Charlotte, 150 miles from the Atlantic, would seem immune to hurricanes. Hugo proved that assumption wrong when it ripped through the city nearly three decades ago.
Forecasters say it’s far too early to know whether “potentially catastrophic” Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm generating 185 mph winds and aiming toward Florida, will affect the Carolinas.
But some projections show Irma could blow into the western Carolinas. Her track is expected to turn north early next week, the National Weather Service says, but there is little confidence in which areas could be affected.
“Some guidance sources bring Irma over the Appalachians; some keep her in the Atlantic Ocean,” the weather’s service’s Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. office tweeted Wednesday morning.
Like Irma, Hugo grew into a rare Category 5 storm that devastated islands in the Caribbean before reaching the U.S. in September 1989. Its 160 mph winds nearly killed the government hurricane-hunter aircraft that tried to assess it.
Unlike Irma’s projected track, Hugo aimed squarely for the Carolinas coast. It made landfall at midnight on Sept. 22 near Sullivan’s Island, S.C., just north of Charleston, where winds gusted to 108 mph. Hurricane Matthew landed in the same area last October, but with much less impact.
“Due to Hugo’s rapid forward speed and relatively large size, hurricane force winds were able to reach inland areas that almost never see such severe conditions,” says a National Weather Service summary of the storm.
By 5 a.m., gusts of 63 mph were being recorded at Charlotte’s airport and eventually reached 100 mph. Charlotte lost 80,000 trees to the storm and some places were without electricity for weeks.
Hurricanes feed off the heat from warm ocean surfaces, and Hugo lost energy as it plowed inland. Hugo was downgraded to a tropical storm as it crossed Interstate 40 between Hickory and Morganton, but left heavy destruction across western North Carolina.
Hugo killed 27 people in South Carolina and seven in North Carolina. All told, Hugo left at least 86 people dead in its wake and $8 billion to $10 billion in damage in 1989 dollars, making it the most costly storm to that time.
Category 5 hurricanes that affected North Carolina
Isabel, 2003 (N.C. landfall)
Unnamed, 1928, 1935, 1938