Hurricane Hugo: Remembering the storm, 25 years later

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Hurricane Hugo slammed into the Carolinas 25 years ago this week. The Observer talked with residents across the Charlotte region who lived and worked in the area when the storm hit.

SUZANNE KNIGHT: Eerie night at the hospital

A quarter-century later, Suzanne Knight struggles to find the exact words for how it felt to work in the labor and delivery wing of Charlotte Memorial Hospital in the midst of Hurricane Hugo.

“I know this sounds strange, but it was sort of a party atmosphere,” Knight said. “We were isolated from it, and there was all this excitement going on around us.”

She and the other nurses on the eighth floor of the old hospital building had arrived for work about 11 p.m. Thursday, before the storm hit Charlotte. They watched WBTV until the station was knocked off the air by the strong winds.

Then they noticed the chaos taking place outside. She said they could hear trees snapping, and Knight still recalls watching a large crane at a hospital construction site swaying and twisting in the 80 mph-plus winds.

“There were a few babies born that night, but it was really quiet,” she said. “In fact, it was kind of eerie, how little activity there was.”

She and the others on duty felt their excitement climbing as the storm intensified, but all that euphoria disappeared in a hurry when the power went out.

“We went onto emergency generators, and I was frightened,” she said.

Knight said she called her husband and told him to take their two children, who were 2 years old and 6 months old, to a safe place in the house.

As dawn arrived, a few day-shift people began arriving, telling stories of the devastation they had seen. Knight said it was about 10:30 a.m. before enough people had arrived for her to go home.

“It was 15 days before the power was restored at our house,” said Knight, who lived then off Prosperity Church Road but now lives near the Plaza Midwood area.

“We didn’t hang around,” said Knight, who still works as a nurse, with a Cabarrus County public health agency. “We had planned to go up to Buffalo for a wedding, so we just went up there early.”

Her lasting memory of Hugo? “That crane,” she said. “I can still see it ... turning, turning, turning.”

BEN BAILEY: Would prison security be compromised?

Ben Bailey, a 26-year-old rookie deputy, had an important assignment on the night that Hurricane Hugo arrived.

As the storm roared toward the Charlotte area, the Union County sheriff’s office became worried that a power outage or damage to the building at the state prison unit in Monroe could allow the inmates to escape.

“So I was sent to the prison unit with a load of emergency radios,” Bailey, now chief deputy of the Union County Sheriff’s Office, said. “What a trip that was!”

“I can still see it,” he said last week. “The rain was blowing sideways, and the poles were swaying and coming down.”

He waited out the stronger wind gusts before trying to get through intersections on the trip of about 3 miles between the sheriff’s headquarters, then at the county courthouse in downtown Monroe, and the now-closed prison unit in northeast Monroe.

At one point during the night, he was walking on U.S. 74, trying to stand up as winds of more than 60 mph and sheets of rain buffeted him. “I wondered why I got into that business.”

The only deaths that actually took place during the storm were in Union County – a child killed when a tree fell on a house near Weddington, and a motorcyclist blown off the road on U.S. 601 between Monroe and Pageland, S.C.

“Our deputies kept getting trapped by fallen trees,” Bailey said. “After a while, they called us all in.”

He said dealing with Hurricane Hugo – especially in the days after the storm, when three-quarters of Union County was without power – gave law enforcement officers a better understanding of weather calamities. That knowledge paid off a few years later.

“When Hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana (in August 1992), a group of us from Union County went down to Jenrette, La., to help,” Bailey said. “A lot of people came to Union County and helped us after Hugo. It felt good to return the favor.”

DON RUSSELL: On the air, saving lives

Keeping a radio station on the air in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime storm was difficult.

But just getting to the station was harrowing enough.

Many longtime Charlotteans know the story of how morning air personalities Don Russell and James K. Flynn arrived at the WBT studios on the morning that Hurricane Hugo hit and managed to stay on the air, as one of the few electronic media outlets operating while the winds howled.

They’ve heard of how engineers hooked up a generator to get the control board, microphones and telephones – but nothing else – working. Perhaps they’ve heard how Russell held a telephone next to a mike so Accu-Weather meteorologist Joe Sobel could give listeners an update on the big storm.

But they probably haven’t heard the story of how Russell made it to the station in the first place.

“I never considered turning around and going back home,” said Russell, who is in his mid-60s and still does early morning weekend shows at the station. “I just had to get to the station.”

His wife, Myra Joines, felt a similar compulsion to make it to work. She was the public information officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

About 3 a.m. on that Friday, after putting their dog in the safety of a bathroom, Russell and Joines left their home in Matthews for Charlotte.

