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 2 of 3. Read Part 1 here)
Although its rain had already been lashing the region for several hours, it wasn’t until shortly before midnight that Hugo itself made landfall on South Carolina’s coast.
It was high tide and exactly a week away from a full moon – creating an extremely dangerous situation when 12 to 17-foot storm surges flowed past the barrier islands and onto land. The massive Category 4 storm came ashore between the northeast Charleston suburbs and the South Santee River the night between September 21-22, 1989.
Hundreds of residents in the small communities of Awendaw and McClellanville were directly in its path. Many of these residents had not heard or decided to not heed “voluntary evacuation” calls from the state the previous day. Others were unable to leave, due to their physical condition or their job.
Among those in the latter category was Miriam Green, a service rep with Berkeley Electric Cooperative who now serves as mayor of Awendaw. Most of the co-op’s employees were to weather out the storm in their local office, which for Green meant the Awendaw branch.
“Everybody had to report to work to be on watch for the next day,” she said. “So we could be prepared and ready to go out and restore power.”
The utility wanted all of its employees on-location, worried that the town could soon become inaccessible due to downed trees and power lines.
Early in the night, many of the employees who had been staying in an equipment warehouse decided to move into the front office for safety reasons, Green said. The winds were starting to exceed 100 miles per hour.
Green’s children were staying at an emergency shelter set up at Lincoln High School in McClellanville ten miles away. With them were an estimated 1,100 other people who had cleared out of their own homes in the area.
Paramedics George Metts and Tim Lockridge had been assigned to the school during the storm. The men set up their station in the school’s Arts & Crafts room. Two hours before Hugo made landfall, the pair had fought fierce winds and rains to bring in an elderly wheelchair-bound patient trapped at his home.
Shortly after they returned, the electricity went out at Lincoln High and left only the hallway’s emergency lights functioning. Metts later wrote that he went to sleep around midnight just as the emergency lights also failed.
On the other end of McClellanville, Bubba Rector was staying with his shrimp boat as the storm grew worse. Rector, whose family operates Geechie Seafood, had already moved his vessel out of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant to the relative safety of the concrete docks in Town Creek.
Rector’s wife Pam had left with their daughter to stay 100 miles away in Hartsville. Their teenaged son Michael would stay at a friend’s home further inland in Awendaw. But Michael and his friend at some point that evening decided to sneak back to the family’s home so they could watch the storm come ashore, his mother said.
His parents did not know until after the storm passed that he had gone back to the coast – where 14-foot storm surges would soon destroy their house.
Around 1:30 a.m. on September 22, George Metts woke up from his brief doze and heard rushing water. “I sensed, rather than knew, that something was dangerously wrong,” he wrote. He and Lockridge turned on their flashlights and saw water rushing through air conditioning vents and rising on the floor.
The pair scrambled out into the flooding hallway and saw Lincoln High principal Jennings Austin “dashing madly” past them with several other people screaming in fear as they followed. The paramedics got the main hallway and found the water “waist-deep.” Another group was desperately trying to open the double doors leading outside, but the sheer weight of the incoming water held it shut.
The water continued rising.
During a later investigation, the National Weather Service found that the school had been selected as an emergency shelter because it was believed to be 20.5 feet above sea level. But the investigation found the actual height was 10 feet, hardly any protection against the estimated 17-foot surge now hitting McClellanville.
“This school should not have been used as a shelter for any storm greater than a Category 1 hurricane, ” the agency said in its findings. Hugo was a Category 4.
As the water got to his chest, Metts said he told Lockridge to get to the cafeteria where most of the evacuees had gathered. Once they pushed their way into the main room, Metts watched as a “frantic” mass of people tried to stay above the water. Parents were hoisting children over their heads or putting infants in air conditioning ducts to stay dry. A few hundred had climbed on top of the cafeteria stage. Everywhere people were screaming.
“I was as frantic as the others, but tried to keep it inside to encourage those around me,” Metts wrote.
The water continued rising.
Bubba Rector’s shrimp boat was being buffeted both by the 135 mile-per-hour winds – and another boat next to it.
One particularly strong wave bounced the second boat belonging to Bubba’s uncle out of the water. It clipped the Rectors’ vessel before overturning. “He and his two sons jumped over on our boat,” Pam Rector said. “They knew they had to get off our boat, so they crawled down the cement dock and got on a tugboat captained by my son-in-law.”
