Hurricane Hugo made landfall 30 years ago. It’s still a night some will never forget.

Hurricane Hugo made landfall 30 years ago. It’s still a night some will never forget.
A radar image of Hurricane Hugo taken at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 22, 1989. (Source: NOAA)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - For people who lived in the Lowcountry on Sept. 22, 1989, it is night with memories that still linger.

It’s the night Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 hurricane made landfall at Sullivan’s Island.

State and local leaders had spent the days leading up to that landfall urging people to take the storm seriously and evacuate. Working against them was beautiful weather the day before the storm hit.

“It was actually a beautiful day,” Live 5 Chief Meteorologist Bill Walsh recalled. “It was sunshine, and it was amazing, and it’s hard to believe that night at midnight we’d have a category 4 hurricane.”

Live 5 weather anchor Charlie Hall covered Hurricane Hugo's path toward landfall urging people to evacuate to safety ahead of the storm.
Live 5 weather anchor Charlie Hall covered Hurricane Hugo's path toward landfall urging people to evacuate to safety ahead of the storm. (Source: Live 5)

It was literally the calm before the storm. But in the hours to come, as Hugo moved closer to the coast, Live 5′s weatherman, the late Charlie Hall, the same man who signed the station on the air in 1953 with the words, “Channel 5 is now alive,” grew uncharacteristically somber.

“Then the last update that he brought in, I’ll never forget that he looked at me and he shook his head and he said, ‘Bill, it’s coming. And it’s coming straight for us," Live 5 News anchor Bill Sharpe, who shared the anchor desk with Hall that night, recalled.

As the evening wore on, tensions were rising at the Live 5 studios in downtown Charleston, an area that was certain to flood. Hall intended to stay on the air until the power went out. But the relatively new owner of the station at the time had other ideas.

‘Please leave now!'

Many still remember the stern warning of retired bond court judge Linda Lombard, who at the time of Hugo was a Charleston County Council member.

“If you want to leave Charleston, please leave now,” she said at a news conference ahead of the storm. She warned that Hugo was the size of South Carolina and repeated the phrase, “please leave now.”

Before Hurricane Hugo made landfall at Sullivan's Island, then-Charleston County Council member Linda Lombard urged residents to "please leave now" during a live news conference.
Before Hurricane Hugo made landfall at Sullivan's Island, then-Charleston County Council member Linda Lombard urged residents to "please leave now" during a live news conference. (Source: Live 5)

In 2009, for the 20th anniversary of the storm’s landfall, Lombard recalled the speech was carefully crafted in the hopes of saving lives.

“We had to evacuate the county or we would have had massive loss of life and we knew that,” Lombard said. “We prepared it and went over it and over it and over it, just to pick the right words to try to encourage people to move right away.”

The night before Hugo made landfall, then-Gov. Carroll Campbell had not yet declared a state of emergency, Lombard recalled.

“So we could not demand that people leave, we could only ask them,” Lombard said.

On the famous phrase so many still remember, Lombard said the goal was clear.

“I knew if those words didn’t work, we were going to be in grave trouble,” she said. “We had to evacuate the county, or we would have had massive loss of life and we knew that.”

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley realized he was dealing with people who had not experienced a major hurricane in decades. He worried about the effects of a storm surge on the peninsula and the barrier islands, which he knew could be catastrophic.

Then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley urged people to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Hugo.
Then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley urged people to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Hugo. (Source: Live 5)

“It’s a wall of water,” Riley said. “And if you’re in there and it’s over you, you’re gone.”

To send a message, Riley ordered city hall be boarded up days before the storm. He also asked gulf coast mayors for advice they never got when they went through the same thing.

“You have to convince people their lives are at stake,” Riley said. “People do not die from hurricanes because they evacuate; but thousands of people have died in hurricanes in the United States of America because they didn’t evacuate.”

“This will be the largest, most severe hurricane in anyone’s memory,” he said.