“Instead of going the back way, I decided to take Independence Boulevard,” Russell said. “I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about downed trees.

“But when we got to Independence, it was nothing but transformers blowing and rain coming sideways.”

At least they didn’t have other drivers to avoid. “There was nobody else out there on that road,” Russell said. “I figured that if a pole came down, I’d be able to drive around it, because there was no other traffic.”

He made it to the station about 4:15 a.m., and Joines went to the CMS Education Center, which had a partially collapsed roof from the storm. The late Tom Desio was doing the all-night program for WBT, but Russell and Flynn took over around 5 a.m.

“It’s difficult these days to explain that day to people,” Russell said. “This was before cellphones, before the Internet.”

Two of WBT’s three towers had come down, but the station was still broadcasting at its full 50,000 watts across the eastern United States. Russell and Flynn took calls from listeners, spreading emergency information. They also aired interviews with emergency officials.

Russell, a native of south Florida, said he had been through several hurricanes. “I had an idea of what to do,” he said.

By the next day, Flynn had written and recorded his famous parody, “Chainsaw.”

“We felt a need to lighten the mood a bit,” Russell said.

Despite all the problems and the makeshift solutions to keeping the show on the air, Russell looks back on Sept. 22, 1989, “as my greatest day in radio.”

“I am convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that we saved some people’s lives that day,” he said.

KORY BRIDGES: Refuge in the Bible

Kory Bridges said he and his family found a refuge in their faith during Hurricane Hugo.

They huddled in their two-story apartment at Monroe and Idlewild roads in southeast Charlotte, listening to the awful roar of 80 mph winds tearing apart their world.

It was a big difference from the previous day or two, when Bridges, then a fifth-grader, was excited about the possibility of a hurricane approaching Charlotte. He went to bed about 9:30 p.m. on the Thursday night of Hugo’s arrival and was awakened about 2 a.m. by his sister, who said their mother wanted them to come downstairs.

“We were sitting together as a family ... waiting, hearing the rain and wind hit against the building, and wondering if a tree or light pole would fall on our home.”

In the midst of the tempest, Bridges’ mother had an idea. She told her children to get out the Bible and read Psalm 91.

You will not fear the terror of night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday.

“Guess what – it worked!” Bridges recalled. “Right next to us, a few large trees fell in the other direction.”

He said the days after the storm are etched in his memory: People cooking on charcoal grills. Walking to a nearby Harris-Teeter, which was giving away ice cream and other food because it was melting. Taking an unplanned school vacation.

“But most importantly,” he recalled, “Charlotte grew closer as a city. People were helping each other ... talking and sharing what food they had to spare.”

SUSAN DOOBROW: Saving her son’s bar mitzvah

Susan Doobrow had spent the previous six weeks cooking for her son Todd’s upcoming bar mitzvah, and the freezer at the family’s southeast Charlotte home was full.

Then Hurricane Hugo arrived.

“Everything was in that freezer, and our power was out,” said Doobrow, who now lives in Indian Land, S.C. “I panicked.”

“The storm itself was frightening,” Doobrow, who was 44 at the time, said. “But we banded together afterwards. We cooked all our food on grills, and we helped each other.”

Doobrow remembers how worried she was about the food in the freezer and the upcoming celebration for her son, who is now 38 and living in Birmingham, Ala.

So she started looking for a way to save the party. She and her husband Sidney found a Bi-Lo store on Pineville-Matthews Road where the power was still on. She went to the manager with a request.

“I asked if he could save a little space in his freezer for me,” Doobrow said, tearing up at the memory. “I’m sure I was the least of his problems, but a few minutes later, he came back with boxes.”

The manager said he could help, and he even sent some ice and water home with Doobrow.

“It was the most wonderful thing, and it saved our family’s event,” she said.

There was a paying-forward moment afterward. Doobrow said she and her family later made a donation to a Bi-Lo-sponsored charity.

“I still get emotional, just thinking about how wonderful people were to each other,” she added.

TURK AKBAY: A lesson about U.S. weather

Turk Akbay recalls going home from work late on the night of Sept. 21, 1989, and thinking how nice the weather was.

“Back then, I didn’t know of the saying ‘calm before the storm,’ ” Akbay recalled last week.

He and his family also didn’t know about hurricanes. They had arrived in Charlotte about 18 months earlier from their native Turkey. Akbay was an 18-year-old, working at a now-demolished McDonald’s restaurant at East Independence Boulevard and Idlewild Road.

People had come into the restaurant that evening talking about the threat of Hurricane Hugo, but it didn’t mean much to Akbay, who now lives in Charlotte’s Villa Heights area. For starters, he said, he didn’t know what a hurricane could do.

