CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Hurricane Hugo was a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall near Sullivan’s Island 31 years ago Tuesday.
Unlike this year’s hurricane season, which is only the second to exhaust the list of storm names and move into the Greek alphabet, the 1989 season was considered an average one.
But the impact of that one specific hurricane over South Carolina was anything but average.
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.
Leading up to the storm, then-Charleston County Council Member Linda Lombard urged people to take the threat seriously with a stern warning: “Please leave now.” Those words, repeated several times during her message, still resonate with longtime residents.
“We had to evacuate the county or we would have had massive loss of life and we knew that,” Lombard said during a 2009 interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the storm’s landfall. “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.”
“It was actually a beautiful day,” Live 5 Chief Meteorologist Bill Walsh recalled in 2019. “It was sunshine, and it was amazing, and it’s hard to believe that night at midnight we’d have a category 4 hurricane.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Live 5 News anchor Bill Sharpe recalled his colleague, beloved weatherman Charlie Hall, whose mood grew visibly somber as the storm approached the coast.
“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,” Sharpe said while marking Hugo’s 30th anniversary in 2019.
Live 5’s studios were located in downtown Charleston on East Bay Street in 1989, and the threat of the storm and the accompanying storm surge forced station employees to evacuate the building. Hall did not want to leave his post.
But in an interview shortly before his death, Hall would later recall being flagged down by a driver months after the storm who thanked him for signing off, saying that he and his wife had decided they wouldn’t leave unless they saw Hall leave. The viewer told him when they returned to their home after the storm, they saw that their house had been destroyed.