It was a dire prediction that would be proved true in the hours to come.

Massive storm makes landfall just after midnight

When the storm made landfall shortly after midnight, wind gusts as high as 108 mph were measured in the city of Charleston, with 107 mph at Folly Beach, the National Weather Service reported. Because of its rapid motion and large size, hurricane-force winds were able to reach inland areas that almost never see such severe conditions. At 2 a.m., just two hours after landfall, the storm was already approximately halfway between Charleston and Sumter, with maximum sustained winds estimated around 100 mph, still a Category 2 hurricane. Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter recorded a wind gust of 109 mph as the eye of Hugo brushed by just to the south. By 5 a.m., Hugo’s center was crossing Interstate 77 between Columbia and Charlotte with wind gusts at the Charlotte International Airport measured at 63 mph, but the Queen City would record wind gusts of up to 100 mph.

An eleven foot storm surge destroyed the Isle of Palms fishing pier and many of the beachfront homes, the National Weather Service said.
An eleven foot storm surge destroyed the Isle of Palms fishing pier and many of the beachfront homes, the National Weather Service said. (Source: Live 5)

Hugo 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 country’s history in terms of damage estimates, which reached $7 billion.

In downtown Charleston, up to 80 percent of roofs were damaged.

Approximately three-quarters of the trees in the 250,000-acre Frances Marion National Forest were blown down.

Hurricane Hugo piled boats that had been anchored in the Wild Dunes Marina on top of each other.
Hurricane Hugo piled boats that had been anchored in the Wild Dunes Marina on top of each other. (Source: Live 5)

On Folly Beach, the combination of a storm surge of 12 feet and high waves destroyed virtually all single family homes on the ocean front.

Losses on Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms reached nearly $270 million. The storm forced 264,000 people to evacuate from their homes in eight counties. Shelters were packed with more than 90,000 throughout the storm and its immediate aftermath. A large section of the Ben Sawyer Bridge over to Sullivan’s Island was damaged.

A large section of the Ben Sawyer Bridge was heavily damaged by Hurricane Hugo.
A large section of the Ben Sawyer Bridge was heavily damaged by Hurricane Hugo. (Source: Live 5)

In Georgetown, a sailboat anchored in the Sampit River ended up next to the Georgetown Rice Museum while the Georgetown Landing and Belle Isle marinas were destroyed.

The storm temporarily put 270,000 out of work and left more than 60,000 homeless.

Hugo was blamed for 27 deaths in South Carolina. More than 26,000 homes were either destroyed or severely damaged and more than 227,900 homes lost power.

For some, they faced up to two weeks without electricity as utility crews worked to restore service.

READ MORE: Special Section: Hurricane Hugo

While no one could question the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Hugo in larger areas like Charleston, folks in rural areas faced a one-two punch after the storm. Not only did they suffer extensive damage but help was slow to come if it came at all.

All along the barrier islands and as far north as Myrtle Beach, people told the same story: their plight was largely untold with the focus on the bigger, more populated areas. In smaller, less populated towns and communities, low-income families lost everything, often with no insurance to repair or replace their homes. And when looters set in, few local law enforcement agencies had enough officers to drive them out.

In the small Charleston County fishing village of McClellanville, a 17-foot tidal surge decimated not only people’s homes but their livelihoods, too. Trolling boats lay strewn across the land. Oak trees toppled. Homes were left flattened.

But the spirit of the people did not waver.

“The damage is done. We’re still living. And that is what we’re thankful for," one survivor said.

Current Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg recalled a concert with the Charleston Symphony held after the storm had passed where a few thousand people gathered to, for a short time, take their minds off the devastation they had endured.

“It was just one of the most moving events that I recall in my personal history in Charleston," he said. "How people came together as a community and just breathed this collective sigh of relief that we made it, we made it through this incredible struggle together.”

Copyright 2019 WCSC. All rights reserved.