It was two decades ago on this day when Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast.
Tom Gibbs now serves in SCE&G’s Department of Outage Management, helping to administer the utility’s emergency operations. He had good training for that position, since he has been with the company for 36 years, including duty during Hugo.
Gibbs says for four nights after Hugo, it was very, very quiet. “You step outside, and dead silence. No crickets, no birds, nothing. Except the electrical generators near some buildings. It was eerie. It made you realize how quick your life could be changed.”
Gibbs says he and other workers noticed unusual behavior following the storm from dogs and other animals, very weary following a life-threatening experience.
“There was a joke at the time,” said Gibbs. “Two squirrels are walking down the sidewalk. One says, ‘I don’t care what you say, but I’m not going back up in those trees.’ ”
Gibbs says it was a benchmark, that the company learned a lot from the storm, and their knowledge has been passed on to help other utilities deal with emergencies. He says for more than two years after the tremendous storm, utility workers were straitening utility poles and making adjustments on power lines. Gibbs says a major threat to utility crews and their volunteer helpers were the removal of limbs and twisted trees. He said instead of just falling, the trees and large limbs were twisted by tremendous force, and contained a deadly spring action until they were cut, sometimes years later.
Gibbs says every emergency takes training well in advance. “We say, ‘you dress for the dance, but you never want to go to the dance.’ Well Hugo was an educational experience. We gained knowledge from throughout the company, top to bottom.”
Gibbs says he remembers fish stuck in fences and a long-lasting problem from rotting material and mildew. He says lots of people in the area developed allergies which it took them years to overcome.
John Williams was working as an apprentice at the time with SCE&G’s Gas Division and spent time on Folly Beach cleaning up pipeline damage caused by Hugo.
He remembers the area of Folly called “The Washout”, which was appropriately named following the storm. At the time it literally divided areas of the island with open ocean.
Williams says they saw some weird things, like a house sitting in the street. Many Folly Beach streets were so covered in sand and debris that crews didn’t know where the streets were. “We came upon this house sitting in what would have been the road. And in the house, the furniture was still upright, and there was a vase on the table with a flower still in it. Not far away, there were five or six houses completely destroyed. I mean nothing left except a concrete slab.”
Williams commented that his parents were living on James Island at the time, and, like many people, believed they would be safe if they evacuated to a motel just ten miles away. He says it took them seven hours to travel those ten miles. And of course, the storm was so strong that it caused damage in Charlotte.
Hugo caused about two-thirds of coastal utility customers to loose power, about 320,000 residents.
When Hugo struck, Tedd Jeffcoat was a senior engineer with SCE&G , working in downtown Charleston. He says they expected it to take up to six weeks to reconnect everyone, but it took no more than 18 days.
Jeffcoat says de-centralization of the repair effort is one lesson that the utility learned well during Hugo. “We still have some corporate oversight left. But we de-centralize, and push it down into the various operating areas, and let our local managers and other personnel make any decisions about restoration and other issues.”
Jeffcoat says another important lesson they learned was not to try to work at night, because it became highly demanding and inefficient. However, the utility still uses special crews to take care of exceptional emergencies.
And Jeffcoat says the use of “staging areas” scattered throughout the affected areas, a technique which S.C.E.& G. pioneered during Hugo,is still used today by many utilities. The utility’s crews leave their vehicles parked at staging areas, which other crews can also use, and the trucks can be re-fueled by fuel crews overnight.
And emergency management officials say they’re jobs have a changed somewhat over the last 20 years. Two decades ago, the state Emergency Management Division operated out of a basement in the state Department of Education building in Columbia. Today a permanent, state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center operates at an armory in West Columbia. The old evacuation plans took traffic to Interstates 26 and 95 from the coast, causing traffic bottlenecks. The plan has been carefull revised to direct traffic to Interstate 20 as well.
At Patriot’s Point twenty years ago, some Yorktown staffers, their families, and pets found shelter in the ship during Hugo. The vessel is so large it’s actually embedded 25 feet below the bottom of the river. After the storm, engineers discovered the ship was moved about six inches to the right, throwing off the drainage system, but it was spared of any major damage. The Yorktown is offering discounted rates on Monday(today), to commemorate the hurricane’s anniversary.