Hugo 25 years later: Rare Charlotte hurricane made history

By Steve Lyttle - slyttle@charlotteobserver.com

Some longtime Charlotteans will tell you they were ready, that they had stocked up on batteries and ice as powerful Hurricane Hugo barreled toward the South Carolina coast 25 years ago.

But most area residents viewed Hugo as a conversation piece, a scary-looking storm that would batter Charleston but only bring a few hours of gusty winds and heavy rain to Charlotte.

Hours later, in the dead of night, they huddled in their houses, frightened by the sounds of nature’s fury exploding around them – trees and power poles snapping, electric transformers popping, and other loose objects turning into missiles by winds that exceeded 80 mph.

The weather in Charlotte on Sept. 21, 1989 – a Thursday – fed the false sense of calm. It was sunny and unseasonably warm, in the upper 80s. Clouds began to arrive during the evening commute, and as area television stations were full of reports of hurricane-force winds approaching Charleston, some in Charlotte began to show concern.

Cheri Roosenberg decided to drive from her home in southeast Charlotte to Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie and pick up her 10-year-old daughter Alison, who was on an overnight school outing. WBT Radio morning personality Don Russell, who had lived through hurricanes in Florida, told his wife that they needed to stow away lawn furniture and trash cans.

And the power of a rare Charlotte hurricane became starkly clear in the early morning hours of Sept. 22, a quarter-century ago today.

Pushed along by the clockwise circulation of a high-pressure system near Bermuda and the counterclockwise flow of low pressure in the Mississippi Valley, Hurricane Hugo rushed inland after making landfall north of Charleston with 138 mph sustained winds. People huddled in shelters along the coast had to climb to the rafters to avoid drowning in a 20-foot storm surge.

Neil Dixon, then a young teen in Lugoff, S.C., recalled the brutal wind gusts arriving in his Kershaw County town – between Columbia and Charlotte – around midnight.

“There was a roaring sound, and you could hear trees snapping everywhere,” recalled Dixon, who was so struck by Hurricane Hugo that he decided to become a meteorologist.

Hugo moved inexorably to the northwest. It pounded the South Carolina cities of Sumter, Camden and then Lancaster. By 3 a.m., it was Charlotte’s turn.

Across a city so proud of its treeline, the relentless winds toppled giant oaks, pines and everything else. Transformers exploded, and the power went out in neighborhood after neighborhood. Trees crashed on houses, killing a child in what is now Weddington in Union County. A motorcyclist was blown off the road and killed south of Monroe.

Television and radio stations were knocked off the air by the storm. “I think we were the only station left on the air,” Russell said of WBT.

By 8 a.m., the winds abated in Charlotte. Hugo kept rolling, however, racing to the northwest at 25 mph with tropical storm-force winds. It downed trees and knocked out power in the North Carolina foothills and mountains, and then into Virginia and West Virginia.

Back in Charlotte, the cleanup began. Nearly 700,000 Duke Energy customers were without power, and it would be three weeks before the last repairs were made. Countless roads were blocked by trees, and area residents didn’t wait for government agencies. They grabbed chain saws and began clearing roads, driveways and yards.

They cooked food from their refrigerators and freezers on charcoal grills, to prevent it from spoiling. They hauled pieces of trees into the street and waited for trucks to pick them up – a task that wasn’t completed until early November in some places. And they waited for the power to come on.

Adam Bernstein of Charlotte recalled “muttering obscenities in the dark after hearing the neighbors across the street cheering when their power came back and ours didn’t.”

The official death toll is listed as 13 in South Carolina and six in North Carolina, but there were between one dozen and two dozen additional deaths in the days afterward.

Another Charlotte hurricane?

“It could happen again,” the Weather Service’s Dixon said. “It would take a certain set of circumstances, but sure, it could happen again.”

A hurricane approaching the coast at an angle of 45 to 90 degrees could be carried inland again. The S.C. Emergency Management Division estimates that if a storm of Hugo’s strength and path hit today, it could mean evacuating 1.2 million people, cause more than $16.6 billion in damage, and destroy more than 21,000 homes.

But would we react the same way?

“The world has changed,” said WBT’s Russell. “Technology has changed so much of our lives.”

In recent days, in the approach to Hurricane Hugo’s 25th anniversary, the American Red Cross has stressed storm preparedness. Residents have been reminded to keep storm kits ready, and to have a plan that can go into action when strong winds, flooding rains, or even severe winter storms arrive.

Ben Bailey, chief deputy with the Union County Sheriff’s Office, said emergency management crews “got some valuable lessons from Hugo that we still use today.”

Those include closer coordination with meteorologists, staging utility repair trucks near storm-threatened areas, and getting quick help from utility companies and emergency responders from other states.

The National Weather Service has much more advanced radar, and hurricane track forecasts are more sophisticated than in 1989.

Hugo’s lifetime memories

If you lived in the path of Hugo, you have stories to tell – and you’ve probably told them, many times.

“Lots of stories,” said Mike Stanford, who was working as an engineer with CBS in the Charleston area when Hugo hit but returned to Charlotte for cleanup. “Lots of chain sawing in town, fixing people’s power and phones, gassing up generators, pumping out basements.”

But WBT’s Russell said technology would make life after a 2014 Hurricane Hugo much different than in 1989.

“That was before the Internet, before smartphones,” he said. “It was before the social media. People got their news from radio, TV and newspapers. It would be different now. Exactly how would it be different? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

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