“And my English was not good enough for me to know ... what was being talked about,” he said.

It was around midnight, and while dark clouds had rolled in, the damaging winds and heavy rain were still hours away. Akbay went to sleep at his family’s home in the Hickory Grove community of east Charlotte and said he was awakened a few hours later by what he thought was the sound of someone tapping on his second-floor bedroom window.

Then he thought someone was splashing him with water.

“I realized it was the rain that was coming through the closed window,” Akbay said.

He and his family huddled downstairs, and Akbay recalled asking his father if the black objects he saw flying outside were bats. His father told the 18-year-old that it was shingles coming off their roof.

About three or four days later, the McDonald’s restaurant got power (his house was in the dark for a week), and Akbay’s manager came and picked him up for work. Akbay didn’t have gas in his car and didn’t buy any on the night before the storm hit.

He said he learned a lesson from it all.

“I never let my gas tank go below a half-tank, and I always fill up when there is the chance of such a weather event,” he said.

MARTYN HAWKINS: Serene in midst of storm

Martyn Hawkins had lived in Florida and wasn’t particularly worried about the approach of Hurricane Hugo.

“I figured a hurricane was no big deal,” he said.

But, he added, “I hadn’t taken into consideration that these were 100-plus-year-old oak trees and not palm trees.”

Hawkins learned the difference on the morning of Sept. 22, 1989, as he tried getting to work at Charlotte Memorial Hospital, where he was a registered nurse anesthetist.

What was typically a short trip from southeast Mecklenburg County turned into a four-hour ordeal, he said. He would try driving down one street, only to be blocked by fallen trees. His retreat was almost halted a few times when trees fell behind him.

Hawkins, who now lives on Oak Island along the North Carolina coast, said he had one close call along the way.

“I drove across downed power lines in a deep pool of water on Queens Road,” he said. “Fortunately, they weren’t energized.”

He finally decided to try Independence Boulevard, and that approach worked, he said.

“I was duty bound to get to Carolinas Medical Center (the hospital’s name since 1992) for potential disaster victims,” he said.

Hawkins recalled a surreal aspect of his trip in. He was playing a cassette tape in his car of the Irish singer Enya.

“To be driving through such chaos in my cocoon with the driver’s window open (the rain was being driven horizontally from the other direction, he said) and smelling the fragrance of fir trees that I could hear snapping was unbelievably serene,” he said.

RICH OPPEL: Spreading the storm story

Power was out to a majority of homes in the Charlotte area, so television was not an option for getting the news. The Internet was a figment of some scientist’s imagination, as were smartphones.

That left newspapers as one of the main sources of information in the days following Hurricane Hugo, and the Charlotte Observer’s efforts to gather and report the news were headed by Rich Oppel.

Oppel, now 71, and his family lived on Malvern Road in Myers Park, the heavily treed community that took a heavy blow from Hugo’s winds.

“I remember the bees and barbecue,” Oppel said last week from his home in Austin, where he is retired as editor of the American Statesman and now volunteers his time as a professor at Huston Tillotson University, a historically black college in the Texas capital.

He recalled the “proud trees” that were knocked down in the storm. Residents and emergency personnel often referred to Myers Park with the storm cliche “war zone,” with streets blocked by huge oak trees and limbs that were felled by the winds that gusted above 90 mph and were sustained at nearly 75 mph during parts of the storm.

“The sweet nectar of the sap drew hordes of bees,” he recalled.

Medical personnel treated hundreds of bee and hornet stings, the result of insects whose homes had been ripped apart.

“And because power was off for days, we barbecued on a cooker in the front yard, and neighbors gathered for hot pork and cool wine,” he added.

Most of all, Oppel said, he recalled “the fantastic job Observer staffers did in chronicling the impact of the storm in scores of Carolinas communities that stood vulnerable in its path.”

BILLY ROOSENBERG: A trip to rescue sister

Billy Roosenberg’s memories of Hurricane Hugo include a frightened mother, a quick trip to Lake Wylie, and an unplanned bit of entertainment.

“As a kid,” said Roosenberg, who was 12 at the time, “I thought Hurricane Hugo was fun. My mom didn’t feel the same.”

Perhaps that’s because Roosenberg’s sister, Alison, was at Camp Thunderbird, on the shores of Lake Wylie, on the evening of Hugo’s approach. She and fellow students from Charlotte Christian School were on an overnight school trip, staying in the camp’s wooden cabins.

With Roosenberg’s father, Bill, out of town on a business trip, his mother made a quick decision. Cheri Roosenberg decided not to wait for the school to cancel the trip. She packed her son in the car on that Thursday evening and drove to Camp Thunderbird to pick up 10-year-old Alison.