The larger tugboat was able to withstand the high surf and the group remained safely onboard for the rest of the storm.
About 100 miles north, Pam Rector was starting to fear the worst as she listened to a radio for storm updates.
“The night of the hurricane was the scariest night of my life,” she said. “They were putting on the radio how bad it was and I was a hundred miles away. I thought all my family was dying.”
She still believed her son Michael was away from the powerful floods that were sweeping homes off their foundations and sending boats across previously-dry land.
But Michael Rector and his friend were nervously sitting atop the stairs of his family’s home watching furniture and appliances float through a high tide that taken over the first floor. They scrambled to the attic as the water rose.
“At one point, one whole half of the house just fell out,” Pam Rector said. “As the house started to fall apart, he told me they jumped off into the water and they started hanging on to a piece of the house in the water.”
Whipped by windy rain and trying to avoid being killed by flying debris, the two teens clung to the wreckage as the storm continued.
The Berkeley Co-op front office was solidly built, but the warehouse where Green and other employees had started their long ordeal was not. It collapsed fairly early in the night. Inside was equipment that would be severely needed once the massive cleanup began. But fortunately, no people.
The same surge that was flooding Lincoln High ten miles northeast was also hitting the Awendaw office. “The water came up to a level so high that some of the parked cars was shifted over on the opposite side from where we’d parked them,” Green said. Many of the company vehicles were covered by fallen trees and limbs.
When Hugo’s 30-mile-wide eye passed over, Berkeley employees took advantage of the calm to examine what damage they could see in the early morning darkness. Then, Green said the entire group gathered back in the front office to hold hands and pray before the storm’s backside renewed Hugo’s assault.
“I never slept,” she said. “We didn’t know what to expect in the morning. We didn’t know whose lives were caught up in it. We were alive, but we didn’t know who else was alive.”
Green also had no idea her children at Lincoln High were not safe at that moment. Panicking as the floodwaters continued rising, many in the cafeteria were trying to break windows to get out.
Metts noticed that several of the windows were bulging inward, meaning the water level was even higher outside the building. He yelled at the others to stop, but one group managed to break through the glass and brought another cascade into the cafeteria. Those not on the stage began climbing onto tables as the water continued rising.
“We were totally trapped,” he wrote. “The tidal surge had risen so rapidly that we had no time to call for help. My walkie-talkie had gotten wet earlier and now it had fallen into the inky darkness. We were on our own.”
Metts eventually helped a mother by taking her three-year-old daughter and holding the girl up above the water.
Over on the stage, Miriam’s son 17-year-old Robert Green, Jr., was with some of the other children. As the surge continued rising, he climbed out a broken window and scrambled up to the roof with several others.
“That’s when they saw all these cars that were at Lincoln, just coming towards the building and piling up on each other,” Miriam Green said. “He said he was afraid, but he kept his cool.”
Finally, the waters began receding after 3:00 a.m. Metts said the cars which had been piling up against Lincoln began floating by the windows, ramming the paramedics’ ambulance.
Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. Everyone who had sought shelter at the high school survived the storm. Although most called it the worst experience of their lives.
Lincoln would never be used as an emergency shelter again.
As the storm eased, Michael Rector and his friend realized they were also okay – but had no idea where they were.
“The whole landscape had changed,” his mother Pam recalled. “All the trees were down. All the houses were down. And they had no way to get anywhere.”
The pair eventually realized they were further up the marsh near a half-demolished trailer home that had belonged to Michael’s older sister. The pair stayed in the trailer and waited for help to arrive.
It came in the form of Michael’s father Bubba. The elder Rector had piloted his damaged, but still functional vessel back towards the shore to check on the damage. The group then returned to the shrimp docks. That’s where they met Pam, who was distraught after finding Michael’s destroyed car hours earlier.
It was the first time Pam, who had been in Hartsville fearing the worst, learned her husband and son had survived the storm.
Others were not so lucky. 13 people died as Hugo came ashore that night. 22 others would later die from electrocutions, falling trees, or other accidents in the coming days.
Found out more about Hugo’s path inland by reading Part 3 here.