It’s been a quarter of a century since Hurricane Hugo pounded the Carolina coast, destroying everything unlucky enough to be in its path and forever etching memories good and bad in the minds of those who experienced its wrath and aftermath. Virtually everyone who was in the Lowcountry at the time and even some who weren’t can recall where they were and what they were doing before, during and after Hugo swept ashore, packing a combination of wind, rain and high water rarely seen before and never seen since along the normally tranquil South Carolina shoreline.
Bill Macchio, publisher of Mount Pleasant Magazine and its predecessor, East Cooper Magazine, remembers well Hugo’s untimely visit to the Lowcountry.
I’ve had a lot of fun and exciting adventures in my life, and chasing hurricanes tops the list. I’ve been in hot pursuit of Hurricane Andrew just after it ravished South Florida, I’ve followed Hurricane Bob as it wreaked havoc on Cape Cod and I felt and witnessed the high winds of Hurricane George as it tore up Duval Street and other areas of Key West. But my fascination with violent storms started right here in the Lowcountry, when Hurricane Hugo roared ashore in September 1989.
Hurricanes are like no other storms. Born off the west coast of Africa, they drift out to sea and gain velocity and strength. They become tropical depressions, earning an official name and even developing a personality of sorts. The names of especially destructive storms are not reused. Hugo, a moniker forever embedded in my mind, has long been retired.
As Hugo flexed its muscles and charged toward the Carolina coast, I was oblivious to this impending threat and the chaos that surrounded me. I couldn’t be concerned about the weather because I had to get East Cooper Magazine to the printer. Relying on 1989 technology – no Internet, emails or high-tech publishing tools – we securely packaged the magazine’s pasteup boards and, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, prepared to put them on an airplane. My wife, Kim, who was four months pregnant, knew she couldn’t get my attention while I was on deadline. I was at the office preparing the magazine for the next flight out of Charleston, and, knowing Hugo was on its way, Kim gave me a call.
“Did you know they are canceling flights out of Charleston because Hugo is approaching?” she asked. With a sense of alarm in her voice, she added, “If you don’t get the magazine to Columbia by tomorrow morning, it won’t get to the printer on time.”
Kim knew there was only one thing on my mind: getting my magazine to the printer. Neither of us knew that tens of thousands of people would be caught up in gridlock trying to flee the hurricane and that Hugo’s winds were going to smash into Sullivan’s Island and make landfall around midnight on Sept. 21, with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph.
Kim and I left for Columbia late that night. I remember commenting that it was 1 a.m. and that the traffic was chugging along as if it were 1 p.m. We got to Columbia in about two hours, faring much better than those who tried to make the trip in the days that followed. For many of them, the 120-mile journey took nine hours or longer.
The next morning, I was able to get East Cooper Magazine on one of the last flights out of Columbia, safely away from the devastation Hugo was about to bring. Now I could focus on what everyone else seemed to be concerned about – the whereabouts of this monster storm. Also on my radar were Kim’s pregnancy and the safety of our other two boys, Drew and Ryan.
Hugo was a few hundred miles off shore and picking up speed and wind velocity, and the world anxiously awaited the next report from the hurricane hunters, brave or possibly crazy pilots who flew toward rather than away from Hugo to gather storm data. We still were unaware that at the time, Hugo would be the strongest storm ever to hit the East Coast of the United States.
There was a lot of speculation about the intensity of Hugo, where it would come ashore and when. Drew, my oldest son, had talked to his mother in Charlotte, and she offered us the safety of her house. As we headed to North Carolina, we continued to track Hugo, which was threatening everything and everyone in its path. We were like thousands of other refugees of this monster storm, anxious to hear any news about where Hugo had been and how much damage it had caused. As worried as we were, at least we were together.
Documenting Hurricane Hugo’s Path of Destruction
We had been chased from our home by this hurricane named Hugo, a massive and destructive storm, according to reports from the national news outlets. One account said all the historic homes on the Battery had been destroyed. Another said Sullivan’s Island was totally washed away. We didn’t know what to believe and what to pass off as exaggeration. And we didn’t know that Hugo would be the most costly hurricane to date, causing $10 billion in damage.
We decided to head back home, and, as we drove into Charleston, the Holy City looked like a war zone, a scene out of a science fiction movie. Hugo’s strong winds had turned Charleston’s vast number of pine trees into fields of toothpicks. Even worse, Hugo spawned the highest tides ever recorded on the East Coast. Boats were scattered along Lockwood Boulevard and other roadways and piled up against homes. Hugo had emptied the Wild Dunes Marina, dumping boats onto the banks of Goat Island. Cars, looking more like Hot Wheels than reliable forms of transportation, hung unsteadily on the limbs of trees.
After living in this storm-torn city for a few days, I started to clear my head. I desperately wanted to keep my team employed and the doors of my marketing and publishing company open, but I really didn’t know how to accomplish this goal. Like most of Charleston and Mount Pleasant, our neighborhood was without water and electricity. We were lucky the office had lights and running water because it was close to East Cooper Hospital, and a continual flow of staff, friends and neighbors dropped by the office. We started talking about where we were and what we saw during Hugo. Listening to these stories of heroes helping their neighbors and friends, I decided to publish a magazine documenting this monster storm through the words and pictures of those who survived its wrath.
Storm Of The Century – Hurricane Hugo was a smashing success. We sold thousands of copies, and we knew many of the people who purchased this documentary would pass it down from generation to generation. For everyone involved with publishing Storm Of the Century, there was a sense of relief when the job was done. It was as if the words and pictures documenting the destruction of Hugo lifted a weight off our shoulders. And I had found a way to keep my team gainfully employed and my publishing company open.
To access all the stories and photos that documented Hurricane Hugo, visit www.HugoMagazine.com. There is a cost of $2.99 to read the magazine on any device.