South Carolina Radio Network is taking a look back at one of South Carolina’s worst recorded natural disasters, 25 years after it happened. This is Part 1 of 3.
Former South Carolina governor Carroll Campbell was finishing up a phone call with the National Weather Service when his face “suddenly turned as white as a sheet,” recalled Campbell’s chief-of-staff Warren Tompkins.
“He hung up the phone and I asked, ‘Well, what did he say?’” Tompkins remembered. “He said, ‘This is going to be really, really bad.'”
It was a Thursday afternoon: September 21, 1989.
Campbell had issued an evacuation order earlier that morning as forecasters warned a Category 2 hurricane, given the moniker “Hugo,” was steadily building strength in the South Atlantic Gulf Stream. The storm had smacked the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico only days earlier, leveling 90 percent of the structures on St. Croix.
Now it was building into a Category 4 or even Category 5 strength, with winds estimated to be around 135 miles per hour and a trajectory pointed directly at the center of South Carolina’s coast.
“A potential Category 5 hurricane was going to be devastating to the state of South Carolina,” Tompkins said. “He told us, ‘We’d better get ready for it.’”
Robert Stewart, who was chief of the State Law Enforcement Division at the time, had been involved in the briefings as the storm came closer. He said it was apparent by mid-week that the state could have a disaster on its hands.
“Hugo wasn’t one of these storms that waffled around a whole lot,” he said. “That storm more or less came right at us. It really gets pretty intense and pretty exhausting… You don’t get rest, you don’t get sleep. There’s just a lot of things that absolutely have to be done.”
The forecasters painted an almost symbolically-ominous picture, Stewart said. The hurricane would come ashore during a midnight high tide under a nearly-full moon – the worst possible scenario for a storm surge.
120 miles southeast of the Statehouse, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and his staff were already bracing. Riley, a political veteran in his 14th year occupying the mayor’s office, had been spending most of September 21 urging the city’s residents to follow the state’s “voluntary” evacuation.
The evacuation window was small and began just 18 hours before Hugo would make landfall.
“To get citizens to evacuate, you’re not going to do that by just saying, ‘I think it’d be good if everybody evacuated,’” Riley said. “You’ve got to thread the needle between fear and panic.”
So he did. Riley made appearances on television and radio throughout the day. “’This is a killer storm,’ I said. ‘You’re killed in a hurricane by rising water. If you’re in a low-lying area and this storm hits us head-on, you will be dead. Get out.’”
As 250,000 residents began to head away from the coast, the National Guard, Highway Patrol, SLED, and other agencies began staging personnel along Interstate 95. They were kept fairly distant from the ocean, Stewart said, so they could deploy more flexibly wherever the storm hit.
But traffic jams were slowing the evacuation. Much of the Charleston population was trying to flee along the two westbound lanes of Interstate 26. There was no policy at the time that allowed South Carolina to reverse the southbound lanes to essentially double capacity.
The delays caused some consternation in the Governor’s Office. Only the federal government could authorize interstate lane closures. But during a meeting with agency heads, Campbell ordered then-Highway Patrol commander J.H. “Red” Lanier to reverse all lanes between Charleston and St. George to handle the outbound traffic.
Tompkins said he leaned in to the governor. “You know, it’s a federal highway. You don’t have jurisdiction over that.”
The chief-of-staff said Campbell replied, “By the time they figure out what we’ve done, we’ll have those lanes opened back up so there won’t be anything anybody can do about it.”
But Campbell did have Tompkins call President George H.W. Bush’s chief-of-staff John Sununu. Sununu’s response: close down what you need to close down.
As evening approached, the situation along the coast worsened. Mayor Riley ordered his police officers and first responders off the streets, saying the situation was too dangerous.
The mayor himself had been touring shelters and talking to the press throughout the late afternoon. But once the storm’s outskirts began buffeting the area by evening, he was heading back to a temporary command center set up at City Hall.
“When the winds started to get dangerous to be out, I got back to City Hall probably in the nick of time,” he said, noting the wind had begun pushing his pickup along the road. “I didn’t get back to City Hall any too soon. Then we rode it out here.”
In Columbia, Stewart was on the phone with SLED’s regional captain in Charleston when Hugo began coming ashore just before midnight.
“I’ll never forget it,” Stewart said. “The last thing he said on the call was that the roof was starting to come off (at the emergency operations center). All I could say was, ‘Well, I’m praying for you.’”
Then the line went dead as the center – along with nearly all of Charleston – lost contact with the outside world.
Part 2 was published on Monday morning. Read it here.