CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Hurricane Hugo was a Category 4 storm when it slammed into Charleston County on the evening of Sept. 21, 1989, 29 years ago.
The storm was the only Category 4 hurricane to make landfall on the mainland United States in the 1980s, and at that time, it was the most destructive in the nation’s history in terms of cost.
The Live 5 News anchor team remembered what it was like during a special broadcast on the 25th anniversary of the storm’s landfall.
The late Charlie Hall was Live 5′s weatherman during Hugo. Standing in front of radar image of the storm, he read a bulletin estimating storm surge could be as high as 30 feet, and the emotion in his voice was clear.
“He had to stop and take a breath and say, you know, this thing’s going to come here,” Live 5 Chief Meteorologist Bill Walsh would later recall of Hall’s broadcasts.
“When I was talking to Charlie, and I could see it in Charlie’s face,” anchor Bill Sharpe said. Sharpe co-anchored storm coverage in the station’s original East Bay Street studios as Hugo approached. “Charlie got, all of a sudden, solemn and sad and depressed. And I remember off-camera, I said, ‘Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not okay. This thing’s coming, it’s big, it’s going to be devastation,’ and boy was he right.”
One of the most iconic images of Hurricane Hugo was the collapse of a wind-battered awning at what was then the Charleston Place Hotel on Meeting Street. Footage shows the awning rocking, swaying, then ultimately falling as the storm’s powerful winds hammered Charleston.
Hugo made landfall at Sullivans Island, cutting northwest into the state between Columbia and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, then towards Charlotte and Hickory, North Carolina.
Storm surge from Hugo inundated the South Carolina Coast from Charleston to Myrtle Beach, with maximum storm tides of 20 ft. observed in the Cape Romain-Bulls Bay area, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“During the height of the storm, it was noisy, it was that incredible wind,” Walsh said. “But then you saw the big blue flashes, and you kept seeing the blue flashes. And those were the big transformers that were exploding.”
Mount Pleasant recorded 8.10 inches of rain.
“I don’t think anyone realized how devastating it would be,” anchor Debi Chard said.
One Lowcountry resident said pieces of his home were scatted across five blocks. The car belonging to a neighbor from across the street wound up in his back yard, he said.
“The day after the storm was really incredible,” anchor Ann McGill said. “I remember walking outside and the trees were everywhere.”
Chard recalled walking outside and smelling the scent of Pine-Sol because of the number of downed pine trees.
“To me, the smell and the sound of the hurricane is the smell of pine and the sound of chainsaws,” Walsh said.
“There were no streets in my neighborhood,” Sharpe said. “They were all trees down, you couldn’t get through.”
There were thousands of trees damaged in the Francis Marion National Forest and a portion of the Ben Sawyer Bridge was damaged as well.
Chard recalled trying to make her way back to the makeshift broadcast location in the storm’s aftermath when power was still out and street signs were down.
“You’re having to remember, ‘Which exit do I take?’ and you’re counting streets to get to the right place and nothing is familiar,” Chard said.
The system that would become Hugo was first detected on Sept. 9, 1989, off the coast of Africa. The following day, the official track began when a tropical depression formed southeast of the Cape Verde Islands.
In the final 30 hours before landfall, Hugo began to gain strength. Just before landfall, the estimated one-minute wind speed was estimated to be at approximately 138 mph.
The exact human toll varies, but the National Hurricane Center places it at a total of 49. That number includes 21 in the mainland United States, 13 of which were in South Carolina. The total also includes five deaths in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 24 more elsewhere in the Caribbean.