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A sea of blackness: How residents coped in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo 30 years ago

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 1989, edition of The Charlotte Observer.

By former staff writers PAT BORDEN GUBBINS and ED MARTIN. Jack Horan, Nancy Webb and Rhonda Y. Williams contributed.

It wasn’t London during the Blitz.

It was Charlotte the night after Hugo. Except for islands of light here and there, the city was a sea of blackness. Its homes were lighted Friday night not by TV’s bluish halo, but by the yellowish light from flickering candles and the reddish glow of charcoal in backyard grills.

Charlotteans coped with the longest night of 1989 by eating cold dinners by candlelight, barbecuing with neighbors and finding ways to ease the unfamiliar darkness that enveloped them.

Martha May, washing dishes by candlelight with water heated on a charcoal grill, couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s just so much work, these days,” she said from her home off Quail Hollow Road. “I’ve never had to dry dishes before. We’re back in the 1800s.”

But supper had bordered on the elegant, with swordfish cooked on the grill, peas warmed on husband Harvey’s old Army camp stove and wine cooled in the last cubes of ice from the fridge.

“We put the candelabra on the mantel and had a nice, romantic, quiet dinner,” she said.

“It’s like a potluck dinner,” said Rick Bernhardt. “Whatever’s thawing, you bring it out.”

So two dozen or more neighbors around Bernhardt’s 2701 Sherwood Ave. home turned out at dusk to light up a grill in his driveway. There were chicken, hamburgers and tacos. And “lots of ice cream - four cartons,” said neighbor Brian Jenest.

Sherwood Avenue was blocked by massive trunks of fallen trees. The neighbors had spent the day trying to clear the street.

At nightfall, they finished eating and drifted inside dark homes.

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HUGO 09/23/1989 FILE Charlotte Observer front page

Sam Schiffman was going to bed early.

“There’s not much else to do,” he said. “We’ll get up in the morning and do some more.”

At their home on Biltmore Drive in Dilworth, Charlotte lawyers Tom and Ellen Ruff and their three children settled in for a dinner of charcoal- grilled halibut, hot dogs and zucchini.

“Our problem is we don’t have hot water,” said Tom Ruff Jr. “And we have a son born July 3. He needs a hot bottle or a warm breast. He’s had the most breast he can have, and he needs a supplement.”

Neighbors, aware of their new baby, have brought food and candles.

William Wolney, visiting from out of town with relatives Tod and Linda Skinner on Normandy Road, was having a quiet evening.

“I’m just sitting around with flashlights, reading my kids stories.”

The Skinners were across the street, visiting neighbors.

By about 9 p.m., Marty Marion and his wife, Holly Hales, of Wedgewood Drive had gone to bed with a bottle of wine, listening to their battery-powered radio.

“We heated soup on a Coleman stove,” said Marion. “We played it simple. It was a long night last night. We’re just kind of enjoying the darkness, in the bed, relaxing.”

SouthPark was an oasis of light in a dark city. It was one of the few areas that still had electricity. Inside, it was pandemonium. Restaurants had sold out of food. Stores had exhausted supplies of change.

At Eckerd Drugs, 100 people waited in line, with arms full of beer, soft drinks, snacks. Some speeded the line along.

Charles Blackwell, a CPA, left his wife, Jacqueline, and her friend Carletta Freeman behind and went to the head of the line. As the exhausted clerk rang up purchases, Blackwell bagged the goods.

Outside, under the bright lights of the SouthPark entrance, Kent and Carole Mabe tugged bags of charcoal, a small grill and batteries to their car.

“This is how we going to heat coffee,” said Kent Mabe. Their home in Lansdowne was dark.

Eastland Mall was closed. A Food Lion on Sharon Amity was the only store open within miles.

Manager Dwight Furr said the store drew record-breaking crowds. On a normal weeknight, the grocery store averages 1,000 sales. By Friday evening, almost 4,000 people had made purchases, mostly dry goods.

At The Square uptown, the night descended on Charlotte police Officer E.G. Blue. He had been The Square 12 hours. He tried a nearby fried chicken restaurant for a meal, but it was swamped.

“People were getting in fistfights over a chicken wing,” he said.

Gasoline and plywood for storm repairs were hot items Friday night. Police said a couple were seen taking plywood from a construction site at Providence Road and Pineville-Matthews Road.

Employees at Petro Express at East Independence Blvd on Village Lake Drive closed and went home but apparently forgot to turn off the gas pumps.

“People are filling up and driving off,” said Maj. J.J. Kelley.

Every night, the tiny light had been the lullaby that brought her sleep. Friday night, there was only darkness.

“She’s always slept with a night light,” Cici Weinmann said as she cradled her daughter, Mills, 1, in her arms.

Around them, Sherwood Avenue was in shambles. Huge fallen oaks lay on cars and power lines. But Weinmann had found a neighbor who had a tiny, battery-powered candle. She turned it on. A wide smile spread across Mills’ face.

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