and St. Michael's Episcopal Church. The eye afforded us about 15 minutes of dead calm and we ventured outside to assess the damage thus far. It was pitch black as we made our way into Broad Street and Washington Park - we could hear only the hiss of broken natural gas lines. We discovered the roof by nearly tripping over it and making out its outline in the beam of a lone flashlight.

Back inside, we pondered where to go to escape the second half of the storm - some settling on the second floor, others trying the basement. The second wave of Hugo was far worse than the first, with even stronger winds that swept more than 15 feet of water into the Charleston peninsula, flooding the first floor of City Hall and everything else to just above the Crosstown Expressway.

How big?

I believe this is about when Riley got the first report that Hurricane Hugo was a Category 4 storm that might reach Category 5 status by morning. Again, it's difficult to imagine now how unusual this was two decades go. Non-meteorologists really didn't understand "categories" then -- most people were aware only that hurricane status meant wind speeds above 75 miles per hour. We had to look up the parameters of a Category 4 storm -- and it was unfathomable to think we were experiencing sustained winds of 131 to 155 mph that might soon exceed 156 mph. We all began to experience real terror about what might be happening to Charleston -- Riley worried most about potential deaths, but these were largely unspoken fears at that point.

When the worst of the storm had passed about 4 a.m., I'll never forget finding Riley catching a quick nap, lying face down on the hardwood floor under a desk in his administrator's office.

Riley, Chapman and I were the first people other than police and rescue workers to venture outside, once again huddled together in the pickup. As we turned from Broad Street onto King, we were horror-stricken and speechless. One of us uttered what we were all thinking: "It looks like a war zone." We could see a boat at the other end of Broad, roofs and upper stories of buildings toppled into Broad and King, debris strewn everywhere. We clearly weren't going to be able to drive very far in any direction. We met a couple of people, who later became friends, picking through remnants of their home on lower King. Riley greeted them with hugs, since there were no words to compensate for a loss of this magnitude.

My description of that scene, my colleagues' descriptions of the area, and nearly every news headline about Hugo, all contained a word that we would come to know well and would use over and over again for months: "Devastation." Writers generally don't like to repeat themselves, but we conceded this was the right word.

It's difficult now to remember the order of things in those first days -- I didn't go home or have a shower for three days after Hugo. I was with Riley constantly. I remember going to the newspaper building once and trying to sleep in an editor's office, but my mind was racing with things I needed to report. One of the things we were most proud of was putting out a paper the day after Hugo and every day thereafter -- in an area that had no power for three weeks, we were a lifeline of information and took that responsibility seriously.

I didn't know the fate of my then-husband, brother or a number of friends for nearly 24 hours after Hugo -- there was no way to communicate. Phone service was erratic. My husband had "evacuated" to Summerville with our three dogs and colleagues from WCSC television. Once phone lines were restored, we were able to call each other and our parents, who had been watching on CNN and were terrified. We learned that my brother, Cregg, and his wife of only six months, Alexis, had ridden out the storm at Bishop England High School downtown and that the first floor of their home on Bennett Street had flooded and was a total loss.

Aftermath is a blur

Those first days were a blur. We couldn't cross bridges to check homes on the islands. A curfew was imposed and the National Guard was called in to prevent people from looting downtown Charleston. Police and the National Guard also were asked to prevent citizens from going by boat to inspect their homes on the islands. We were living in a police state with no power and no water. Phone lines worked, but they were often jammed with callers.

Among the many things we didn't know about hurricanes at that point was that Ground Zero was far preferable to being on the northeast side of the storm, where the winds and storm surge leveled everything in their wake. We didn't know there were hundreds, even thousands, of tornadoes within hurricanes. We learned about these things when we visited McClellanville and saw the remnants of Francis Marion National Forest. McClellanville had gotten the worst of the storm. Indeed, a wind speed device had measured Hugo as a Category 5 in Bull's Bay, a reading that was never made official but was widely reported at the time. And the storm surge was reported at 20 feet.

Driving north on Highway 17 to capture the stories of McClellanville residents who rode out the storm in the attics of their waterfront homes, we also saw that the national forest had been leveled. It was the first time, but not the last, that we wrote the phrase "trees were snapped like toothpicks." The sight illustrated the power of Mother Nature, unimaginable to anyone who didn't see it.

Hugo's influence certainly didn't stop at South Carolina's borders either -- over the next few days, we got reports of Hugo's trail of devastation through Columbia, Charlotte, the mountains of East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, continuing north to Canada.

As we were absorbing the losses and changes to our beautiful coastal community, we were confronted with an ugly reality. Charleston was suddenly overrun with a subculture of hucksters who prey on communities affected by disasters, selling ice, diapers and other staples for outrageous prices. No power? No problem, we'll sell you a bag of ice for $10. No stores? Here's a pack of diapers for $10.

Other shady vultures arrived with offers to cut trees and clear debris for thousands of dollars. When word got out, neighbors and local governments cut them out, working from sunup to sundown. For the next six months, the buzz of chain saws became the soundtrack of our post-Hugo world.

But for all the harsh realities, those early weeks were a time of bonding with friends and neighbors. People pooled their resources. Neighbors used each others' grills for cooking whatever they had salvaged and heating water for cooking, cleaning and baths. My father -- a man who liked to experience things first-hand and was accustomed to "roughing it" -- showed up from Virginia with a carload of propane, coolers of ice and food for my brother and me.

Back at City Hall, the impact of 24/7 national news coverage was quickly apparent. Whenever Riley would speak to the media, phones would start ringing downstairs with offers of help. After receiving truckloads of diapers and used clothing, he learned to be more specific about what was needed. As a former head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a nationally known Democratic Party leader, Riley had connections nationwide that rallied for Charleston. Supplies were stacked to the rafters at Gaillard Municipal Auditorium; power crews arrived from all over the country to help the Lowcountry rebuild; and national leaders helped Riley pressure the Federal Emergency Management Agency for quick aid. U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., was the first public official to call FEMA on the carpet for dragging its feet and being unorganized, setting a tone that continues even today.

Mountains of debris, hubris

We got used to mountains of debris stacked along every road, even in downtown Charleston's historic district; blue tarps on nearly every rooftop; and seeing national leaders drop in for a couple of hours with television crews. Vice President Dan Quayle's wife, Marilyn, arrived with the Red Cross. Jesse Jackson turned up in Marion Square. President George H.W. Bush touched down at the Charleston airport and drove to Summerville before leaving to fly over the area. He didn't invite Riley to go with him, sparking speculation that he didn't want to visit the city of a Democratic mayor.

In the end, Hurricane Hugo was an experience of a lifetime. I watched Riley and his staff rise to an incomprehensible challenge and witnessed the inner workings of the mind of one of the few true visionaries I've ever met. A week after Hugo, Riley described the storm as the "moral equivalent of war" for the community and an opportunity to grow stronger and better.

"We should be prepared for these kinds of things because history tells us that things happen to cities -- they have disasters," he said. "To spend any time or energy or emotion really mourning or crying over what has happened is not what I've been doing. We need to have all of those energies and emotions dedicated to rebuilding, to making the city continue to blossom and grow in beauty and quality."

The 20 or so people who spent that night together went in as professional colleagues, but bonded over the shared experience and the humanity of risking our lives. There's also the unspoken code: next time, we'll all be more prepared.

Kerri Glover was a Post and Courier reporter from 1984-92.