Snowstorms are few and far between in sunny, subtropical Charleston, so when forecasters hint at a flurry, longtime locals often date themselves by sharing memories from a long-gone rarity: The White Christmas of 1989.
The legendary snowstorm coated the Southeast on Dec. 22-24 of that year. It laid waste to citrus crops in Florida and dumped more than 15 inches of snow on the coastal North Carolina town of Wilmington, setting new records for snowfall and low temperatures all over the region.
For the Lowcountry, the snow capped off a year of extreme weather. Months earlier, in mid-September, Hurricane Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston as a ferocious Category 4 storm, resulting in dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.
As the snowstorm blew into town, the temperature plummeted well below freezing, with a high of 20 degrees in Charleston on Dec. 23, according to the National Weather Service. News and Courier reporters Arlie Porter and Fred Rigsbee noted in one folksy front-page story on the second day of winter that "it's, well, darn cold out there."
Initial forecasts called for 1 to 3 inches of snow, but the storm slowed down and hovered over Charleston County, dropping far more precipitation than expected. Meteorologists ultimately measured 8 inches of snowfall at the Charleston Airport, an inch deeper than the previous record set during the "Snowstorm of the Century" in February 1973.
I was a junior in high school. I remember how happy I was!! 😁 I remember everyone saying it was our Christmas miracle because Hugo was so hard on us. I also remember how beautiful it was. Very rarely does the city get the snowfall like further inland.— TAS 🌼🍃🌼🍃🌼 (@CigarDaisy311) January 2, 2018
Larry Stoudenmire, now of Johns Island, was on a plane flying from Charlotte to Charleston when he heard the pilot announce there was snow on the ground. Stoudenmire briefly thought he'd caught a flight to the wrong Charleston (in West Virginia) and marveled at the blanket of white as the plane touched down.
Tasha Gandy, now of North Charleston, had just transferred from the University of Kansas to the College of Charleston in 1989. On the winter break, she was living in Mount Pleasant and working at the Record Bar in West Ashley's Citadel Mall. Her manager refused to shut the store down on peak Christmas shopping days, so Gandy remembers having to cross two bridges in a Buick Skylark to get to work.
The two-lane John P. Grace Memorial Bridge, which spanned the Cooper River in those days, could be a harrowing drive on a good day with its narrow lanes and queasy sway. The wintry conditions presented an additional challenge, although a powdery layer of snow provided some traction.
"Nobody else was on the road, so you had kind of a wide berth," Gandy said.
With almost three decades' distance, Gandy laughs as she recalls gunning the engine to build up speed for the bridge ascent. She made it to work and found the mall almost empty.
Despite the bitter cold and a handful of car accidents, some saw the snowfall as a minor miracle after a painful year marked by a devastating hurricane. Charlestonians crunched through the snowdrifts to wrap up their holiday shopping on King Street, and kids took to the streets and hills on makeshift sleds.
By Christmas Eve, the city was coated and quiet.
Pastors told The News and Courier they expected paltry attendance at worship services. But congregants turned out in droves, according to a Christmas Day report by Religion Editor Skip Johnson.
The Rev. Reginald Thackston said he expected about 100 people to show up for morning services at John Wesley United Methodist Church on Savannah Highway. Instead, 250 souls packed the pews. Elsewhere, churches opened their doors to host congregations who had lost their sanctuaries to the hurricane.
"Hugo brought us together," said the Very Rev. Nelson Koscheski Jr., dean of the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul.
Yes. Parents lived off Shem Creek. Always said God was covering up ugly left by Hugo!— Shannon Praete (@ShannonPraete) January 2, 2018