One bonus for Billy Roosenberg: The Carolinas Raptor Center was showing animals to the Charlotte Christian students that night, and he got to stay and watch.

Before long, school officials came around to Cheri Roosenberg’s thinking.

“By that night, the school had decided to cancel the trip,” Roosenberg said. School officials ordered students and adult chaperones to pack up, and they arranged transportation back home. “Everyone was back to school that night and then home,” Roosenberg said.

It was a good thing. According to accounts of Hugo, fallen trees and limbs damaged several cabins at Camp Thunderbird. Besides, Roosenberg added, “Imagine being in a cabin during a hurricane!”

Roosenberg’s south Mecklenburg neighborhood, like most others, was littered with fallen trees. He said his dad made it home, but only after hours of navigating around blocked roads.

Roosenberg admitted having a child’s perspective of the storm.

“The next couple weeks I remember as being fun,” he said. “We played with all the neighborhood kids, climbing downed trees.”

BRANDON SWANN: No finger-pointing at government

Hurricane Hugo was powerful when it roared northward across the immediate Charlotte area. But it was even worse just to the south.

The hurricane, racing to the northwest at more than 20 mph after making landfall near Charleston, still had winds of about 100 mph when it crossed the corridor of South Carolina counties to the southeast of Charlotte.

Damage was intense in Sumter, Kershaw and Lancaster counties, and Brandon Swann was in the midst of it.

As a 9-year-old living in the Kershaw County town of Lugoff, about 35 miles northeast of Columbia and 50 miles southeast of Charlotte, he saw dozens of homes damaged by fallen pine trees. Power wasn’t restored to his family’s house for two weeks.

But what sticks with Swann a quarter-century later is what happened after the storm.

“There were neighbors helping neighbors,” said Swann, now the father of a 15-month-old boy and living in Baltimore.

He recalls “men, women, children, all helping each other, not complaining about not having power for the third or fourth staight day, but continually counting their blessings on how their lives were spared in the worst storm they’ve encountered.”

Swann drew a contrast between the Carolinas’ reaction to Hugo and what was seen in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and in the Mid-Atlantic after Superstorm Sandy.

“No one complained about the government’s speed to help the battered areas,” Swann said. “There wasn’t social media to vent frustrations about a President or stories of looting overtaking the news.”

He said the people of Kershaw County would volunteer to pick up a few extra bags of ice for neighbors at a local church, where the ice was distributed free of charge.

“The citizens of Lugoff worked hard together to clean and rebuild their community,” he said. “They never pointed fingers or waited for government help.”

MATT VANCE: The mountains got slammed, too

Hugo weakened into a tropical storm as it reached the Charlotte area around daybreak on the morning of Sept. 22, 1989, and that’s the end of the story for many people.

But it’s often forgotten that the storm still carried a wallop as it raced northward across the North Carolina foothills and mountains, and then into western Virginia and West Virginia.

Sustained winds dropped to about 50 mph, but gusts reached hurricane strength at times as the winds were funneled through mountain passes. Widespread power outages and tree damage were reported in the mountains, and Matt Vance was there to see it all.

Vance was a 21-year-old morning news reporter in 1989 at WATA-AM in Boone – the high country’s only news source at the time.

Vance said he would leave his parents’ house near Blowing Rock about 4:30 a.m., and he noticed the skies were clear overhead when he drove to work the morning Hugo arrived. But he knew something was wrong.

“All the Charlotte radio stations I listened to on my drive in were off the air,” he said.

Complete with driving rain, damaging winds and even a few small and rare mountain tornadoes, Hugo arrived in Boone between 6 and 7 a.m. Vance said station manager and morning news anchor Tom Baxter left the station to make repairs to WATA-FM’s transmitter, leaving Vance and Jane Nicholson – now director of news at Appalachian State University – to keep mountain residents informed of the chaos breaking loose around them.

“Most residents lost electrical power and were relying on us to keep them updated on their battery-powered radios,” Vance said. “Miraculously, WATA never lost power during the entire brunt of the storm.”

A relief crew arrived around mid-morning, and Vance made a lengthy and circuitous trip back to Blowing Rock, where his parents’ house was without power for a week.

Vance is now living in Jacksonville, Fla., working as a manager with Buffet Group USA, a leading musical instrument manufacturer. He also works part-time as a musician.

And his hurricane experience is a bit of an oddity to his Florida friends.

“My friends here laugh when I tell them I had to live in the mountains – some 300 miles from Hugo’s landfall in Charleston – to experience a hurricane first-hand,” he said.